their primary criticism seems to be the MDA's failure—because it had been waived—to follow the proceduralism of the DoD 5000-series in developing and fielding its missile defense system for North America. [See especially page 10.] But the 5000 is hardly a proper approach, and is thus something of a strawman in the report. Further, [developmental and operational testing] are always scripted to an extent, if at a minimum because of timing and geometry constraints. Not much of our kit really gets very thorough [test and evaluation], and almost none of it has statistical significance viz the other tests in the matrix. Most things these days are Series of Events of One with some very dubious design of experiments attempting to make statistical sense of the test set.
All the same, most of the weapons work most of the time. For that conclusion, we have battlefield evidence, not just scripted testing, and from fifteen years of war. In light of that dynamic, what’s remarkable is how the authors uses the word accountability 35 times, and oversight 91 times. I’m not sure what they’re hoping for. Honestly, there’s little accountability in the US Defense Department anyway, and the occasional fire alarms of Congressional oversight don't often change that. It’s not that testing is pointless, but that testing sometimes produces false positives and negatives, alongside some just knuckle-headed conclusions. I will always remember how Tom Christie, as director of the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation office, declared the MQ-1 Predator "not operationally effective or suitable” in a report in 2000. The next year, a Bush Administration official would more usefully comment that the only thing wrong with the Predator was that the Air Force hadn’t bought enough.
In all fairness, parts of the US missile defense story have indeed been uninspiring. That said, disastrous is simply too strong a word. There are clearly bigger problems of spending in the American entitlement state. But it’s the advertising tagline for the essay reveals the problem with their thinking: Missile defense is supposed to protect the US public. Decades of evidence shows that it doesn’t. This is simply a false statement. Decades of testing show that we really aren’t sure. Decades of polling show that the public demands that money continue to be spent on it. For my part, I’ll continue to support buying into not sure, because missile defense worth the investment. Even a small chance at destroying an incoming nuclear weapon is something on which I might choose to spend a truckload of money. The economics of pitting defensive missiles against large barrages of offensive missiles will never be good, but getting limited defenses to work well enough may have great utility.
It’s rather sad that opposition to missile defense has become, as I once heard Uzi Rubin put it, “theological”. But now that the Iron Dome is working so well, pundits need something else to complain about. I’ll take this as just another Event of One.
Why do countries have air forces? Or, why do all air forces seem to wear light blue uniforms? My paper on this question has just been published by Defense and Security Analysis, under the very academic title “Mimetic and Normative Isomorphism in the Establishment and Maintenance of Independent Air Forces” (September 2016, vol. 32., no. 3). Here’s the abstract:
Organizational alternatives, such as maintaining separate air arms for the army and navy, have become quite rare. The conventional narrative advanced by advocates of independent air forces stress that the primacy of airpower in modern warfare mandates centralized control of most military aviation. In this view, political–military uncertainty has driven mimetic isomorphism – pressure on national governments to organize as others organize so as to fight or deter war just as effectively. However, working from a set of 56 countries that were politically independent within a few years of the establishment of the first ever independent air force (the Royal Air Force) in 1918, and continuing through nearly the present, there is no clear pattern of external military pressure prompting this particular reorganization. Rather, from anecdotal evidence, the cause has more likely been normative isomorphism – a professional craving to look as others look to foster political or personal legitimacy. For whatever reason, though, choices of structures tend to lead to specific choices of policies. Thus, the result suggests that defense ministries looking for more effective or less costly organizational schemas may reasonably consider alternatives to the tripartite army–navy–air force structure.
If your library doesn’t subscribe, a limited number of free copies are still available at this link. My analysis is preliminary, and limited to air forces, but the issue of questions-not-asked ought to be applied to a wide variety of other military organizational issues.
Before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program manager, testified that his office was staffed with the full-time equivalent of 2,590 people—military, civil service, and contractors—at an annual cost of $70 million. In response, Senator John McCain offered that “that information that I have is it's nearly 3,000 [staff] and the cost is $300 million a year. But $70 million a year to run an office is pretty disturbing.”
Whether the number is 2,590 or 3,000, the fully-loaded cost certainly isn’t $70 million. Bogdan’s lower staffing and cost figures would work out to just $27,000 per person per year. As Flight Global reported, the general later explained that his number excludes “the bill for Navy and Air Force civilians and military personnel. [That bill] doesn’t come to me.” The Defense Department is still paying the salaries, just through the military departments’ military personnel and operating accounts. McCain’s number is a rough one, but $100,000 per person is a probably a modest underestimate of for the kind of engineering, contracting, and logistical talent needed to run a program office, including all their office space, equipment, and travel.
As for the sheer size of the operation, Bogdan continued, “I don’t know if that’s enough or not, or if it’s too much. It’s what we have… You ought to look at the F-35 numbers and remember that we’re building three variants for fourteen customers, so maybe it’s not a bad size for three program offices.” That admission refers to Bogdan’s earlier conclusion that the F-35A, B, and C are better described as a family of closely related aircraft than as variants of a single model. As I argued back in 2013, that’s why both the Air Force and Navy Departments are “trying to avoid another joint acquisition” as they wonder about what comes after the Joint Strike Fighter program.
But we should also ask whether 1,000 people are needed to run the program office buying any airplane. The V-22 program office is said to have a similar number, but why? We should care because there are two costs to bureaucracies of that size. The opportunity cost is obvious: if the JSF program office were half its size, the savings of $150 million could purchase each year a whole additional F-35 (and its engine, which is usually and bizarrely left out of the calculation). But do not discount the cost of the administrative sclerosis induced by the sheer size of the organization, and the layers of decision-making into which those people are organized. Like the general, I can’t prove that 1,000 people is excessive, but the Defense Department might consider benchmarking its operations against those of other countries, and asking some experienced advisors to consider what it really needs to run a program office.
I want to take a moment to call attention to the nominee for chief of staff of the US Air Force—General David Goldfein. The general, who is currently the vice chief of staff, led US Air Forces Central for nearly two years, and prior to that, spent two years directing operations for Air Combat Command. His combat experience, however, is about more than planning and commanding. He’s actually one of very few serving American pilots who have been shot down in combat.
During the 1999 Kosovo War, then-Lt. Col. Goldfein commanded the 555th Fighter Squadron (the Triple Nickel), a unit of 24 F-16s still flying from Aviano, Italy. On 2 May, while flying a mission himself over Novi Sad, he was brought down by an S-125 (S-3, NATO says) Neva missile fired by the Yugoslav 250th Missile Brigade. Goldfein had actually been hunting surface-to-air missile batters, by one bagged him before he could do the reverse. As he later told the El Paso Times, "I became a very expensive glider pretty quick.” He managed to eject, and was picked up by a combat search-and-rescue crew—though not before pursuing troops put a few bullets into the helicopter. The tail of his plane is still in the Aviation Museum in Belgrade.
Let me stress that I don’t mean to call out his experience in a Donald Trump-on-John McCain way. The 250th Brigade was a sufficiently creative unit to down not just Goldfein's F-16, but an F-117 stealth fighter too. Rather, I mean that it’s good to have a service chief who has not just direct experience in combat, but direct experience at losing on a tactical level. Plenty of American flag officers have lost men and women in tough fights, but mostly they just have great and laudable experience with winning on a tactical level. Their collective record on the strategic level is rather mixed, but unsatisfactory campaigns may leave less personal impressions than getting shot down in combat.
The problem is that winning doesn’t produce all the same lessons as losing. Amidst the affection at the Pentagon for entrepreneurial business these days, we often hear about the importance of learning from failing, and failing fast and repeatedly, to keep the cycle of learning going. It’s better not to lose aircrews and aircraft in combat, of course, but as these two losses in 1999 showed, technology makes no one invincible in the long run. And as Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work has lamented, much of the US military long ago lost its fingerspitzengefühl for critical thinking about its capabilities. War games, drills, and field exercises rarely end in fiasco, but the wars sometimes do. The reverse would be better.
As for Goldfein, after getting dropped back at Aviano, Goldfein he took another F-16 over Yugoslavia the very next day. That takes grit, and I think that he’ll bring that to the job of chief.
Writing in Forbes last week, editorialist Loren Thompson assailed Airbus with his essay “How The U.S. Government Helped Kill 4,000 Jobs This Week At Boeing.” According to Boeing commercial airplanes chief Ray Conner, Thompson writes, the “single-aisle 737, the biggest contributor to company earnings, is under siege from the rival A320, and losing many competitions.” Boeing has thus resolved to get more efficient about building its 737s, and designing the follow-on, with fewer labor hours going into each task. One can imagine that certain factions at Boeing, including its labor unions, might prefer a less efficient company, sheltered by legislative fiat, whatever the cost to the Pentagon and the rest of the country. Whatever the motivation, Thompson wrote of four ways in which he believes the US government is hurting Boeing. He’s absolutely right about one, but the other three are bad premises for military and economic policy.
Under the heading failing to punish illegal behavior by foreign competitors, Thompson recommends breaking the treaty obligations the United States has undertaken through the World Trade Organization—favorably alluding to Donald Trump’s rhetoric—by unilaterally levying tariffs against Airbus. The company from Toulouse does have a pretty weak argument that its launch aid subsidies are reasonable: even if strictly legal, they’re economically distorting. The problem is that Thompson, like most economic folk-theorists, has the economics backwards. European launch aid and a corresponding lack of American tariffs are actually bad for Europe and good for the United States. A tariff could make business better for Boeing, the producer, but it would lower the consumer surplus that airlines, airline passengers, and the US Air Force enjoy through lower prices on all large commercial aircraft. As anyone who has taken a solid version of Economics 101 knows, tariffs reduce overall consumer and producer utility. In less technical terms, even if one producer in one country makes out like a bandit, tariffs shrink the pie for everyone. Those surpluses, by the way, are paid for entirely by European taxpayers, and are thus a transfer of wealth from the EU to the US. Those subsidies are foolish, but if other countries’ governments want to make foolish investments, Americans should let them, and then cash the check.
Thompson also complains that the US government is failing to think through the economic impact of defense purchases. He’s quite right that the government doesn’t think about this. What his tone doesn’t quite reveal is that the government's orientation on the question. The Defense Department doesn’t consider these matters at least because there’s no mechanism for doing so. Perhaps unusually amongst military buyers worldwide, in the United States, decisions are made program-by-program, by rigid rules, without reference to elected politicians’ preferences for local jobs. Inasmuch as there’s a military-industrial complex, the military is in charge: as one corporate strategist confided to me over coffee earlier this week, “we’re a lot less powerful than people think.”
So no, the US government doesn’t really have an industrial policy that accounts for whatever strategic value there might be in onshore manufacturing. The ham-handed Buy American Act takes care of some of that, and the rest is on autopilot. But if Pentagon officials were to factor this issue into their decisions, they’d quickly note who’s actually onshore. As an Airbus strategist told me over lunch last week, “we’ve brought competition, and that’s good for the customer.” In the US Air Force's recent contest for the KC-X tanker project, Boeing basically bought the business with a low bid because it was terrified that Airbus would get the chance to build a factory in the US, putting an end to its protectionist arguments. Airbus lost, and the USAF got a great price, but Airbus then decided to build the factory anyway. That’s because in spite of the high corporate taxes (see below), the United States is a remarkably good place for building aircraft. So now Airbus is not just a European company, but an American company too, already delivering A320 commercial airliners from Alabama.
Thompson’s complaint that the government is failing to sustain an export credit agency like those in other countries was to be expected. There’s a reason that the Export-Import Bank of the United States is often derided as the ‘Bank of Boeing.’ That government-sponsored institution has nothing to do with imports, and as noted by Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center, about 30 percent of its loans have been for airliners built in Washington State. But while Thompson insists that the ExIm Bank is needed for Boeing to function as an exporter, the entire business is built on a questionable premise. Perhaps, as Thompson notes, the bank has never cost taxpayers a cent. The issue is not whether the ExIm has ever required a subsidy from American taxpayers. The question is whether it will in the future. As Thompson admits, responsible banks around the world won’t loan monies at low rates to corrupt state-owned entities in sketchy countries because they wonder whether they’ll ever be paid back. If Boeing were so confident in getting repaid, it could just form its own credit arm, rather as General Electric famously did. Failing to do so transfers that risk from the aircraft manufacturer to the government, while retaining the risk-rewarded profit for the company. If there is an advantage to governmental sponsorship of the bank, it’s in creating a political obligation. Welching on a bank is one thing; welching on the feds is another. But if you’re going to guarantee those export credits, you’d better do so for Airbus 320s built in Alabama too. Every highly-paid American worker should be able to benefit from the same institutions of crony capitalism.
That is, rather like Donald Trump’s, Thompson's views on these matters are mercantilistic espousals of economic nationalism and big government, in which the concentrated interests of American producers are placed above the diffuse rights of American consumers, and the voiceless interests of any other producers. But if you’re going to be a mercantilist, at least get it right. Having two companies building large airliners in the United States is strategically more valuable than having one. If you want to “bring jobs back,” then account for the jobs in Alabama too. And thus I also call upon the Aerospace Institute of Association to admit Airbus as a member. Excluding the company from that trade organization is a transparent sop to Boeing, and trade organizations should place themselves above the interests of any single member.
Thompson does have one point with which I agree wholeheartedly: having the highest corporate income taxes in the industrialized world is deleterious to keeping industry in the US. I also assail the double-taxation of profits earned abroad that is driving American companies to move their domiciles abroad. The spectacle of congressmen assailing corporate leaders for the sound business decisions they owe their shareholders is just another tired example of Washingtonian arrogance. If they want to maintain a competitive stable of strategic industries in the United States, they should get a more competitive tax structure in place.
When early today Air Force Secretary Deborah James named her new bomber—the bomber formerly known as the Long Range Strike Bomber—the B-21, she also revealed an artist’s rendering of the plane. On Ars Technica, Sean Gallagher noted that how the design echoed that of the B-2 so much that “the new bomber looks the same as the old bomber.” The drawing, the secretary admitted, had been changed a little from Northrop Grumman’s concept, just to keep a few details truly secret. But if it’s reasonably authentic, there are at least three important differences, and the third says a lot about the US Air Force's strategy.
Engine inlets forward. As David Axe has noted, the B-21 seems to feature “small changes to the engine inlets”. They look further forward, and more conformal to the upper surface of the wing-body. To hinder detection of the rotating turbofans, which look essentially solid to radars, stealth aircraft have their engines buried deep inside their fuselages, down serpentine ducts.
No obvious engine outlet. This probably signifies exactly nothing. On the ground, the rear aspect of the B-2 is carefully shielded from close inspection by the USAF; tour groups are always taken around the front. This is presumably because engine outlets simply cannot be all that stealthy, and knowing their exact shape would help adversaries fine-tune radar systems that could detect the aircraft, at least as they passed. So it’s probable that the Air Force just doesn’t care to provide any detail here.
The original tail. The shape of the new aircraft is that of a flying wing, and not the cranked kite design of some of Northrop’s recent stealth drones. But as Tyler Rogoway has also noted, the B-21 lacks the “beaver tail” of the B-2. Instead, the outer line of the aircraft is close to the simpler design of the original B-2 prototype, the Northrop “High Altitude Penetrator”. Partway through the development of the original stealth bomber, Air Force demanded a total redesign so that the plane would have enough maneuverability for low-level flight. The more complicated in-and-out tail provided more control to the otherwise tailless aircraft. The service was worried that the Soviets might find a way to detect the aircraft at high altitude—perhaps by infrared means—and thus were hedging their bets. This time, the USAF is again intending that its next bomber will be exclusively a nocturnal, high-flyer.
Digging out from almost two feet of snow in Washington DC today, I am remembering a remarkable gap between how the National Guard in this country is equipped, and the requirements of the missions it sometimes must undertake. To assist with emergency services weekend, the District of Columbia Guard mobilized about 100 troops, and pulled about 30 Humvees from their pre-positionings at fire houses and police stations around the city. The Humvees are solid domestic response vehicles, and probably at least as capable in snow as my all-wheel-drive Subaru. But neither is really suitable for blizzards and floods. DC has had plenty of snow, but heavy snow and coastal storm surges have been afflicting points all the way to New York. Dealing with those most adverse conditions requires a whole other category of conveyance: articulated, tracked, amphibious, air-portable, all-terrain vehicles.
Swedish firms have been in this business since 1954, and since the late 1970s, BAE Systems Hägglunds has sold over 11,000 Bandvagns (literally “tracked vehicles”) to customers in 37 countries. The Canadian Army took its Bv206s to Afghanistan. The US Army has a few that it calls the Small Unit Support Vehicle (SUSV, pronounced susvee, because US Army vehicles need awkward and anodyne acronyms). But neither the Army nor the National Guard really much of a fleet of these vehicles, and they’re mostly in out-of-the-way places.
About ten years ago, Hägglunds followed the 206 with the much larger BvS10 Viking, selling hundreds to the British Royal Marines, the Dutch Royal Marines, the French Army, and the Swedish Army. Last September, the company followed that with a logistical variant it named the Beowulf. As I wrote back then, Beowulf was a certified badass who (by the marketing pitch) “would travel immense distances to prove his worth against mortal enemies.” It’s all awesomely Nordic, because somehow, England’s national hero was Dano-Swedish. The company’s video makes for a good visual display of how the monster-slayer works.
Finland’s Sisu Automotive and Norway’s Narvik Technologies were once in this market too, but today the other main contender is Singapore Technologies. ST has sold its Bronco to the Singaporean Army and the Royal Thai Army, and substantially the same vehicle as the Warthog to the British Army. The Warthog was purchased specifically for Afghan service, as the Singaporean vehicles at the time offered heavier armor against landmines. On this blog back in May, I noted how the during the 2010 floods in Thailand, the Army made great use of its Broncos, to include driving the prime minister around washed-out streets. I don’t see that happening in New York right now.
Both BAE and ST know something about amphibiosity, as they are the second-round contenders in the US Marines’ Amphibious Combat Vehicle program. That ACV will be a very different vehicle—an 8x8 armored car—but still capable of swimming ashore from a landing craft. For many combat applications, the higher road speed, greater driving range, and heavier armor of an 8x8 make a lot more sense. But in the worst conditions, amphibious, air-portable, and all-terrain offer a whole lot of capability in one package.
I should disclose that I sometimes advise BAE Systems on marketing matters, though not at the moment. Perhaps I too would have missed that the company—either company—could have usefully had a handful of all-terrain vehicles prepositioned on the East Coast this week. Driving a few Beowulfs or Broncos on volunteer emergency missions around some of the hardest-hit counties might have made a difference on the ground, and certainly could have made an impression in the huge market of the United States. Of course, if anyone in the National Guard Bureau is reading, you might just send them a check, to make ready for next time with a small demonstration.
Since September 2001, I have been researching and writing about global security challenges, and advising the economic enterprises that provide the tools to address them. Specifically, I help defense contractors and defense ministries with their problems in marketing, planning, and policy analysis.