Friday, May 08, 2009

A Matter of Priorities

This is an old news item, but I wanted to chew on its implications for a while before I said anything about it. When he unveiled the proposed 2010 DoD budget, the line item that drew the most attention was his announcement that he would end F-22 Raptor production at 187 aircraft. I am somewhat ambivalent about this. On the one hand, our current doctrine relies upon air superiority. Staying ahead is easier than catching up, after all, and we never really want our guys to find themselves in a fair fight. On the other hand, there's a conversation we really need to have about missions and force structure.

Let's roll back the clock about 20 years. Back in the late 1980s, the mission and force structure was fairly plain. We were built up and deployed to receive a Warsaw Pact assault in Western Europe. Some days that looked more likely than others. There was a time when I fully expected to cash in my chips fighting Russians somewhere in Germany. At a minimum, we had good reason to hedge our bets. After World War II, Stalin's policies were expansionist and aggressive. We saw that in both Berlin and Korea. Stalin's successor Khruschchev wasn't as blatantly expansionist, but his rhetoric wasn't what you'd call friendly, either. If you took their founding documents seriously, if you believed that they meant what they appeared to say, there were few conclusions you could reach other than they really believed that the world wasn't big enough for both Communism and Capitalism. They would carry by the bayonet what they couldn't carry by persuasion.

Under that threat, we had to be prepared to defend our allies against aggression. We maintained a large peacetime standing army, something unheard of in American history. We continued to spend at an almost wartime level on national defense. The weapons we developed during those years were designed around that threat.

Then, something totally unexpected happened. The Warsaw Pact fell apart. In the aftermath of that collapse, we never really took a hard look at our force structure, never really figured out exactly what it is we're trying to do with this new world we find ourselves in. We continued to build a Navy designed to take on the Red Banner Northern Fleet, an Army intended to turn back the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, and an Air Force meant to chew up Soviet Frontal Aviation. I've long thought we needed to re-think things. But that never quite happened.

Maybe, just maybe, that conversation will happen now. We need to establish new priorities. We need to structure our defense establishment around what our needs really are today, not around what they were twenty years ago. The question on the table -- and I don't pretend to have a complete answer, much less the right one -- is this: What is America's role in the world? Knowing that, what kind of military can best fill that role?

Breaking it down yet further: Are we the world's policeman? Or are we the friends of liberty everywhere, but the guardians only of our own?

Like I said, I don't yet have an answer. I just have the question. The conversation is way, way past due; and we can't really know what our military should look like until we have it.

That said, I have a few observations about military policy:

1) My esteemed colleague, the anonymous Chair Force Engineer, makes a very good point about the drawbacks of our somewhat ADD approach to military planning. We tend to go through cycles of "Ooh! That looks neat!" followed by "Damn! That's expensive!" This idiocy tends to drive up acquisition prices. Once we know what we need, we should then buy what we need. Just that.

2) As a related point, there's something goofy about the way airplane costs are accounted for. When a news article reports the cost of an F-22 Raptor fighter, for example, that per-airplane cost amortizes the RDT&E cost over the entire buy. This makes each individual airplane look much more expensive than it actually is, based on the marginal cost of building the damn thing. If I had my 'druthers, we'd do it differently. You'd pay up front for the factory, tools, dies, and everything you have to have to build the first example. You'd eat that in the program start-up cost. You have to build that infrastructure anyway, whether you build one or ten thousand. After that, the unit cost would be the marginal cost of actually building each additional airframe that rolls off the assembly line: mostly time and materials. If you build enough, process improvements make each successive lot cheaper, not more expensive. However, I doubt that'll ever happen.

3) I'm not all that upset about the F-22 ending production. She's a lovely bird. And the Raptor rules the skies -- today. But all the same, I know an incipient dinosaur when I see it. Two technologies are coming to maturity that spell doom for the manned tactical fighter. One is the airborne laser, the other is the unmanned combat aircraft. Within fifteen years, we'll see a laser-armed unmanned fighter that is smaller, cheaper, and far more maneuverable than any fighter in the world today. Its main weapon fires line-straight at the speed of light, and cannot be jammed or evaded. If the gunner lays cross-hairs on you, you're done for. I'd rather we started making the down payments on this next turn of the technological wheel than putting another coat of polish on last year's model.

4) In the current budget climate, it really comes down to a matter of priorities. One way of setting priorities amongst services and programs is this: if you can only fully fund one, which one should it be? If you put that question to me, I'd look you straight in the eye and say without flinching -- it's the Navy. Understand that it's a former Air Force man saying that. My father was a career USAF NCO, and I was an AFROTC cadet myself, but I've read enough military history to know what's important. We are safe from invasion not because we have a powerful Army, nor because we have the world's best-equipped Air Force. Those are nice things to have, but they're not defensive arms for us. Those are the things we use to strut our funky stuff on someone else's real estate. No, the service that keeps them from returning the favor is the Navy. We sleep soundly without worry that rude foreigners will interrupt our rest mainly because the United States Navy is bigger than the next seventeen put together. The USN may not rule the waves, but no one else swings the heavy iron to seriously contest the matter. I'll trade Raptors for more Littoral Combat Ships every day and twice on Sundays. I'm a flyboy born and bred, but still, that's a thief's bargain. As long as we have a nice, strong Navy, I will sleep soundly and contentedly.

5) One last thing about force structure: back before WWII, the general arrangement was that the President did what he wanted with the Navy, but the Congress owned the Army. I'd kind of like to get back to something like that. If I had my way, I'd draw down the regular Army somewhat, and transfer assets to the National Guard in the various States. Then, I'd change the law such that the National Guard could only be mobilized by the President pursuant to a Declaration of War passed by Congress. Not an "authorization of force." Not a "state of emergency." An honest-to-God Declaration of War. Congress needs to step up and do its damn job. The last President ran amok, true enough, but he was aided and abetted by a supine, servile Congress. If we force them to "own" the Army again, maybe that'll change.

In summary: there are both winners and losers in the 2010 DoD budget. But on the whole, things look pretty good.

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