Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rebuilding the US Military

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an editorial entitled "How to Pay for a 21st Century Military." The editorial made several suggestions about how to pare down current defense expenditures to pay for the changes needed to update the US military for the challenges of the coming years, challenges that include, in the words of the Times, "more ground forces, less reliance on the Reserves, new equipment and training to replace cold-war weapons systems and doctrines."

Here are the suggestions with analysis:

End production of the Air Force’s F-22.
The F-22 was designed to ensure victory in air-to-air dogfights with the kind of futuristic fighters that the Soviet Union did not last long enough to build. The Air Force should instead rely on its version of the new high-performance F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which comes into production in 2012 and like the F-22 uses stealth technology to elude enemy radar. Until then, it can use upgraded versions of the F-16, which can outperform anything now flown by any potential foe. The F-35 will provide a still larger margin of superiority. The net annual savings: about $3 billion.
Not a bad idea. But the F-35 isn't quite an adequate replacement for the F-22. The F-35 is designed to be more of a multi-use fighter, a la the F-15, while the F-22 is a pure air superiority plane, much like the F-16. It's not entirely clear whether the F-35 will be up to the task of air superiority. The multi-service nature of the F-35, however, was an excellent choice and makes the F-35 an excellent bargain. The question is, however, whether the US can afford to put all of its eggs in one basket or, in this case, in one weapons platform. US air superiority is a major priority and a vital part of all US military operations and if the F-35 fails to perform up to expectations, the absence of another platform would be a huge problem. However, the cost of the F-22 and the absence of any serious rival platforms probably makes this a worthy cut.

Cancel the DDG-1000 Zumwalt class destroyer.
This is a stealthy blue water combat ship designed to fight the kind of midocean battles no other nation is preparing to wage. The Navy can rely on the existing DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyer, a powerful, well-armed ship that incorporates the advanced Aegis combat system for tracking and destroying multiple air, ship and submarine targets. The Navy has sharply cut back the number of Zumwalts on order from 32 to two. Cutting the last two could save more than $3 billion a year that should be used to buy more of the littoral combat ships that are really needed. Those ships can move quickly in shallow offshore waters and provide helicopter and other close-in support for far more likely ground combat operations.
From a techie-standapoint, it would be a true shame if the Navy cancels the DDG-1000 project, as it is possibly the coolest naval platform ever designed. But, the fact that the Navy has already trimmed its order from 32 to 2 is a clear indication that the Navy doesn't really see the need to fight blue-water engagements and is rather continuing the program as corporate charity and to recoup some of the sunk costs. However, recent concerns over piracy off the Horn of Africa have made clear the need to maintain some kind of ocean-going attack force. But that need not involve the DDG-1000.

Halt production of the Virginia class sub. Ten of these unneeded attack submarines — modeled on the cold-war-era Seawolf, whose mission was to counter Soviet attack and nuclear launch submarines — have already been built. The program is little more than a public works project to keep the Newport News, Va., and Groton, Conn., naval shipyards in business. The Navy can extend the operating lives of the existing fleet of Los Angeles class fast-attack nuclear submarines, which can capably perform all needed post-cold-war missions — from launching cruise missiles to countering China’s expanding but technologically inferior submarine fleet. Net savings: $2.5 billion.
The Times is right that building the Virginia-class subs is little more than a jobs program to keep sub-building shipyards open. But that is enough of a reason not to cancel this program. It is imperative that the US retain sub-building capability and there is little civilian demand for submarines, the military must continue to purchase platforms to keep the yards open. Furthermore, the Virginia-class subs are designed for littoral warfare as well as blue-water operations, meaning that they will be capable of performing numerous varied missions, including anti-sub warfare, mine-laying, special operations, and intelligence gathering. Given recent news of Chinese interest in building aircraft carriers and Russian naval missions to South America, the US needs to maintain its naval dominance.

Pull the plug on the Marine Corps’s V-22 Osprey. After 25 years of trying, this futuristic and unnecessary vertical takeoff and landing aircraft has yet to prove reliable or safe. The 80 already built are more than enough. Instead of adding 400 more, the Marine Corps should buy more of the proven H-92 and CH-53 helicopters. Net savings: $2 billion to 2.5 billion.
No argument here.

Halt premature deployment of missile defense. The Pentagon wants to spend roughly $9 billion on ballistic missile defense next year. That includes money to deploy additional interceptors in Alaska and build new installations in central Europe. After spending some $150 billion over the past 25 years, the Pentagon has yet to come up with a national missile defense system reliable enough to provide real security. The existing technology can be easily fooled by launching cheap metal decoys along with an incoming warhead. We do not minimize the danger from ballistic missiles. We agree there should be continued testing and research on more feasible approaches. Since the most likely threat would come from Iran or North Korea, there should be serious discussions with the Russians about a possible joint missile defense program. (We know the system poses no threat to Russia, but it is time to take away the excuse.) A research program would cost about $5 billion annually, for a net savings of nearly $5 billion.
I have long argued on this site for cutting missile defense in favor of other programs.

Negotiate deep cuts in nuclear weapons.
Under the 2002 Moscow Treaty, the United States and Russia committed to reduce their strategic nuclear weapons to between 1,700 and 2,200 each by 2012. There has been no discussion of any further cuts. A successor treaty should have significantly lower limits — between 1,000 and 1,400, with a commitment to go lower. President-elect Barack Obama should also take all ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert and commit to reducing the nation’s absurdly large stock of backup warheads. These steps will make the world safer. It will give Mr. Obama a lot more credibility to press others to rein in their nuclear ambitions. It is hard to say just how much money would be saved with these reductions, but in the long term, the amount would certainly be considerable.
No argument here.

Trim the active-duty Navy and Air Force. The United States enjoys total dominance of the world’s seas and skies and will for many years to come. The Army and the Marines have proved too small for the demands of simultaneous ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are the forces most likely to be called on in future interventions against terrorist groups or to rescue failing states. Reducing the Navy by one carrier group and the Air Force by two air wings would save about $5 billion a year. Making these cuts will not be politically easy. The services are already talking up remote future threats (most involving a hostile China armed to the teeth with submarines and space-age weapons). Military contractors invoke a different kind of threat: hundreds of thousands of layoffs in a recession-weakened economy. We are all for saving and creating jobs, but not at the cost of diverting finite defense dollars from real and pressing needs — or new programs that will create new jobs.
Under no circumstances should the US eliminate a carrier group. US carriers are not only a vital projector of military might, but also serve as a powerful signal of US commitment. Whenever there is an impending crisis, it is always a carrier group that signals US interest and provides a powerful warning. Plus, as it becomes harder and more exepensive for the US to maintain its vast networks of overseas forward basing, carriers serve as irreplaceable mobile bases. The Air Force is a better candidate to be reduced, but given the recommendation to end the F-22 program, any cuts will have to be carefully made to not undermine the US ability to carry out the primary missions: lift and carry, air superiority, strategic bombing, and close air support.

How would the Times use the money saved:

The cuts above could save $20 billion to $25 billion a year, which could be better used as follows:

Increase the size of the ground force. The current buildup of the Army and the Marine Corps will cost more than $100 billion over the next six years. Trimming the size of the Navy and Air Force, deferring the deployment of unready missile defenses and canceling the Osprey will pay for much of that.

Pay for the Navy’s needed littoral combat ships. These ships, which operate in shallow waters to support ground combat, cost about $600 million each. Canceling the DDG-1000 destroyer (more than $3 billion per ship) and the Virginia class submarine (more than $2 billion each) will help provide that needed money.

Resupply the National Guard and the Reserves. At the present rate for replacing weapons left behind or destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Guard will still be more than 20 percent short of what it needs in 2013. Canceling the F-22 will provide enough money to do better than that years sooner.

Again, we need to be very careful in transforming the Army and Marine Corps. While it is vital that such changes are made to develop greater capabilities for counter-insurgency and nation-building operations, such changes cannot come at the expense of traditional warfighting. Furthermore, the two missions should be separated; soldiers should not be trained to do both.

President Obama and Secretary of Defense Gates will have an excellent opportunity to make some much needed changes to the US military as the war in Iraq winds down and the taks of repairing the military begins. But such changes cannot be made purely based on assessments of the present or future military environment. It must be realized that the absence of any military competitors and the near impossibility of great power war is not an accident nor a reason to draw down the military. It is US military dominance that has made the thought of large-scale international war largely unthinkable and that dominance must be maintained.

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