April 20, 2015, c. Leeham Co. A news item last week caught my eye about the Defense Department, defense spending and recapitalizing the US Armed Forces.
I don’t normally follow defense items at Leeham News and Comment. LNC is pretty much all-commercial, all the time. I’ve stepped outside this to follow commercially-derived air force tankers (Boeing 767, Airbus A330) and the P-8 Poseidon (the Boeing 737). I took rides on Trident nuclear ballistic missile subs and reported thusly. But this news article, which came about two weeks after my visit to Wall Street where some defense programs were discussed, prompts me to ask: Since we can’t afford the monies required to recapitalize the Armed Forces, what do we do?
I’m going to throw some ideas out and see where they land. I have no doubt some will be blasphemy. But here goes.
Do we need an Army and a Marine Corp?
I can hear the anguish now.
Both services, of course, have been indispensable to the USA. These two services have performed heroic service to our county over and over and over again. But stop and think: The Marines were the primary service in the Pacific to invade islands during World War II, through amphibious landings. There hasn’t been a major amphibious landing since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Once ashore, the Army and the Marines perform much the same function: kick the crap out of the enemy, capture territory and secure the countryside.
Would it make more sense to merge the two services? Seems to me it would. Which service merges into the other? Sorry, Ike, Patton, Pershing and other great generals: I think the Army should merge into the Marines and all be trained to the Marine standards.
Do we need a new, fancy long range bomber?
The very wording of my question probably telegraphs what I think: the answer is No.
Throughout the history of the long range bomber, its purpose has been to penetrate skies of the enemy: Germany (twice); Japan; the Soviet Union; China; Vietnam; Iraq; Afghanistan. But times and technology have changed. Cruise missiles, drone and emerging pilot-less aircraft are taking over the role of the long-range bomber.
For all the criticism of drone strikes killing civilians, these pin-point accuracy do far less damage than the carpet bombing of WWII or even the Iraq War. Carrier- or ground-based fighter-bombers can supplement the unmanned operations where needed. But do we really think that in today’s high-tech air defense systems we’re going to send long-range bombers into Russia or China? Do we need these expensive systems that risk (unnecessarily) our crews in Iraq and Afghanistan? I think not.
There are better, cheap, more efficient and (as weird as it sounds) more humane ways to go in and kill our fellow man. We don’t need to spend more than a billion dollars on each new fancy long-range bomber. You buy a lot of cruise missiles for that amount of money.
Should more drones, UAS/UAVs become the next warfare machines?
I’ve already answered this question. You bet your four stars you should, General.
What about the Air Force and Navy?
Absolutely these are needed, including separate flying arms for each.
The high seas are free and open to anybody. The Navy needs its aircraft carriers. The mix of super carriers like the incoming Gerald R. Ford and the combination carriers like the Wasp and America (which are larger than WW II aircraft carriers) make all the sense in the world. These movable air bases are able to project our power anywhere the water is deep enough and the body isn’t land-locked.
Are carriers today more vulnerable than only a few decades ago? Sure, they are, with the more sophisticated cruise and anti-ship missiles that exist. One only need recall what the Exocet missile did to Great Britain’s warships during the Falkland War. The UK then kept its carriers outside the range of these missiles, demonstrating so clearly that the carriers are vulnerable to inexpensive weaponry. But this is the nature of war, isn’t it?
Obviously manned fighter-bombers flying off carriers have limited payloads and range–but these are mobile. The Navy is also testing unmanned carrier-based aircraft.
Submarines are also vital to our future defenses. The most obvious reason: they are the original stealth war machine. The real question is what kind of subs should be built.
Clearly some inter-continental missile subs, to replace the Ohio class, should built as a deterrent to China, Russia and wacky North Korea, among others. After that: should we continue to pursue only the Virginia class attack sub, with its (limited) capacity for cruise missiles? Should we also build a limited number of diesel-electric subs for shallow water use? China and Russia have a sizable number of Kilo-class subs that are so quiet, they make less noise than the US nukes. They can also get into very shallow waters. Several nations purchased Kilos from Russia, including those hostile to US interests. Germany and Sweden produce highly technologically advance diesel-electrics. So why not the US?
Largely, the reason (I think) is anywhere the subs have to go is so far away from us. It takes forever for the diesel subs to get from our bases to anywhere else, except perhaps from Guam to China (but they have to get to Guam). The problem with Guam: this is one of the first targets by China in any conflict. Not an especially good place to have a vulnerable military base. I recently read we’re going to station one of the small aircraft carriers in Australia in order to be in the region for rapid response. But no Guam. What does this tell you?
The Los Angeles and Virginia class subs (and one of the Seawolf class, a “spook” sub) are awfully big for shallow waters. The Navy is developing unmanned subs that certainly can operate here. But if we truly need a manned sub, perhaps we should look at buying some advanced diesel-electrics from Germany and Sweden, rather than building up a costly infrastructure to build just a few we might need.
Now we get to the Air Force. If not long-range bombers, then what? That’s easy: refueling tankers. Unmanned drones. ICBMs (which sorely need recapitalization). Land-based fighter-bombers that can be deployed to forward areas. But long-range manned bombers? These are obsolete.
During my recent trip to Wall Street, there was a common opinion that the F-35 is a program that should be dropped. But this is from an investor’s viewpoint, not so much a defense point of view. I wouldn’t know an F-35 from an F-22 without a placard, but there’s little question this is yet another defense procurement run amok. What is true is that fighters, subs, carriers, ground equipment, ICBMs and more are aging and need recapitalization. What is also true is that we can’t afford to do so without a tax hike, which, of course, is an anathem to Grover Norquist and the Republicans.