...requirements too often represent wishful thinking. Too rarely do they reflect military needs... Yet the services have never trusted the judgment of either defense contractors or civil servants. In their view, only military professionals can understand what is needed for warfighting. Too often as a result, the services end up asking contractors for the impossible or the barely possible.
— John Alic, Trillions for Military Technology: How the Pentagon Innovates and Why It Costs So Much (Palgrave, 2007), pp. 107–108.
Sometimes, at least, when things are going well, they also reject the judgment of pundits, the crowd whom a staffer at the Senate Armed Services Committee once told me had generally experienced vastly more fluorescent lighting than actual operational service. I’m writing, of course, about the latest from Mackenzie Eaglen of the Heritage Foundation, the editorial she penned last week for AOL Defense—“Is Next-Gen Bomber Biggest Air Force Mistake in Last 50 Years?” This was bad enough that I felt compelled to pull away from my Monday afternoon to comment.
“It may surprise many,” Eaglen wrote, “but today's [U.S.] Air Force cannot hold every contested target at risk, a fundamental strategic goal.” The USAF is paying some contractors to think up a new, presumably manned, long-range bomber to do just that. However, she fears, with constrained resources, the USAF will not dream big. Rather,
Systems engineering will be done up front. The goal is to incorporate low-risk technology sooner, rather than build an exquisite solution later. That approach may turn out to be the Air Force's greatest missed opportunity in a half century. Due to budget constraints alone, it seems the Air Force may build a less than 80% solution when the service in fact needs a next-generation capability. This is primarily because precision munitions and battle networks are proliferating, while advances in radar and electro-optical technology are increasingly rendering stealth less effective.
Systems engineering done up front! How pedestrian! Seriously, this is perhaps the first time since the concurrent engineering craze of the 1990s that I’ve heard someone say that dismissively. Doing it as you go has produced such memorable programs from the Joint Strike Fighter to the Future Combat System. Why stop now?
I must state that I do agree with Eaglen’s assertion that “advances in radar and electro-optical technology are increasingly rendering stealth less effective”. I wrote about that in Naval Institute Proceedings shortly after the Kosovo War. I have been warning clients about such for some time. For as I’ve heard Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week & Space Technology put it, the exterior lines and materials of any airplane are pretty much baked in at the factory for the next twenty or forty years, but computer processing power is still following Moore’s Law. Air defenses will catch up, at least somewhat.
But what of that? Is holding every possible, imaginable target at risk really a “fundamental strategic goal”? Declaring such sans analysis is to abdicate any responsibility for setting strategy, for it blithely asserts that any single military service must be able to do anything that it chooses to want to do, whatever the price. That’s hardly a Clausewitzian thought; the politicians are supposed to be the ones making those choices. It’s hardly an economically rational thought, perhaps dreamt up by those who once thought that cost wasn’t always an independent variable.
Thinking strategically, creatively, and critically is what lead recently General Hoss Cartwright of the USMC to comment that he had never seen a manned ICBM. Somehow, they work quite well for deterrence. True, there are targets that only big, penetrating bombers with big gravity bombs can service, but this set consists basically of deeply buried fortifications. And at a certain point, one must ask whether Kim’s führerbunker or some Iranian centrifuging plant is really worth the huge expense of building a hundred successors to the B-2. Sometimes, like the Israelis at Osirak, you’re good, your opponent is incompetent, and you get lucky. But more frequently, that’s not remotely worth the risk, as even Benjamin Netanyahu may be concluding.
This points to a more general problem of doomsaying about defense today, and one that’s not quite working. Winslow Wheeler (though I sometimes tremble at agreeing with him) assailed this in a separate editorial at AOL Defense just the next day—“Elites Are Wrong; Deep Cuts Won't Damage Military”. Eaglen’s writing, as that of every other pundit inveighing on this topic lately, is lacking a serious analysis of just what would be in jeopardy. If there’s no big bomber; if there are half as many Joint Strike Fighters; if there’s no whatever—what practically would happen? Who would be emboldened to create unpleasant facts on the ground in some vital corner of the globe?
So, without good answers to that, the USAF is actually stopping the madness, at least with some of the big stuff. As Aviation Week featured in a big section on ISR programs in its 29 August issue, there is still envelope-pushing spooky stuff going on in the California desert. That is well-and-good. It’s just that the US military services are starting to figure out that the they can’t keep betting the farm on lead-ahead programs that “must succeed” (another favorite line from the press about the JSF) with cash getting a tad constrained.