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Preparing for a Future War

When reading this article at Foreign Policy, one gets the sense that the author is mostly correct in criticizing the military’s apparent mania for developing absurdly expensive “toys”, but I don’t think she takes it far enough.  Her argument seems to be that many of the technologies that the military chooses to invest in (hypersonic aircraft, for instance) may, in the future, turn out to have been expensive endeavors with no real practical value, while more down-to-earth needs, such as defending against dirty bombs or researching alternative energy sources, fall by the wayside. Her point is probably correct — the history of military R&D (or pretty much any R&D, for that matter) is strewn with examples of failed experiments, research dead-ends, and money-sinks that, in the end, have no useful or tangible product.

The real problem is not that we’re investing in science fiction technology, it’s that we’re spending money on it to the exclusion of more mundane technology that, while less sexy, is nevertheless the backbone of any strong military.

Sometimes, apparently useless research avenues strike gold: during the First World War, for instance, Winston Churchill had the Royal Navy conduct independent development of “landships” (that is, tanks) because the Army thought the whole idea was “impractical”. In the end, the development of armor (along with a great deal of doctrinal innovation German tank commanders like Guderian) proved to be one of the biggest technological turning points in warfare in the 20th Century.

At the outset of the Second World War, Germany’s armor was generally not up to par with the weapons fielded by the French or the British (Germany’s best tank circa 1939 was, if I’m not mistaken, of Czech make), but their doctrinal superiority (Blitzkrieg tactics versus further development of the WWI method of using armor chiefly as infantry support) gave the Wehrmacht a distinct edge.

During the course of the the war,  Allied forces modified their own tactics and adapted to the realities of modern warfare. By the same token, Germany quickly closed the technology gap, producing some of the finest tanks and aircraft of the war. In fact, by 1944-45, Germany had technologically surpassed the Allies in many areas. The famous American “Sherman” tank, for instance, was inferior in nearly every way to its German counterparts, and the Pershing, which could go toe-to-toe with anything the Wehrmacht could field, was only operational in February of 1945. The Sherman tank was successful in large part due to the sheer numbers of them available. While a Tiger or Panther model panzer might have been the superior weapon, there were relatively few of them, and they were eventually overwhelmed.

The same  can be said for Germany’s “wonder weapons” like the Me-262, which was the world’s first operational fighter jet. While it was basically superior to anything the Allies were widely using, the sheer numbers of cheaper Allied strategic bombers and long-range escort fighters meant that the Me-262 was essentially too little, too late.

Which brings us to the F-22. In a sense, the F-22 is our Me-262. It is far superior to anything that anyone else in the world can field against us, and probably by an even greater margin than the 262 was in 1945.

The problem is that, as recently as 2006, the Air Force is proposing to purchase only 183 of them, and if past trends are anything to go by, that number is bound to decrease before all is said and done. Contrast that number with the 730 F-15’s used over the years by the USAF and the ANG, and keep in mind that the F-22 is meant to “replace” the aging F-15 (which have been around since the early 1970’s and which are now beginning to break up in the sky). That’s 4 F-15’s for every F-22.

So what happens in 2025 when the F-15 is finally taken out of service (along with the F-16, which is going to be decomissioned the same year and ostensibly replaced with the F-35, or Joint Strike Fighter)? What will the Air National Guard be flying? Because you can bet your boots that it won’t be F-22’s.

This is where I think Weinberger doesn’t take her argument far enough. Instead of working on developing tools to “cope with the present”, as she puts it, we should be looking  toward the future, but with our eyes on developing cheaper, more common aircraft for more general uses. In a sense, this is what the F-35 is intended to do (the United States currently estimates that it will purchase nearly 1800 F-35’s).

The old adage is that the military is always fighting the last war. Weinberger seems to be arguing that there’s an element of pointlessness in preparing for future wars.  On that, I disagree. Though expensive and seemingly overkill as projects like the F-22 or Aegis cruisers may be, it would be folly to let the world narrow the technological gap. Nevertheless, her point is well taken. Rather than focusing so exclusively upon such “toys”, it would seem prudent to start replacing our aging arsenal not with sexy super-fighters like the F-22, but rather with more utilitarian aircraft that can serve both the needs of the present as well as the future without breaking the bank.

  1. Sho says:


    Found that Cobra jet, which was apparently inspired by the A-10: Here and here.

  2. Vincent says:

    Then there was this

  3. Vincent says:

    I remember those, though, oddly, I seem to remember the Cobra jet basically looking like an A-10…

  4. Sho says:

    Didn’t Hasbro make a line of GI Joe toys that were essentially captured Cobra fighter jets painted with tiger stripes? Those were kind of sweet and a smart way reduce expenditures (those blue laser rifles don’t come cheap, you know). Too bad it’s probably not the best idea to do that with some old MiGs.

  5. Vincent says:

    I’m not so sure you’re right when you say that the next war will be a large-scale interstate conflict. From a purely cost-benefit standpoint, it should be pretty clear to anyone who wants to challenge us that any kind of conventional war against the United States is a losing proposition.

    If Iraq and Afghanistan have proved anything, it’s that the best way to fight the US to a standstill is with IEDs, suicide bombers, and car bombs. Outside of Muslim countries suicide martyrs might be hard to come by, but improvised explosives can be made anywhere by anyone. While remote controlled might help to reduce casualties from some of these sources, the fact of the matter is that, as the surge has shown, counterinsurgencies are only won by putting lots of troops basically in harm’s way among the populace.

    As I said, I don’t have a problem with the F-22 as such. It’s a valuable weapon and certainly has a place in the vanguard of our Air Force… but at the moment, it doesn’t really have a mission. Your Iran example shows exactly why. There’s enough of a chance that one of those jets will be shot down during any one of the stages of the attack that it seems unlikely that the Air Force would risk losing one when a cheaper (more expendable?) aircraft could be used instead. And that’s to say nothing of the propaganda coup if Iran shot down an F-22 (remember when that F-117 went down in Serbia?)

    If our hardware is too expensive to risk fighting with in the sorts of conflicts that we’re likely to see in the future, then what’s the point? And anyways, there’s that old adage about “boots on the ground”…

    My point is that our Air Force is still relying heavily on 1960’s and 1970’s designs (hell, the B-52 was designed in the late 1940’s). As Sean noted, the Army still relies on what is basically an update on a gun from the 1960’s.

    Take the A-10. They tried to take it out of service because… well… it’s old (designed in the late 1960’s). We didn’t have anything in stock to replace it, and since it’s so good at what it does, they kept it in service for awhile longer. Now, instead of putting together some expensive, whiz-bang piece of hardware like the F-22 (or F-35) to replace it, why not develop a relatively inexpensive aircraft — one that includes some modern technological advances — to fill the role that’s being admirably filled by a nearly 40-year old plane?

    The point is that we don’t need another F-22 for that role, we need a better A-10.

  6. Chris Holman says:

    There is truth to a lot of what you say, but I think there are some things that are worth noting.

    1. The worst case scenario as far as terrorists go is that they get their hands on a tactical nuke and detonate it in the US. This is FAR harder to do than what a lot of people think. Namely, nuclear powers are extremely paranoid about the movement of nuclear materials, let alone nuclear devices. It’s true that there are a lot of gaps in former-Soviet nukes, but it’s very unlikely that any of them are in the hands of a terrorist group. Nuclear material is smuggled around a lot (especially through Abkhazia and South Ossetia–in Georgia) but a group would need technical expertise and plans in order to build a nuke. Even Iran, a nation-state WITH technically capable experts are having a big problem with this. The closest we’ve ever seen something like it is with the Aum Shinrikyo group and their chemical capability (another hard-to-control monster). Anyway, beyond the worst case nuke there’s really not much that any terrorist group could ever do to the US. Take out another building? Big deal. It’s not a nation-ender or even something that would hurt in the strategic sense. A small victory that would be essentially meaningless. 9/11 is only meaningful because of the bungled response(s) to it. Of course, I say this in a way that is analytical (devoid of emotion). The deaths, etc. were a tragic and spectacular event. In the end though, we can focus our efforts (with the rest of the nuke community) and keep nukes out of the hands of terrorists.

    Why does this argument matter?

    2. Any future war is not going to be against terrorists. Iraq and Afghanistan don’t count because the terrorism lens has been FORCED over these countries and used to make a now-debunked justification for war. Wars against terrorists cannot happen the way that Iraq and Afghanistan have been carried out, and at this point everyone knows it. Most knew it before, but apparently a lot of people in power in Washington are morons. Who knew? hehe A more likely scenario is that a war will be fought with some other larger power in a more conventional sense. So, staying lightyears ahead of anyone with fancy toys can be of particular interest to the military. Granted, I agree with the general premise that a LOT of the toys that are invested in are ridiculous pipe dreams that should never receive a dime.

    So, we’re now headed in a direction that is going to leave the military prepared for a conventional war but with the ability to act tactically and in coordinated smaller units across the theater. Hopefully. I don’t know. It’s easy to be cynical about the notion of the Pentagon learning and applying the lessons learned. So why does 183 new planes not make me worry?

    3. War is increasingly being fought remotely. The Air Force has a problem with combat because it is very difficult for it to operate in a very small way when the airspace is not controlled. So, as you said about fighting previous wars, the Air Force needs to prepare air corridors for attack. For instance, people talk about a small attack on Iran using only the Air Force. This is impossible for a lot of reasons. First, the USAF has to take out Air Defenses. In Iran this is hundreds of targets (at the least). Then, you have to take out air bases, runways, fuel depots, etc. to keep the air free of enemy planes. That’s MORE targets. Once this is done, only then can you really start to hit your high value targets. In Iran, this means dozens more targets because Iran has learned from the past and has not centralized their nuclear program. Given that WE DON’T KNOW where a lot of it is, I imagine we’ll add to the dozens of attacks with educated guesses as to where others MIGHT be.

    So, you go from a “small attack” to 1,000 or more targets pretty quickly when reality is taken into consideration.

    Anyway, back to remote fighting. It costs a lot to put planes in the air and have trained pilots flying them to and fro. American lives tend to be at a premium on the home front as well. So, what is everyone switching to? Unmanned drones. I’m not sure if/when it will be remote PLANES, but for now we can throw Hellfires on drones and they can fly in and provide ground support….and the people FLYING these drones are sitting at a console in southern Arizona in the air-conditioned confines of an American military base. It’s not too crazy to think that regular units will be augmented over time with remote-controlled equivalents. Tanks, NBC-detection vehicles, helicopters, etc.

    Granted, I think that this is in the VERY long-term.

    Conventionally, at the moment, the US military is overwhelmed but still capable of taking on and destroying most armies on the planet. It’s unconventional warfare that gets us…which brings us back to the point about not learning. Vietnam should have taught us a lot, but it didn’t. Not really.

    Perhaps, we’ll learn THIS time? I’m not holding my breath.

  7. Sean says:

    Interesting article and analysis, Vincent.

    A new avenue of approach for you next year, dare I say?

    I totally think that the F-22 is a waste, considering its price and use. Those $150 million metallic turkeys could be used toward more armor for our Humvees, better equipment, and as you, CJ, and I know, more effective rifles for our troops that don’t jam at the hint of a speck of dust. An example of a said utilitarian yet relatively cheap warplane is the F-16.

    But we have yet to field the F-22 in combat (haven’t fought a legit air force in decades). But who knows…we might find it very handy against some ace up the sleeve that China whips out.

    Also, about the tanks in WWI…Churchill illegally channeled funds for the research and production of the first ones.

    As for “the history of military R&D (or pretty much any R&D, for that matter) is strewn with examples of failed experiments, research dead-ends, and money-sinks that, in the end, have no useful or tangible product”,
    I would argue that that seems to be the nature of R&D, as you pointed out. There are certain costs that seem to be unavoidable. And kind of like Chris Holman said a few weeks ago about space travel and the by-products, the products and by-products of military research benefit more than the military.

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