Pontifications: Remaking the Armed Services

Hamilton (5)

By Scott Hamilton

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?
  • Do we need a new, fancy long-range bomber?
  • Should more drones, UAS/UAVs become the next warfare machines?
  • What about the Air Force and Navy?

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.





25 Comments on “Pontifications: Remaking the Armed Services

  1. Wouldn’t training all feet on the ground to the (presumably) higher USMC standard be sub-optimal. Same as if an airline put long range optimised 787s on routes where mid range optimised A330neos would be more suitable and cost effective (assuming that aircraft turns out as anticipated)? Or 1 class airliner cabins. The US isn’t exactly short on the numbers needed to segment.

  2. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the Marines, which often leads to their expedient misuse as ordinary ground troops.

    Marines are in essence, shock troops. They are offensively oriented. They are by nature, training, and equipment, designed for short, sharp offensive actions.

    However, the typical inter-war degradation of the armed forces have gotten them sucked into static and maneuver warfare in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, and Afghanistan.

    They are used improperly by politicians because they tend to be available as Army units are allowed to waste away.

    There is however, a need to employ them at times in order to maintain a cadre of combat experienced officers and NCO’s. But this in no way mitigates the wholesale misuse of marine units as we saw in the Invasion of Iraq, where marines made up the bulk of General Frank’s right maneuver element.

    This debate has come up in the past, and it’s answer is always the same. At some point the mission requires Marines.

    As to the Air force, it’s procurement model has been broken for a long time. The F-22 limped into early termination, and the only reason the F-35 survives is the international commitment. When you think F-35, you have to wonder what they were thinking.

    The era of lower cost tactical aircraft has not yet passed. There is a reason there are howls and screams every time the USAF suggest getting rid of the A-10. The reason is that it, like the B-52, still works for the types of combat we go into now. So unless we are talking a new cold war (and we may be if we keep projecting weakness ) we need to think this over.

    As to a new manned Bomber, it’s probably going to be obsolete before it enters service. This does not obviate the need for some sort of heavy bomb truck to replace the B-52, but it doesn’t need to repeat the B-2 program, 135 aircraft pared down to 21, at I believe 45 Billion a copy.

    As to the Navy, we absolutely must not skimp on the submarine force. If the reasons aren’t obvious then nobody can be convinced otherwise.

    Our primary problem with aircraft carriers is our inability to keep them at sea, keep the crews and air wings trained, and we now name them after mediocre (at best) presidents.

    • how dare you suggest that a Republican president was mediocre 😉

  3. I would also question not if some type of weaponry is needed but how much of it. e.g. US has 10 supercarriers (not counting small amphibious assault ships). Are really all needed? Operating each costs some billions yearly. I mean Russia, China, UK, Spain all have only one single carrier which is also not that capable probably. Wouldn’t 3-5 cut it? In my opinion US has quite “overcapacity” generally, which consumes 3.5 of GDP (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_military_expenditures). Second to russia among big countries. What is public opinion about being superpower in US? It is of course nice to be one, but also with little ROI.

    • When you can only manage to keep three at sea, combat ready at any given time, yes, you need at least ten, preferably 12-14. That gives you six to eight at sea, certified for combat

      • Maybe someone should work on improving the duty cycles of aircraft carriers if they spend less than 50% of the time at sea. It sure wouldn’t have been acceptable in the WW2 days (or earlier).

        • Even in WW2, the carriers had rear areas to retire to for resupply , maintenance and to give crew a break ( still plenty of work). It wasnt home port though.
          In the modern world there isnt any need to keep them at sea 75% of the time, even when this is possible for up to a year.

          • But if your duty cycle is less than 50%, you need to build more carriers … ?

  4. The modern times Enemy is amongst us, in civil clothes. in the Urban centres, in the street. His weapons are undercover organisation, untraceable encrypted mobile phone communications, dark internet hacking abilities, sophisticated and obfuscated financial circuits … to deter this Enemy, what is needed is Intelligence, not heavyweight long range bombers and the alike. Drones are OK, but mostly what is needed is redirect the budgets to where belong : into Intelligence !

    But don’t stop the spending !?

    • You are describing the “state”full organisations that seem to have taken the world hostage. And you will not fix anything when you give these entities more money. ( they are not short of money anyway due to profits from worldwide drug trading and other ilicitn activities bankrolling their budgets to a major part. )

      More money for the “Ministry of War and Domination” will hasten the process that took the Soviet Union down.

  5. Merge the Army into the Corps and train them to Marine standards? No way. As a Marine, that would be unworkable and would basically wipe out the Marine Corps as we know it. The Army has a different mission and objectives than the Marines.

    The Army is built and designed to wage long, sustained ground campaigns and is way too “heavy” to be effective as a true expeditionary force. And that is what they should be. The Marines should be a smaller, more special operations capable force training to a specific set of missions, namely the amphibious assault and basically kicking the door in for the Army to roll the heavy stuff in.

    The Corps and Army, in recent years, have done almost the same job (due to the fact that we basically didn’t have to forces to combat long occupations, SASO, and anti-insurgency operations. But in the perfect world, this occurrence is an anomaly, not the norm.

    • “The Marines should be a smaller, more special operations capable force training to a specific set of missions, namely the amphibious assault and basically kicking the door in for the Army to roll the heavy stuff in. ”

      At the conceptual level, that’s very much like paratroopers and airborne divisions, only arriving by water rather than air. And yet paratroopers are part of the Army rather than being an entirely separate arm of the armed services.

      Is it really necessary to have (and pay for) a completely separate command structure and infrastructure, just because the the mission is somewhat different?

      • Thysi,

        In a perfect world, there would be no need for a separate service. BUt considering how closely the USMC and the Navy are aligned, the actual institutional culture, if you will, for the expeditionary model of the Navy/Marine Corps, and the fact that paratroops are very specialized and way too light…..they don’t have the assets or capability to do what the Marine Corps does and can do.

        Paratroops aren’t gonna last 30 days without the heavy stuff coming in. They’ll need air support, a nice logistics train, and aren’t outfitted like say a MEU to do a job for a sustained period.

        Plus imagine the costs of training all Army to Marine standards? That would be prohibitive.

        • The USMC seem to be very good value for money. If the US didnt have a marine corps, the army would probably create some sort of maritime force anyway, and then not quite get the hang of it.

          You can see what happened when the USAF killed off the SAC and created the all singing, all dancing Air Combat Command. The nuclear forces became a backwater for those going nowhere

  6. WRT the AF/Bomber/F-35:
    the Fighter Pilot as God, knights of the Sky culture of the AF needs to die.

    the big, cheap, bomb truck that is the B-52 needs a successor. take the wing and engines off the 777x and add a bomb truck optimized fuselage.

    the stealth bomber role is better served by stealthy, recallable/retargetable cruise missiles carried by that bomb truck.

    the F-35 is a dog and should have been cancelled years ago. this is the 3rd or 4th major attempt at a “joint” fighter (F-111 (AFX?), F-22 (ATF was supposed to be joint) and now the JSF. at the end of the day, each cost ~5x what it would have if it had been single purpose from day 1 and had less capability due to compromises made for jointness.

    we should have built an F-117 successor (highly stealthy first day of war door kicker, probably UCAV) in small quantities (~150 or so) and huge quantities of something along the lines of a “block 70” F-16 (not terribly stealthy bomb truck with F-119 engine)

    we should be recapping the hell out of the A-10, with the wing refurb and a re-engine and giving it to the Army. The AF has always hated CAS but fought to keep it because they fear the Army having a fixed wing flying service.

    and yup, recap the minuteman with something modern and mobile.

    WRT Marines/Army:
    hell no. If you combine those services, likely the Army will win due to sheer inertia and the amphibious assault mission(much more than beach landings in swimming tanks) will be sacrificed. that is not to say that some rationalization of materiel, training and procurement couldn’t happen (why, for instance, do the marines and army have completely different utility and attack helicopter fleets? the capability differences between the modernized huey/cobra are not sufficiently different from the seahawk/apache to justify two fleets.)

    Navy/Marine rationalization:
    There are 2 Navies today, the Strategic Blue Water Carriers and SSBNs and all the hundreds of ships needed to service and protect them (destroyers, cruisers, subs, oilers, dry cargo) and the Brown Water Land Attack navy (assault carriers, all the different Lxx series ships, tomahawk optimized destroyers/subs, special ops subs)

    policy and funding should embrace that, give operational ownership of the Brown Water assets to the Marines and recognize them as the full peer service that they are.

    finally, for procurement, we are obsessed with multirole and joint solutions, when 9 times out of ten the specialized, single purpose single service solution will be cheaper and more effective, so much so that having different multiple single purpose single service systems ends up being overall cheaper and overall more effective for the defense of the nation as a whole. not every system needs to be the golden BB.

  7. My understanding is that the only reason why the US Marine Corps is so large and remains so while the Army is reduced is an obscure Congressional diktat created in the days after WW2 which defined a minimum size for the Corps but not for the Army. In truth the Corps is far, far too large for its stated purpose (its strength should be defined in terms of amphibious lift and reserve) and all those elements that match those of the Army should be eliminated.

    Just to annoy further – there is no measure by which the Corps is ‘elite’ (historically elites have never exceeded 2-3% of a nation’s land forces and the Corps is close to 30%). And I would seriously question the suggestion made that it is superior to the Army in training or quality. It is seriously superior in terms of public relations but battle experience has demonstrated no significant difference in quality or performance between the two services.

    The US Marines should be reduced to a more specialized form like the Royal Marines – perhaps four brigades and linked special forces designated for amphibious invasion in its broadest form. NOT combined with the Army but restricted to the service for which it was originally designated.

  8. Golly- I agree with you basically. I believe the F-35 is the ultimate turkey compared to the raptor. Shades of TFX ( f-111) and the B-1 bomber and the Valkerie B-70.

    Add everything on a marginal platform but the kitchen sink, and than find we must provide cots for the crew of the B-2.

    IMO – for example , swarms of cheap- twin engine ” fighters’ designed to launch air to air missiles will be able to hammer/defeat the f-35 while we will as usual be restricted to visual contact before weapons release.
    Little chance of REAL eyeball to eyeball dogfights except for airshows and “E”- ticket rides in prop trainer aircraft for one on one or military exercises via top gun, etc.

    • The F35A has about the same thrust as the Eurofighter, but the Typhoon has twin engines and a lower empty weight of just under 5000lb. ( based on latest numbers)
      For a generation later, something doesnt make sense on these factors alone.
      The 3 versions dont account for it, as around 1/3 of airframe is common.
      What the F35 has ended up with the capability of a more stealthy version of the A7 Corsair in its F100 afterburner proposed version

  9. The problem with the US Marine Corps is the same as the Russian para troops: the organization level. The inertia of a big organization.

    The problem with many US military systems is very simple: NIH
    NIH: not invented here (US)

    Diesel electric submarines are very quiet and quieter than nuclear ones but no US company is able to build them (btw. France also builds good submarines. Sweden is out of the business since two decades. South Korea does even better business than Sweden today.)

    M1(whatever) Abrams
    The turbine engine just sucks. No emergency exit on the buttom, …

    M2(whatever) Bradley
    “The Pentagon Wars” (the movie is nice but the book makes you mad).

    IAV Stryker – wheeled madness
    The original Swiss MOWAG “Radschützenpanzer 93” (wheeled infantry fighting vehicle 1993) weights less than 14 tones. http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radsch%C3%BCtzenpanzer_93 (no English article). This works for Switzerland because the cart tracks there are better than most main roads in the rest of the world. Ground pressure is comparable to Swiss agricultural tractors. The Stryker weights around 20 tones. Guess what happens on Iraqi or Afghani trails…

    First the US Air Force/Navy/Marine Corps (F-35B – see above) need an aircraft then a combat management system. “Can’t run, can’t turn, can’t …”
    What was the last US single engine aircraft operating from a carrier?

    Just ask some Vietnam veterans.

    US Navy carrier task groups:
    Pray to various types of diesel electric submarines (German Type 209/214, South Korean ROKS Chang Bogo class (Korean built Type 209)(see RIMPAC), Swedish Gotland class, Norwegian Ula class and even modern Chinese Types).

    Just compare a Boeing 767-200 with an Airbus A330-800. The US taxpayer has to pay for any KC-767NEO.

    The US Air Force tries to kill the only CAS aircraft. Why? You can’t get a job as a US general somewhere in the US defense industry defending a cheap aircraft.

    F-35 replacement (well the bird isn’t ready yet):
    e.g: Saab Gripen or Typhoon (the computers would work on any aircraft!).
    X-band stealth was killed by L-band radar.

    KC-46: Will be late and Boeing will maintain the rusty KC-135. So what 😛

    The US defense industry is to expensive for the US today.
    What does the US want to defend? The US or the US defense industry?

  10. Keeping the Marine Corp is not the issue, its what the Marine Corp is costing us that is the issue. As it currently stand the Marine Corp has run amock and has strayed far from its roots where they made do with throw away from the Army and made it work.

    1. V-22: Mostly for the Marine Corp, at 80 MILLION a copy for something we don’t need (want yes, need no).

    2. F-35 VTOL : Huge detriment the program when all aspect of the F-35 (dog that it is) was driven by the VTOL that is not needed. Marine Corp can use Cobras for close support and leave the rest to Navy and Air force.

    The Marine Corp has a huge advantage as light infantry and navy affiliation for rapid response until the Army fills in behind, but its gone amock. While I have long admired the4 Marine Corp, its gotten so politically influence, nothing they want is turned down. No force should be that way.

    1991 Gulf War: there was no sea invasion, it all landed on Saudi docks.

    With the mix of “Jeep” Carriers and Supers, we could work out a better blend at a much lower cost for Naval Air.

    A10s should be supported, the Air Force always wants to kill close support (real close support not their version which is fly over at Mach 2.5 ).

    Subs, who needs new Boomers? Rebuild the Ohios as needed, there is no new tech that says you can’t keep current and no one can sneak up on one.

    Fast Attack, always a question, we really need a smaller stealthy in shore or get a diesel electric.

    • ” leave the rest to Navy and Air force.”

      the Marine mantra that they can’t trust the Navy to stick around (because Guadalcanal in the early days of WWII), and convincing the politicians to fund the continuation of that belief rather than have them tell the Navy to stick around is why the marines (technically a branch of the Navy) get their $500 Billion white elephant STOVL F-35B. In practical terms, half of the cost of F-35 development is driven by the need to make this bullshi* aircraft.

  11. “M16:
    Just ask some Vietnam veterans”

    Its not the gun now, its the caliber and there is serious contention that 6.5mm area is probably a good compromise be it the 6.5 Grendel or the 6.8 SPC but not to be. Note that the Marine Corp has an all new HK gas tappet SAW replacement (sneaky buggers)

    Bradley has done well and it stood up to some full scale tank assaults by itself in both Iraq wars. Nothing is perfect and nothing is bullet proof, but it gets the job done. Just keep updating it.

    Abrahams: You can say what you want about the turbine (it needs a new updated one with much better SFC and the under armour power pack) but nothing beats it and its been a stellar infantry support as well with the TUSK package.

    Bring Back the Iowas: Now there was a loss and a concentration of fire power like we will never see again. You can take your Arleigh Burkes with their VRL pack, nothing beats 9 x 16 inch 2500+ Pound shells hitting a target. Sad state of affair when the best fire support the Navy delivers is a 5 inch gun.

    • “but nothing beats it”

      the knee-jerk about their fighter/ plane / tank

      the result of every online top 10 can be predicted by the land of origin

  12. Never innovate,follow on with something better, assuming you have sufficient industrial might. The USA is simply doing its opponents R&D for them,and then ending up with 1st generation kit.
    Legacy equipment =stuff that needed thinning out,but will do for now.This term was invented to justify defence spending.
    Asymmetric warfare=what you would do in your enemies position.
    Excuse for going to war with the wrong tactics and kit.
    Aircraft carriers will be easily wiped out with missiles,uav’s,or more likely in multicultural country’s like USA or UK ,sabotage.
    F35b ,is v/stol really worth the bother?Falklands was the only real killer app and the harrier a much simpler and more easily deployed aircraft. The rest of the time the lack of range and payload was the only reason it was near the frontline
    Now to the A10,you only need to read a few books about ww2 to realise how dangerous strafing defended targets is,but at least the A10 is designed for it.Why has the frail 1/4 billion $F35b (100m for the plane.Rest pilot ,widows pension,share of sunken carrier,failed mission,etc) got a cannon pod?

  13. bilbo: “The F-35 is a dog and should have been cancelled years ago. this is the 3rd or 4th major attempt at a “joint” fighter (F-111 (AFX?), F-22 (ATF was supposed to be joint) and now the JSF.”

    In the JSF competition the Boeing X-32 lost to the Lockheed X-35. Perhaps the former would have been a better choice. Boeing designed the X32 with the help of Dassault engineers who had designed the Rafale, which is a true multi-role combat aircraft.

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