Friday, January 07, 2005

Transformation at what cost?

For those of you who may be unaware, 'transformation' is the latest buzzword amongst those in-the-know regarding issues of national defense and the military. Nominally, the word refers to the necessary processes involved in taking our armed forces and defense policy from a cold-war style 'traditional' force to a 21st-century force, one which is more capable of dealing with threats like terrorism, rogue states and regional crisis, rather than massive war against the Soviet Bloc. This is known as the 'objective' force. Generally speaking, this means the transformation from a fighting force comprised mainly of heavy divisions of battle tanks, long-range artillery cannons, arrayed fleets of warships, intercontinental bombers and nuclear weapons, to a force more suited for rapid deployment, urban combat, special operations, nation building and humanitarian assistance. It's been asserted that the military we've been left with since the fall of the Soviet Union is ill-equipped to deal with today's threats efficiently; our forces are too massive and cumbersome to be deployed rapidly, and the missions of the 21st century will be a far cry from the Cold War role our equipment was originally designed for.

Some of these criticisms are legitimate. It can indeed be argued that with the end of the Cold War, the geopolitical map has changed drastically, and with the initiation of the War on Terror, the demands on our military are indeed different from the role that was in mind when their purchase orders were written. However, this analysis is short sighted, and denies the robustness our existing systems have demonstrated in the last decade. Sure, the M1 tank was designed for the forests of Europe and not the deserts of Iraq, but it outperformed it's competition by several orders of magnitude, to the chagrin of it's many critics. The B2 bomber was designed to carry a nuclear payload over Moscow in a doomsday war scenario, but has proven to be a most valuable asset in deploying conventional precision munitions over high value targets in heavily defended airspace. The B52 was designed to fly in massive waves carrying nuclear bombs to targets deep within Russia; it has since been converted into a stable and reliable platform for the launch of stealthy, long range cruise missiles, vital to today's war efforts. The spy satellites launched by the CIA, originally meant to look deep behind the iron curtain and help us gauge the industrial and warfighting capabilities of our secretive communist enemy, now give our war planners the ability to map out a battlefield and know every twist and back alley in a city before sending a single troop out. Our aircraft carriers, originally designed as staging points for coordinated strikes on cold war targets, have arguably become the single most important unit in our arsenal, projecting a diverse force rapidly, exactly where and when it is needed, anywhere around the globe; and not just as a warship, most recently it has further proven it's versatility by providing unmatchable humanitarian aid to victims of the Asian tsunami. This is of course not to say that new technologies and doctrine shouldn't be explored, but let's not pretend that our current forces and equipment are useless or unable to adapt to changing missions. In fact, quite the opposite. In light of all that has happened in the last ten years, I think that our forces have by and large demonstrated a truly remarkable ability to adapt; 'transform' if you will, to an extremely diverse set of demands.

Furthermore, almost since it's inception as a concept, the term 'transformation' has been used (read: misused) to justify all manner of defense cuts, regardless of their relevance to the transformation doctrine as it has been intended. All a politician need do in order to kill a weapon system is brand it as being not 'transformational' enough and a dark cloud will hang over the entire project. In fact, ironically enough, 'transformation' has become the tool of choice for anti-military types in congress to slash the defense budget while at the simultaneously presenting themselves as though they have the best interests of our military at heart... "I'm all for spending money on national defense, but this program is a cold-war relic, so until we find a more transformational option, this system should be killed." Case in point, the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. This is one of the most revolutionary aircraft that the military has developed in the last 20 years. Put simply, it is an aircraft that can take off and land like a helicopter, but fly as fast and as long as an airplane, carrying over two dozen troops and their equipment, or 12,000lbs of payload to a range several times that of any helicopter. It was designed to replace our current fleet of cargo and special forces helicopters, some of which have been in use since the early 1960's, and if you remember correctly, were responsible for the deaths of many troops during the early days of the Iraq war (far more soldiers were killed in helicopter mishaps than from than enemy fire). It is designed specifically for the rapid and precise insertion and extraction of troops, especially special forces-- the transformational backbone of the 21st century anti-terror force. It is fast and efficient, and can be deployed from airbases, ships, small unprepared airfields, or dirt clearings in the middle of a war zone or city. What can be more 'transformational' than that? But there is one problem; the V-22 has been expensive. There have been some problems developing the technology along the way, primarily because nobody ever built anything like this before, ever. So it's development was costly, both in terms of money and lives lost during testing. As such, it has become a prime target for cancellation by the congressional liberals looking to slash defense spending regardless of need. Try telling the Marines riding on 30-year-old crash prone helicopters that the solution we just spent 15 years developing may be killed because it's work order happened to be drawn up before the Berlin Wall fell. The victims of this twisted logic are many; the Comanche stealth helicopter system, a multi-billion dollar program to develop a revolutionary attack chopper to replace the aging Cobra gunship (another 40-year-old design). The program spent billions in development and flight testing, and was ready to go into full production when it was cancelled without producing a single unit. The reason given was of course that the program was not 'transformational'. Another program to meet a similar fate was the Crusader artillery cannon, which was also fully developed and tested to the tune of $2 billion, and cancelled before a single unit was actually produced. This system would have replaced the current Paladin artillery cannon, which is not fast enough to keep up with our tank forces (that they need to support) and has a rate of fire lower than that of almost any other developed nation, including Russia. Currently, there is a battle brewing over the F/A-22 Raptor aircraft. The Raptor is, indisputably, the most advanced and capable aircraft ever conceived. It was designed to replace the F-15 Eagle, our current front line fighter which entered service in the early 1970's, and has never been shot down in combat. However, at this point in time several nations, including France, Russia and China, are currently developing aircraft that can take on the F-15, drastically reducing the chances that our forces will be able to enjoy the battlefield air dominance in future conflicts that have allowed them to operate with near-impunity in the last 10 years or so. The Raptor is faster, can carry more weapons and is far more maneuverable than the F-15, and is also about as stealthy as a B2 bomber. This all adds up to a system that will allow the US to easily control the airspace (and thus the battlefield) of any future conflict that we may find ourselves in. The Raptor is the best in the world, and if we are going to ask our soldiers to risk their lives, how can we do so without ensuring that they have the best equipment possible?

There are of course a number of answers to this question, some are political, some are financial, and some stem from misunderstanding and ignorance. Politically, there are forces within the government that don't see American sovereignty as necessarily a good thing, they've viewed America's emergence as the sole hyperpower as dangerous, and view the use of military power as immoral in almost every circumstance. They would like to see the playing field leveled, and they believe that by de-fanging the military, we will of course not be capable of launching what they view as immoral war, or even defending ourselves when attacked; instead forcing this country to consult and seek permission/help from the so-called world community before ever taking any action. This, of course, will ensure that almost nothing of a military nature will ever get done; but then that's the point. These are usually the same people who walk around with signs that read "Money for Jobs & Education, Not War and Occupation". These people of course don't recognize the one fatal flaw in their argument being that national defense is one of the few roles that the Framers of the constitution specifically designated as the role of the Federal Government, while 'Jobs' and 'Education' were never intended to be anywhere close to it's responsibility.

Financially, there are always governmental bean-counters, some of whom also have a political axe to grind (but not always), that simply look at the often-staggering cost of these weapon systems and then do all they can to stop them based solely on cost. This point of view is particularly problematic because it only accounts for a single factor; cost, without recognizing need. For these people, opposition is reflexive.

Finally, we come to ignorance, which is the most dangerous factor of all because it seems to have a grip on several of the very people who should know better, including secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. While I have no doubt that secretary Rumsfeld has the best interests of our armed forces at heart, he has presided over, and encouraged several of the cuts I mentioned earlier. In the face of all evidence to discourage these actions, Rumsfeld has nonetheless staunchly refused to grow the troop strength of the army, has slashed funding for new weapons systems that have already been developed and are ready to come on-line, and has even asked that one aircraft carrier be removed from the fleet next year to save money. Further, he has been a strong proponent of 'skipping a generation' in terms of military technology; i.e., forgoing investments in next generation hardware, in favor of redoubling efforts to develop future generation hardware(systems that otherwise wouldn't be available until 25 years from now), and rushing current, proven systems into retirement to help pay for this ...All in the name of transformation.

Mind you, that under different circumstances, these would not necessarily be all-bad ideas. Innovation is always important, and a big part of the reason our military is so powerful is due to technology that we've been willing to invest and experiment with, often at great cost and risk. However, we've never attempted to move the process along quite so briskly, nor during wartime, nor under such asphyxiating fiscal constraints. It seems a combination ripe for disaster. Mind you, I'm not talking about the need to rapidly develop technologies to fill the unforeseen needs of wartime soldiers, like the new laser being developed to shoot down mortar shells, but rather drastic change; for example, the rush to rid the Army of it's heavy weapons, like the battle-proven M1 Abrams tank, which is unmatched in the world for survivability and shock effect, for lighter, less protected (but more high-tech) systems like the FCS family of vehicles. In fact, it is the goal of Sec. Rumsfeld to eventually do away with the heavy force entirely and replace it with smaller, lighter, cheaper, and arguably less powerful systems, beginning in 2010. The theory being that speed, networking technology and superior tactical doctrine will compensate for the system's relative lack of firepower and armor. However, many defense experts are skeptical, pointing out obvious problems with such a system:

It is a virtual certainty that future conflicts in the 2025-era will find US forces opposing traditional massed heavy armor. There will be occasions where the MCS will encounter such enemy forces and direct fire engagements will be unavoidable. Under such circumstances, Overmatching Direct Fire Lethality (ODFL) will be essential to FCS survivability. For a vehicle as light as 20 tons, however, ODFL as protection reflects a last-ditch defensive measure of desperation to be called upon only after the vehicle has gotten itself into a situation that should have been avoided in the first place... Despite having an overmatching direct fire capability, the survivability of a 20-ton MCS will be severely threatened by close-in encounters with enemy main battle tanks.

-Globalsecurity.org


Most experts do agree that the US military will indeed see future 'traditional' engagements against opposing heavy armor-- exactly the situation we are being told is a relic of the Cold War. And it is the capability to overmatch a heavy armor threat under any circumstances that we are essentially forfeiting with the adoption of the lighter FCS forces, and the elimination of the heavy forces. This is, quite literally, a mistake of epic proportions. Depending on perfect tactical doctrine to keep our forces out of danger, lest they be easily destroyed by cheap, low-tech enemy tanks is folly of the highest order. Any military planner will tell you that rarely, if ever, do warplans unfold as anticipated; systems that lack the flexibility to survive impromptu or unexpected combat scenarios will quickly find themselves as smoking, multimillion dollar scrap heaps. Now, I am fully aware that the new FCS system, as it is currently imagined is only one part of a much larger, highly sophisticated, integrated warfighting system, combining sea, air, land, space and digital assets in a truly revolutionary manner, to achieve a capability that no other nation could ever hope to match. And don't get me wrong, I'm all for the development of these systems. But not to the extent that it eliminates the basic, traditional doctrine and equipment that has served our forces superbly for the last 100 years. Giving up all heavy force capability in order to simply afford the new technology more quickly is just plain foolish, especially when heavy forces are being expanded in nearly all adversary nations. In any case, the heavy force capability should always be kept to supplement the lighter, faster forces. Common sense dictates that anything can go wrong, especially when complex, high-tech computer systems and advanced networks are involved. Wouldn't prudence dictate that some relatively simple heavy armor/heavy firepower alternative be maintained in the force as a measure of insurance against catastrophic network failure or computer meltdown? Something that is able to slug it out in a close-in fight out without depending, nearly entirely, on networked fire control systems and complex threat avoidance techniques? In combat, there will simply never be a complete substitute for thick armor and a big gun. Alternatives, yes. And we should always have options and develop our technology to it's limits and beyond. But we should never, ever, let our dazzling technologies blind us to the realities of war.

Alas, I am afraid that this is what is already underway. The enthusiasm with which current Pentagon leadership is prematurely discarding proven technologies is frightening. They are all too eager to sign the death certificate on nearly any current or future weapon platform that does not meet the 'transformation' template. Put simply, we are mortgaging our present, proven military forces for a highly uncertain future. It may all work out for the best; but at this time, I cannot see how the potential future rewards could justify the very real danger we are putting ourselves --and our troops-- in today.