11 January 2012

Pirates, Hexaplanes and Procurement Priorities

* I am not particularly bellicose in my view of the proper scope of the use of American military force abroad, but it is hard not to approve of a tough stance against pirates. Romantic fictional portrayals notwithstanding, pirates are bad news and deserve to be suppressed ruthlessly. Still, the U.S. policy of doing that with billion dollar destroyers designed to take on the Soviet Navy in the Reagan era, rather than sub-thousand ton anti-piracy craft used by most of the nations of the world (e.g. India) or helicopters based on Littoral Combat Ships, is an extremely expensive way to go about carrying out that mission.

* An inventor in the defense industry has patented a six engine, three wing verticle takeoff and landing tilt wing plane, a bit like the V-22 Osprey, but more tolerant of a single engines failure.

* The newly announced policy of the Obama Administration to guide military spending cuts appears to boil down to cutting the size of the Marine Corps a little, cutting the size of the Army a lot, and relatively speaking protecting the Navy and the Air Force with an eye towards potential conflicts with China, or secondarily, with Iran or North Korea.

This is mostly a bad idea. The Army has irreplaceable large quantities of seasoned counterinsurgency warfare veterans who will be laid off and lost from our nation's military capabilities. The Army has been a far more overutilized resource in the last decade than any of the other forces in the U.S. military, even with a policy that has plundered Army Reserve and Army National Guard capacity not intended for the purposes to which they have been put. The Army is also a very cost effective way to create entry level jobs where our economy needs them most that is the de facto higher educational program for hundreds of thousands of mostly working class young men that provides significant civilian dividends in human capital to our nation.

While technology has dramatically reduced the number of active duty military personnel needed to carry out of wide variety of Navy and Air Force missions, provided similar efficiencies for artillery forces in the Army, and made the heavy tank a niche tool instead of the core of the Army's offensive capabilities, technology has done little to change the number of infantry soldiers needed to take and hold territory in detail once an opponents heavy weapons have been depleted. A rifle isn't much more capable now than it was in Vietnam, and boots on the ground draw their effectiveness from the expertise of the people wearing them in managing situations that don't lead to firefights not their capacity to kill large numbers of people at once.

A nation that has a practical ability to field only about 120,000 or less combat soldiers in a genuine war at any one time is militarily crippled, even though it may have unparalleled air power and sea power.

In contrast, our Navy is incredibly bloated relative to the naval force of any other potential adversary in the world, continues to buy large numbers of extremely expensive ships that provide little marginal value in our defense capabilities, has a surplus of high experienced sailors, is on a natural path towards a reduction in force of about 50% even with the same number of ships because current technology ships require only about half as many sailors to operate them as comparable 1980s designs, and does few things that the Air Force can't at least as well or better with fleets that can more rapidly be shifted from one theater to another. Also, there are decades of evidence that indicate that were the U.S. to ever again enter a period of intense naval warfare (something that really hasn't happened since World War II), that our surface ships are sitting ducks that put hundreds of sailors lives at risk each, for a wide variety of threats from any near peer opponent (submarines, mines, swarm attacks of small craft missile boats, carrier killer ballistic missiles, large numbers of heavily armed fighter aircraft, drones, etc.) because they are slow and hard to hide and offense usually beats defense in the end with current technologies.

We have a navy that would have been brilliant to have in World War II and has been running on autopilot strategically for half century, with a few exceptions, like relative success on the part of the Navy in the area of antimissile defense systems.

Our Air Force likewise is unbalanced. It doesn't have enough logistics capability, which is its most heavily utilized resource. It purchases extremely expensive high technology, supercapable fighter aircraft when many of its military objectives can be achieved with far less expensive aircraft that are purpose built with only the capabilities needed and with drones. An F-16 or F-22 or F-35 is expensive overkill to patrol the skies over Chicago, provide fire support in conflicts with primative insurgent forces in Afghanistan who don't even have radar, or drop large payloads of conventional bombs once anti-aircraft capabilities have been dispatched by high tech strike aircraft in the first days or weeks of a conflict. The number of aircraft sorties needed to reliably hit a target has fallen by a factor of twenty to one hundred due to the advent of guided munitions, yet the Air Force is still committed to tryinig to replace the portion of its fleet originally designed to carry out bombing missions on a one-to-one basis.

Our Marines have proven to be vital components of our military force in multiple conflicts, but its internal allocation of resources is unbalanced. Too much of its capabilities are devoted to developing a large scale, D-Day style, amphibious assault scenario that hasn't made military sense for fifty years, to the detriment of other capabilities like counterinsurgency warfare, limited interventions in Third World conflicts, special operations type interventions, and rapid deployments of diversified medium weight forces, that remain vital to our national security.

Finally, a focus on China as a military threat, despite its increased investment in military technology, fails to reflect that China is become less rather than more of a threat because it is growing more dependent upon the global economy for its own well being. Realistically, the only close neighbors of China whom we would go to bat to defend are Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, each of which have substantial military capacities of their own. We will never invade China, it would be extremely imprudent to engage in full scale conventional hostilities with it given its ample nuclear arsenal, and the relatively non-catastrophic transfer of power over Hong Kong and warming relations between China and Taiwan make the menance of rising Chinese influence over some of its less functional neighbors seem less threatening.

Russia is also starting to restore its military might, but remains far less of a threat to our national security than it was during the Soviet era. Its control over natural gas lines to Europe is a more potent weapon for it than its tanks and submarines.

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