30 July 2019

The State Of U.S. Military Technology

On Facebook, I saw a link to a short July 27, 2019 article at The Atlantic, by Thomas G. Mahnken and Roger Zakheim, entitled "Antiques Road Show: The Real State of the U.S. Military", with the introductory summary: "The wars of the future may depend not so much on the kinds of things you can put on parade, but on new technologies that reimagine warfare." 

This article inspired my reaction, reprinted and reformatted from a Facebook post with minor editing and some additional text below, amplifying the major themes of that story.
The U.S. military is very unbalanced in terms of how up to date its systems are. 
Some systems are grossly outdated. 
Nuclear weapons are controlled with computers that use 5.25" floppy disks and giant CRT screens. Our Ohio class nuclear missile submarines have 1970s designs and tech at their core (with upgrades as feasible) as well and are nearing the end of their useful lives. The work horse B-52 and C-130 have basic designs that are more than sixty years old although avionics and other key components have been upgraded, while our allies and adversaries have upgraded comparable aircraft and systems. 
But, some systems are state of the art. 
The F-22, F-35 and B-2 are state of the art warplanes, albeit with some glitches to be worked out and a great expense. Guided munitions are not ubiquitous and have revolutionized modern warfare, as have anti-missile missiles that, while not perfect, actually work much of the time. A few naval ships even have operational combat ready laser guns that are effective against incoming aircraft, small boat swarms and non-hypersonic missiles. We have unmanned submarine hunting ships and armed flying drones that tip the military balance. 
And, there is plenty of middle ground as well. 
We have an oversupply of many old but not outdated systems with 1980s designs that do what they were designed to do, even though that isn't really what we need now and wasn't what we actually needed then. 
For example, we have in this regard, destroyer class warships, amphibious assault ships, heavy battle tanks, and unguided shell hurling mobile howitzers We have the B-1 swing wing bomber that looked good on paper but was obsolete almost immediately as stealth bombers were developed and performs poorly in the close air support role military leaders tried to repurpose it for. We have lots of 1980s and 1990s design nuclear attack submarines that are remarkably superior blue sea naval warfare combatants in an era where the world has only one other remote significant, potentially adverse blue sea navy (Russia), which is smaller than what our existing fleet of nuclear submarines was designed to encounter during the cold war, when there haven't been blue sea naval battles that amount to more than minor one off skirmishes for more than forty years. We have more than a thousand F-15s and F-16 and F-18s that are competent non-stealth modern fighter aircraft designed for air to air combat or multi-purpose service that get the job done at great expense, but we have far more of than we need in an age of precision munitions in which dog fights are virtually non-existent reducing the number of aircraft needed for both air to ground and air to air fighter combat.
We have systems that are old but heavily used that are not being replaced because the services don't like their mission. 
For example, the 1970s era A-10 fighter that fills a critical need that the Air Force and is heavily used that the Air Force has been loath to replace because it doesn't like the mission, and are on the verge of retiring the AC-130 gunship which also received heavy use in counterinsurgency fights. We have only a handful of short range fixed wing transport aircraft smaller than the C-130 designed to carry smaller units of ground troops.
Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan have, however, have forced the Army and Marines to find remedies for the worst shortcomings of our ground forces, and to send unneeded systems back to yards to be stockpiled in case they are ever needed again. 
Our military's man shortcoming in terms of ground troops is not a lack of technology but a lack of raw numbers of soldiers, especially since we have laid off many of our most seasoned and skilled ground combat veterans. We also have a serious shortage of foreign language capabilities and nation building skill sets within our ground troops. This is, in part, because the Army and Marine brass would prefer not to have a military well suited to the counterinsurgency missions that politicians often want to undertake that the military finds to be thankless, undesirable and contrary to their perception of their mission and role.
We have systems that are neither cutting edge nor obsolete that get the job they were designed for done and receive heavy use, at a price that reflects the fact that they are no longer cutting edge technology. 
For example, we have the P-8 naval patrol aircraft and the M-22 Osprey and the Army's Stryker's and MRAPs and M-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicles, and an upgraded Army rifle and carbine in the process of being introduced. We have littoral combat ships and the Zumwalt destroyer that while not all that revolutionary in terms of military capabilities need only about a third of the crews of comparable warships with 1980s designs, that have the potential to fill niche needs that existing ships weren't meeting. Our anti-aircraft missile systems are not obsolete but also not state of the art.  
There are also whole classes of military systems that our best funded military in the world by far military could use but lacks entirely or almost entirely. 
For example, at sea, we have no small, fast, littoral missile boats unlike China, Iran and many of our European allies. We have no coastal, air independent combustion, diesel attack submarines. We don't have short range boats that we can deploy from larger ships further off shore to provide fire support to coastal ground forces. We have no warships optimized for escorting civilian ships in hostile waters at an affordable price even though that would be a major mission in any future naval conflict. We don't have transport submarines for running blockades with supplies, transporting retreating troops or fleeing civilians, or deploying troops on contested beaches. We have only a few high speed sealift ships and those are mostly rented rathe than owned. We have retired our fleet of naval mine sweeping ships even though the littoral combat ship replacement for them has not yet entered service. We are retiring our unique hospital ships without replacing them. 
In the air, we don't have short range aircraft large enough to carry Bradley fighting vehicles. We don't have airships to use as transports intermediate between fast ships and trucks on one hand, and fixed wing aircraft on the other, to use in roadless areas where anti-aircraft fire is unlikely. We don't have a transport bomber successor to the B-52 for use in uncontested airspace. We don't have fighter aircraft optimized for defending domestic airspace against civilian aircraft and improvised combatant aircraft at a fraction of the operational and purchase costs of the F-16s we use to do that job. We have very few light attack aircraft that could be used to fight asymmetric counterinsurgency conflicts more cost effectively. We designed and successfully tested prototype manned fighter replacement drones for both land and carrier use that are superior to their manned counterparts in many respects, but haven't bought any. We have very few unmanned cargo drones even though those we have have turned out to be very useful and saved lives. We don't have hypersonic missiles. 
For ground troops, we don't have carbines that can use video to shoot around corners that have been around for a decade. We haven't deployed computer assisted sniper guidance systems that allow civilians with a few hours of training to rival all but the very best of the best military snipers. We don't have smart bullets or use "smart guns" that only specific users can activate. We don't have the smart grenade launching guns that were supposed to enter service more than a decade ago. We don't have small airborne drones with the firepower of a single rifle or handgun even though civilians had made functional prototypes. We have very few mobile land based point defense systems comparable to the naval Phalanx CIWS and laser guns. We don't have systems well designed to respond to small drone swarm attacks like the one depicted in the upcoming movie "Angel has Fallen". We don't have a true light to medium weight missile tank, or any light tanks suitable for deployment with paratroopers or in jungles. We have only a few, if we have any, bullet proof vehicles optimized for the narrow streets found in much of the world. We also lack (perhaps wisely) tactical (i.e. for use in battles rather than destroying while cities) nuclear weapons that were once part of the U.S. arsenal.
The U.S. Navy also exists principally to respond to a very small number of potential adversaries, all of which except Russia, are largely confined to small geographic areas like the Persian Gulf and the coastal areas near North Korea and China. But, we have devoted almost no effort to find a way to reduce the cost of coming up with military resources to address these very expensive flash points with diplomatic efforts to secure conventional arms control in these regions.

To be clear, I'm not necessarily advocating military spending to bring all U.S. military systems up to the state of the art, or to have a large ground troop force ready to deploy, or to fill the many gaps associated with the many kinds of modern military systems that it lacks. But, there are definitely large swaths of military expenditures that are excessive at a tactical and strategic level in terms of our force mix, and there are definitely spots where spending a little more money would add disproportionate value to spending elsewhere.

Overall, the military budget in the U.S. is too big, however, and not too small. But, just as some regulations are excessive while other areas are under regulated, some parts of the military are grossly overfunded, while other areas are ignored, so far, at our peril

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