But, on the home front, the planners at the Pentagon and in corporate defense contractor senior management offices continue to work through the painfully slow procurement process in an effort to prepare the United States for the next war, while keep relevant political constituencies and industrial complex investors happy. A recent story for each of the four military services on this front is recounted below.
The Marines and the RST-V
As I've noted before, the ubiquitous military work horse utility vehicle, the Humvee, will likely be replaced, not by one successor vehicle, but by several vehicles designed to fit different missions once lumped into a single "jeep" package. One of those is the armored patrol/anti-IED role, another is the garrison duty role, and a third is a Marine Corps initiative, until recently at least called the ITV program (I'm not even going to bother mentioning what that stands for, the acryonm will be out of use in a few months or a year anyway). The goal of the ITV program is to find a vehicle for soldiers that can fit on a tilt rotar V-22 Osprey or a larger military transport helicopter. Humvees don't fit, and most of the successors to the Humvee that provide occupants with better protection from enemy fire and IEDs only make hte problem worse. This is a priority now, because, despite a safety record that remains troubling, the V-22 has finally moved beyond the experimental stage to enter active duty service in signfiicant numbers, and an "evaluation in an operational environment" (following several years of earlier design and prototype testing) of a small number of units is set for this year. The current solutions, either using outdated and inadequate small vehicles or having soldiers walk when they arrive, aren't ideal.
One notable development is the roll out of the General Dynamics RST-V (Reconnaissance, Surveillance, Targeting Vehicle)prototype called the Shadow. The RST-V's distinguishing features, according to what is, no doubt, a General Dynamics press release based article are as follows:
The Shadow RST-V is a 4x4 hybrid electric drive vehicle with reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting and C3I (command, control, communications and intelligence) capability coupled with integrated stealth and survivability features. The vehicle can be equipped in a range of mission variants including: forward observer, forward air control, reconnaissance, light strike, battlefield ambulance, air defense, logistics, personnel carrier, anti-armor and mortar weapons carrier. For a Command Post variant, the roof of the Shadow is extended.
The Shadow RST-V has significantly improved fuel economy and survivability and can be transported in roll on/roll off mode in a CH-53 or CH-46 helicopter, V-22 tiltrotor and C-130 transporter. Up to 21 vehicles can be carried in a C-5 Galaxy aircraft or 12 in the C-17 Globemaster. . . .
The Shadow RST-V has a hybrid-electric drive based on a front mounted turbocharged, intercooled common rail direct injection diesel engine . . . .
The vehicle is fitted with a pneumatic suspension, which can reduce the dimensions of the Shadow by allowing the tyres to be pulled in (from 79in footprint to 62in) and the height of the vehicle to be dropped so the base of the vehicle is 0.1m off the ground. This is to enable transport by V-22 tiltrotor. . . .
The hybrid electric drive system enables the vehicle to operate in stealth, hybrid and engine only modes. In stealth mode the Shadow can be powered by battery only which provides a significant reduction in acoustic and thermal signatures. . . .
The vehicle has demonstrated maximum road speeds of 112km per hour [Ed. about 65 mph]. With 95 litres of fuel, the Shadow has an unrefueled range of 758km at a speed of 50km per hour [Ed. about 450 miles at 30 mph]. Using only battery power the vehicle's range is 32km [Ed. 18 miles].
It has a proposed crew of four and armament and storage capacity similar to a Humvee (achieved in part through reduced space for mechanical systems). As with a Humvee, protection from small arms fire and landmines doesn't come standard. Unlike a Humvee, a sensor equipped "mast" and high tech communications goodies do come pre-installed (there's no word yet on whether the radios have CD quality sound or booming amps).
If it isn't work safe to click through to see the picture, imagine the Batmobile in Batman Begins. It looks like that, without the jet boosters.
Air Force Jet Fighter Procurement
Jet fighters do primarily two things. First, they shoot other planes out of the air (air to air combat, also called dog fighting). Second, they drop modest quantities of bombs (air to ground combat), particularly in situations where largely defenseless conventional heavy bombers, which can carry much larger payloads of bombs, either are not suited to the risks of enemy action involved early in a conflict, or aren't needed since there are few targets to bomb late in a conflict. Some fighters like the F-22 and F-15C are predominantly designed for air to air combat, while others like the F-15E, F-16 and F-18 are more balanced between bombing and air to air combat roles. Also, the A-10 is designed for a different kind of air to ground combat, called close air support, which involves shooting at or bombing at close range ground troops engaged or about to be engaged with your own ground troops. Right now the Air Force is struggling to balance the first two roles for its fighter jet fleet.
The Air Force got 183 F-22s, with procurement of the top of the line air to air fighter to end in 2008 (which politically makes completion of this reduced buy a nearly sure thing, as President Bush can veto any further cuts). They are designed to replace the air to air combat capabilities of the Air Force's primary dog fighter, the F-15C. Nay sayers worry that this is a horrible call, because they fear that the radars necessary for out of visual range first shot, first kill tactics, destroy the stealth benfeits of the plane, and its costs keep the total buy small. The Air Force wanted 200 more F-22s, but their pitch that it was such a vastly superior air to air combat plane undermined their bid to get more of them. And, the recent decision to kill the X-45 drone program, which could have led to unmanned air to air combat drones eventually, has probably postponed the Air Force's ability to make up this gap with drones by a Presidential administration or three.
But, the Air Force is having a hard time making the case to even retain a substantial share of its F-15C fleet as a consolation prize for not getting all the F-22s that it wanted. Why?
Unlike the newer F-15E Strike Eagle, which performs air-to-ground as well as air-to-air missions, the F-15C Eagle saw little action in Iraq because there was almost no air-to-air combat.
"We found in the last conflict that we had C's flying around looking for Saddam Hussein's airplanes which never flew," he said. "Effectively, the C's were taking up ramp space."
Recent history provides several examples of major U.S. bombing campaigns (i.e. air to ground warfare) like the Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the Iraq War, and others like potential air raids on Iranian nuclear facilities or nuclear facilities in North Korea are actively being contemplated. But, the United States hasn't faced large scale, long duration air to air combat since Vietnam. Nevertheless, Department of Defense military planners are very worried, to the extent that it has become one of the major drivers of the Defense Department's procurement budget, about a major air war with China, probably to protect Taiwan, South Korea or Japan.
In response the Air Force is now talking about relatively minor upgrades for up to 200 F-15Cs (there are several hundred in several now), mostly involving improved ground oriented radars, and a different mix of weapons that doesn't change the overall bomb payload much, that would make the F-15C less useless for bombing missions, while continuing to keep a larger number of fighters optimized for air to air combat in active duty service.
Whether this plan will fly in Congress remains to be seen. The benefit of an upgrade is that since we already have the F-15Cs and pilots trained to fly them, to the extent that they can substitute for new planes, we are avoiding the high purchase and training costs associated with new jet fighters. One downside is that maintenance costs for older F-15Cs are far higher than those anticipated for new, maintenance cost optimized F-35As. Maintenance also has limits. An upgrade can extend the life of a fighter by a decade or more, but eventually the heavy and intense use they get in training missions leads to problems like metal fatigue that can't be fixed, even in a major overhaul. Thus, upgrades really only postpone new fighter buys, rather than eliminating them. Another downside is that F-35As are supposed to have some stealth features, which is notable because stealth is a greater asset in bombing runs than in air to air combat. The F-35A is also designed for a multi-use bombing and air to air combat mission, and hence probably would fill the bombing role better than an upgraded F-15C, even if they wouldn't be as impressive in air to air combat.
One indication that the F-15C ground to air warfare repurposing upgrade may have trouble is the chilly reception and credibility issues that efforts to sell the air to ground warfare capabilities of the F-22 (briefly rechristened the F/A-22) faced in Congress.
Navy Submarine Procurement
The vast majority of the U.S. Navy's warships, their frigates, destroyers and cruisers, are devoted primarily to escorting aircraft carriers and serving as floating cruise missile bases. Even warships not tasked to those roles often end up escorting some other kind of ship, like amphibious assault ships (i.e. mini-aircraft carriers) full of Marines. While some of the submarines in the U.S. Navy serve in this role as well, and others serve as floating nuclear missile bases, they are primarily the main part of the combat capable U.S. Navy that operates independent of aircraft carrier groups. They are designed first and foremost to attack opponent's ships and submarines, although they can carry out other missions as well.
The last time I seriously looked into the issue, about a year ago, the U.S. Navy had a submarine fleet that consisted of about 14 Ohio Class submarines, which ballistic nuclear missiles, 50 Los Angeles class attack submarines (the oldest and smallest in the fleet), 3 Seawolf class attack submarines, the largest, one of which, the Jimmy Carter, is oversized and is optimized for underwater wire tapping, and 1 Virgina class submarine. Since then, another Virgina class submarine has been added to the fleet, and a third Virigina class submarine is scheduled to enter service next year. The Virginia class, which is the only class still in production, is a sort of Seawolf light which is between the Los Angeles class and Seawolf class in size and was supposed to be cheaper. All of these submarines are nuclear powered.
Four of the Ohio class submarines are scheduled to be converted to a conventional cruise missile/special operations force platform version. The older Los Angeles class submarines are on track to be retired steadily at this point. Since that time, there the Navy has given some thought and taken some tenative action in addressing its submarine procurement.
As I noted previously, it has canceled the overbudget ASDS program, which was a small battery powered submarine that would have ferried a squad of SEALs to their destination from mothership submarines.
Also, while official Navy plans call for a reduction of the current submarine fleet from 55 attack submarines (this number, and my total above, don't reflect this month's decomissioning of the Los Angeles class USS Honolulu) to 48 submarines, at current production rates of one per year, the submarine fleet is on track to fall to 30 attack submarines, when the last of the Los Angeles class ships have been retired, around 2030.
The Navy is trying to fill the gap with cost cutting for new Virgina class submarine units (including reduced functionality). But, the Navy is resisting repeating its experience with the Seawolf, by developing a smaller, lower cost nuclear attack submarine after building only a few units of the Virgina class, and is also unwilling to consider the far cheaper diesel-electric submarines used by most of our Naval allies and opponents, both for political reasons and because unlike most other navies, which are designed to protect national coastal areas, the U.S. Navy needs the worldwide range that it believes it needs nuclear powered submarines to facilitate.
Like the demand for air to air combat resources, the need for large numbers of nuclear attack submarines is highly speculative. It has been more than six decades since the U.S. has engaged has submarines regularly using its weapons in anger, despite long periods during the Cold War when cat and mouse games played out regularly.
China, along with North Korea (with the Russian Navy these submarines were designed to contend with in a distant third place) are the main justifications for the current size of the U.S. attack submarine fleet. One school of thought argues that by the time attrition has reduced the size of the currently overwhelmingly dominant U.S. Navy, the conflicts planners are currently holding onto this large fleet to fight will be resolved politically. Another school of thought argues that the development of more widely available, highly effective anti-ship missiles, coupled with the increased importance of anti-submarine warfare, which takes massive resources even against a small opposition force, make attack submarine purchases a higher priority than ever, and a wiser investment than more vulnerable, but equally expensive surface combatants (i.e. warships) like next generation destroyers, next generation cruisers and the littoral combat ship.
The Army's Quiet Shift To Lighter Forces
The U.S. Army's primary level of large unit organization is the division, which includes on the order of 45,000-50,000 soldiers, including three combat brigades, their weapons, vehicles, gear and support resources, much of which is centralized outside the combat brigades under the control of a headquarters unit. It is unweildly to deploy less than a division at a time, because if only a part of a division deploys and takes headquarters resources with it, the forces left behind lack resources they need to deploy themselves. (A link for general background can be found here).
There are ten divisions in the active duty Army (in addition to about half a dozen smaller independent units), and guard and reserve forces provide additional resources. Six of these divisions of heavier units, which look similar despite varying names (mechanized infantry, composite infantry, armored, and cavalry). These units are characterized by large numbers of main battle tanks, armored Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, and self-propelled artillery (basically indirect fire tanks) along with signficant numbers of attack helicopters. Two are designed to be lighter divisions (the 10th Mountain division and the 25th infantry division), and two more are designed to be so light that they can be immediately airlifted to a conflict (the 82nd Airborne and the 101st Airborne divisions). Tanks, armored personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery (except new light multiple rocket launcher units) are virtually entirely absent from airborne units and scarce in other light divisions.
There are eleven divisions in the National Guard, in addition to some separate smaller units, and all but one of the divisions are heavier forces.
Current Army plans call for most division level support and headquarters resources to be pushed down to the next lower level in the Army hierarchy, the brigade, with each existing division being replaced by roughly four autonomous brigades for each existing division. The hope is that smaller units will increase the flexibility with which they can be deployed, and also promote more independent and responsive thinking by commanders in combat by pushing authority further down the hierarchy, while eliminating a layer of bureacracy in decision making. This would also be particularly useful at the guard and reserve level, by breaking up forces into smaller units drawing from smaller geographic areas, where the burden of devoting scarce training time to traveling to distant central locations for division level exercises can be a problem.
The new structure isn't only a management and personnel issue, however. It is also a tool to allow the Army to restructure it force mix without ruffling too many feathers. The new plan, which will have 43 active duty brigades, and 77 in all, to replace the existing divisions. The active duty Army will go from being about two-thirds heavy units, to about two-thirds lighter units, with another division's worth of heavy unit equipment prepositioned without troops closer to potential hot spots like the Middle East and East Asia, to reduce the time needed to get those resources to a conflict. The cost of this venture is currently projected to be $683 million per brigade, big parts of which involve new communications equipment for the new units, equipment to reflect shifts from light to heavy missions, and part of this reflects equipment that will probably be abandoned in Iraq, either due to damage, or for use by the new Iraqi security force.
This "restructuring money" while amorphous, is realistically more important to the Army than the much publicized Future Combat System, which under the rubric of "spiral development" is increasingly looking less like a comprehensive, high technology fundamental remark of the Army, and more like a grab bag of individual procurement projects, provided as they become viable, with an emphasis on providing the least ambitious, most useful, lowest technology pieces first. Many of later components will probably never happen.