Colombia’s recent military modernization announcements coincide with the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ release of their Military Balance report for 2009. That report cites Venezuela’s continuing arms buildup in the region, which has triggered corresponding modernization drives in nearby countries, including Colombia and Brazil.
The F-35 Lightning II is a major multinational program intended to produce an “affordably stealthy” multi-role strike fighter that will have three variants: the F-35A conventional version for the US Air Force et. al.; the F-35B Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing for the US Marines, British Royal Navy, et. al.; and the F-35C conventional carrier-launched version for the US Navy. The aircraft is named after Lockheed’s famous WW2 P-38 Lightning, and the Mach 2, stacked-engine English Electric (now BAE)Lightning jet. System development partners included The USA & Britain (Tier 1), Italy and the Netherlands (Tier 2), and Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Turkey (Tier 3). Now the challenge is agreeing on production phase buys, with initial purchase commitments expected around 2008-2009. Export interest is also beginning to stir in a number of quarters, even though full testing will not be complete until 2014.
Despite its staid sounding name, The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC has been anything but staid and diplomatic in its recent series of reports on America’s defense procurement plans. “ABANDON SHIPS: The Costly Illusion of Unaffordable Transformation” was indeed a shot across the bow. Lest anyone think that assessment was an aberration, CSIS has now followed it up with its look at the US Air Force: “America’s Self-Destroying Air Power – Becoming Your Own Peer Threat” [Summary | Full report, PDF format]:
“[The] new Burke Chair report… examines the impact of a crisis in aircraft procurement on tactical, strategic, and enabling capabilities of US air power. It draws on recent government and other reports to describe the problems in US aircraft procurement and their impact on US air power and the challenges the next administration will face in force planning and budgeting.
…The problems described in this report must be kept in context. Every service has, to some extent, mortgaged its future by failing to contain equipment costs, and by trading existing equipment and force elements for developing new systems that it may never be able to procure in the numbers planned… US aircraft procurements are no exception. The problems are so severe that the US risks becoming its own peer threat to US airpower… These problems are compounded by the fact that there now are fewer program alternatives if any key aircraft program runs into trouble. They are also compounded by the systematic underestimation of technology risk, growth in performance requirements, the use of failed methods of cost analysis, and the pressure to “sell” programs by understating cost and risk. All have combined to push air modernization to the crisis point.”
The right-wing Heritage Foundation recently published an in-depth paper that addresses the destroyer shipbuilding debate in Congress. The USA’s reconciled FY 2009 defense budget approves $2.5 billion to “fully” fund DDG-1002, but that will not end the debate. Official reports place the ship’s likely cost at up to twice that amount, and the FY 2009 bill includes a clause that could divert the $2.5 billion to fund additional DDG-51 Arleigh Burke Class destroyers instead.
“Changing Course on Navy Shipbuilding: Questions Congress Should Ask Before Funding” contains a great many links to existing research. It can reasonably be characterized as leaning toward building more DDG-1000 ships, but the offers key questions to ask rather than recommendations. This is more than just a rhetorical device. The answers to those questions could tip the debate either way, and the report does point to discrepancies between recent and past Navy statements that need clarification. The think tank also offers research evidence that disputes some recent Navy statements, with an especial focus on the ships’ air defense and anti-submarine capabilities:
“The recent testimony by Admiral McCullough and Deputy Assistant Secretary Stiller has raised new questions and left other concerns unanswered. The Navy’s leadership has an obligation to provide Congress with full answers to these questions in a timely manner. Before deciding which plan to fund in 2010, Congress should demand the appropriate information to conduct its due diligence…”
The US Navy’s lack of a credible plan for its future naval forces has become a growing problem for the service. In Congress, the leadership of the HASC Seapower and Expeditionary Forces subcommittee has weighed in from both sides of the partisan aisle, with Navy plans squarely in their sights. Beyond, independent think-tanks and analysts (vid. Information Dissemination’s maritime strategy archive | FY 2009 budget analysis), and even official reports like the CBO’s Dr. Eric Labs (2005 testimony [PDF]), the late Vice-Adm. Cebrowski’s Alternative Fleet Architecture Design study [PDF] (q.v. also derivative 2005 CRS analysis: HTML | PDF), et. al. have been expressing grave doubts for several years now concerning the Navy’s ability to finance or implement its existing “313-ship navy” plan. Which is itself a major step down from the Reagan era’s 600 ship Navy.
With American elections approaching, questions are being asked in the industry about the potential implications for American defense policy. In January 2007, “The Impact of Recent Political Changes on the Defense Sector” transcribed Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute think tank, during the Raymond James Washington Technology & Services Summit. It offered some interesting thoughts on the contractor/ military political gap, and added:
“The bottom line on the Democratic defense agenda is that it doesn’t reflect much support for new technology outlays, but it also doesn’t herald an era of rapidly declining defense budgets. What’s likely to change is the composition of defense spending rather than the scale.”
Fast forward to February 2008, where Thompson is speaking to US Army Leaders at the RAND Arroyo Center. “The Role Of Party Politics In Shaping Defense Priorities” offers an impartial presentation of how the two major parties evolved, how they think about national security, their inclinations and allocation preferences with respect to the defense budget, and what a victory by either side probably means. Unusually, it is a fair presentation that puts forward each party’s broad view reasonably faithfully. Which matters, because:
“…we need to understand how party politics shapes defense policy — not because we like it, but because it is a fundamental reality of life in a democracy. Did you know that a recent study of weapons outlays found 91% of all the variation in spending over the last four decades was traceable directly or indirectly to which party controlled the Senate and the White House? Like me, you probably thought that threats were the main driver of weapons spending, but the data show otherwise.
Read both speeches, consider your own experiences, and decide what you think. Thompson also changes his tune slightly, however, when he says that:
“… if the Democratic Party wins control of the White House and Congress in November, it will take a huge demand stimulus from the likes of Osama bin Laden to prevent a leveling off and then decline in defense spending in subsequent years.”
Every once in a while, a defense-related controversy becomes large enough to hit mainstream news outlets. Making the cover of TIME Magazine is often a good sign for world leaders, but it’s almost always a very bad sign for military programs. Especially a program that is just making its combat debut. TIME’s Oct 8/07 cover story “V-22 Osprey: A Flying Shame” pulls few punches:
“The saga of the V-22 – the battles over its future on Capitol Hill, a performance record that is spotty at best, a long, determined quest by the Marines to get what they wanted – demonstrates how Washington works (or, rather, doesn’t). It exposes the compromises that are made when narrow interests collide with common sense. It is a tale that shows how the system fails at its most significant task, by placing in jeopardy those we count on to protect us. For even at a stratospheric price, the V-22 is going into combat shorthanded. As a result of decisions the Marine Corps made over the past decade, the aircraft lacks a heavy-duty, forward-mounted machine gun to lay down suppressing fire against forces that will surely try to shoot it down. And if the plane’s two engines are disabled by enemy fire or mechanical trouble while it’s hovering, the V-22 lacks a helicopter’s ability to coast roughly to the ground – something that often saved lives in Vietnam. In 2002 the Marines abandoned the requirement that the planes be capable of autorotating (as the maneuver is called), with unpowered but spinning helicopter blades slowly letting the aircraft land safely. That decision, a top Pentagon aviation consultant wrote in a confidential 2003 report obtained by TIME, is “unconscionable” for a wartime aircraft. “When everything goes wrong, as it often does in a combat environment,” he said, “autorotation is all a helicopter pilot has to save his and his passengers’ lives.”
Recent developments are about to address one of these concerns, but TIME has hardly been the Osprey’s only critic, or the most thorough. That distinction probably belongs to a report published by the left-wing Center for Defense Information, which makes a number of very specific allegations re: the V-22’s technical and testing failings:
As the $35 billion KC-45 tanker purchase flies into the teeth of Washington’s political battles, the Lexington Institute think-tank discusses the relative ratings of each contestant in the USAF’s aerial tanker competition. This is a bit unusual, as even Boeing has yet to hear the official debrief – a fact that has them somewhat upset. DID would not normally consider a report of this nature credible, but the think-tank has a wide range of contacts in Washington, and has been focusing on this deal for some time. Their broad assessment also mirrors commenets made by Sen Richard Shelby [R-AL], so it is possible – but not certain – that their report is correct.
Lexington defense analyst Loren Thompson contends that the Airbus/Northrop Grumman proposal would be able to deliver 49 operational tankers by 2013, whereas Boeing would have been able to deliver just 19 aircraft within that timeframe. That’s an interesting calculation whose basis DID would be interested in viewing, but public access may be an issue as it was attributed to USAF reviewers. Beyond that, Thompson concludes that Boeing lost out on 4 of 5 key measures, and tied on the 5th. Of course, sharp-eyed DID readers will recall that they were 9 Key Performance Parameters listed in the RFP…
In light of a recent ballistic missile intercept by a Japanese destroyer, US Missile Defense Agency chief Lt. Gen. Henry (Trey) Obering is quoted by Aviation Week as saying it is time to incorporate more realism into the MDA’s testing process, now that basic intercepts have racked up a string of successes:
“What we have to do now is to turn our attention to make sure we can fully wring out the system in a variety of operational and realistic scenarios. And that is what we will be doing over the next couple of years.”
There are both technical and political dimensions to that course of action.
“…the combat reach of the 2020 carrier air wing will not have improved much beyond that of the mid-1980s air wing, which had trouble dealing with 1970s Soviet land-based anti-access/area-denial technologies. Perhaps more significantly, the CVW’s ability to establish persistent orbits at range will not have improved much beyond that of the 1950s… Said another way, will an operational strike system with limited tactical reach and persistence – one optimized for pulsed strikes against land targets at ranges out to about 450-475 nm – be able to tackle future operational challenges and threats that are likely to appear over the long term? The answer is: probably not… As this short discussion suggests, then, there is a growing strategic imperative to increase the range, persistence, and stealth of the Navy’s carrier air wing. Indeed, failing to increase the CVW’s reach, endurance, and survivability risks the long-term operational and tactical relevance of the US carrier fleet.”
The Persistence Gap (Animation: click & wait…)
Along the way, their paper deals with a number of issues. The historic lack of interest in UAVs within the US Navy, which manifested as early as Vietnam. The choice of shrinking strike range for current US carrier groups, but greater strike density within that limited range. The emergence of land-based “surveillance-strike complexes” in other nations, designed to keep US carriers well outside of that range. International carrier plans. Not to mention a future in which the USA will have 11 operational carriers – but just 10 US Navy/ USMC carrier aircraft wings. This is followed by a look at the history of the J-UCAS unmanned combat air vehicle program to date, and recommendations for the future in light of emerging trends. Read the CSBA’s entire 39-page preliminary backgrounder, which serves as a lead-in summary for a forthcoming report.