Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Future of the US Military

Max Boot has an fascinating piece in today's LA Times about the future of the US military. The problem he identifies is nothing new, but is even more relevant today. The problem is that the things the military likes and wants are not necessarily the military needs. Specifically, the recently announced defense budget contains funding for three next-generation short-range fighters -- the F/A-22 Raptor (US Air Force), the F/A-18 Super Hornet (US Navy), and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (multi-service). The Quadrennial Defense Review (a overhaul of defense strategy and planning that provides guidance for procurement and force configuration) calls for a shrinking of the US Army from 491,000 active duty soldiers to 482,400 in 2011 (in 1991 there were 710,000). The budget also includes funding for increased purchases of Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines. Left behind are such items as language and cultural training -- which Boot points out receive less than $181 million which is "less than the cost of one F-35."

The real problem is that the military is wedded in multiple ways to its high-tech toys, even if they are not well-suited to the battlefield of the future. Short-range fighters are particularly problematic, as the US is withdrawing from its forward-deployed air bases, and has increasing difficulty obtaining over-flight rights. Heavy naval ships, while capable of lobbing cruise missiles at distant targets, are designed to fight the now-non-existant Soviet surface navy. The most likely future challenger to US military might -- China -- has shown little interest in fielding a true blue-water navy. As we have seen, future military campaigns are much more likely to resemble Afghanistan and Iraq than World War II. What are needed are boots on the ground (soldiers) trained not only in infantry tactics but guerrilla/urban warfare, police duty, and language/culture, long-range precision-strike capabilities, special forces, and things like that.

The military is, however, reticent to accept such changes. A telling example: When I worked for SAIC back in the mid-1990s, I was running a wargame examining the future of the Air Force by looking at different possible configurations for the air force, including an entirely unmanned air force that used drones. The Air Force officers present at the game were almost incapable of playing the game as they just could not accept even the possibility that pilots might, someday, become unnecessary. Also, as Boot notes, Congress prefers to fund big-ticket, high-tech weapons that provide jobs in their districts.

This is going to be a problem. Even taking into account China, the US is not likely to find itself in a WWII- or WWIII-type conflict in the forseeable future. Smaller operations against other rogue states (and no, I'm not naming Iran or North Korea here) or humanitarian interventions are much more likely to demand a US military presence. The US needs lots of soliders combined with the ability to precisely strike targets at long distances to deal with these kind of problems. Of course, the US needs to maintain air and naval superiority, if only to deter others from even trying to develop such capabilities. But that can be occurred at a much cheaper price than is currently laid out in the new budget or the QDR.


stefan moluf said...

It seems like we need more platforms with loiter capability. Case and point: the F-35. A good airframe, by all accounts (and cheaper that the unimaginably expensive F-22, which dropped the Attack designation recently, by the way), but even loaded with the new GBU-39, the aircraft is likely to run out of fuel and have to go off-station before it expends most, if any, of it ordnance.

The Predator drone and AC-130 have already proven their worth in this area, and the new Fire Scout and existing attack helicopters will help fill that gap as well.

One proposed solution is to simply leave several airships in a loitering pattern - a rack of 250- or 500-lb bombs in the rafters at all times, ready to be deployed at a moments notice.

That requires complete air supremacy, of course.

Seth Weinberger said...

Exactly...but achieving air supremacy is unlikely to require the billions of dollars in investments in three new air platforms. Better to upgrade one system (likely the strike fighter due to its interservice function) and develop "bomb trucks" with long on-station times.

stefan moluf said...

Well, in defense of the Navy, the F/A-18E and F are'nt "new" air platforms - they're upgrades of a previous one. Not only that, but it has already been deployed. I suspect they simply want to convert more F/A-18C and D airframes to the E and F versions. That seems like a good investment to me.

As for the F-22, less than four squadrons is probably good enough for now. It will be nice to have fifth-generation aircraft to "break down the door" in any new large-scale engagements, and the F-22 outclasses anything to date. We don't need 200 of them, though.

I certainly see the need for the F-35, particularly among the Marine Corps (whose AV-8 Harrier II jets are getting very close to retirement). The other services don't really need them, though: the Navy has their Super Hornets, and the Air Force has their F-22s.

Seth Weinberger said...

The problem is that so much of the cost of weapons procurement isn't wrapped up in the per-platform production cost. It's in R&D. So once the plane is ready, buying 200 or 100 doesn't make a massive difference in the total cost (it's huge, but there's just so much sunk cost). The F-22 was incredibly expensive, and as I've been arguing, it's not clear that it was needed and/or worth the cost. You're right to say that upgrading existing platforms is a much more cost-effective way to maintain air superiority. But the larger point shouldn't be lost here: The US military and the Congress repeatedly refuse to give up outdated weapons systems that, regardless of their potential utility on the battlefields of the future, fit in with their own self-image. Can you say "Crusader"?

stefan moluf said...

100% agreed on that point.

What would you suggest be changed about the procurement system?