Some Thoughts on The Road Ahead

My last post violated one of my fundamental beliefs, that a blog is not a place to vent, but a place to explore ideas, so I thought I would atone for it by examining a few for the road ahead in the Middle East.

  1. Oil is worth blood, because no oil costs a lot more blood, very quickly. Especially in winter. Oil is probably a finite resource: we should therefore rush wildly off in all directions to investigate and exploit alternative possibilities, including coal, solar, and nuclear, as well as domestic drilling in Alaska and off-shore. (Growing corn for fuel has tremendous environmental costs. Likewise, we must insist that coal be mined under humane conditions for the miners, in an environmentally responsible manner, because fixing injuries, not to speak of disasters, is always more costly than preventing them.) Oil and gasoline should be reserved for uses for which, at present, there is absolutely no substitute, such as cars and trucks. Electrical generation plants should be converted off oil as soon as possible.
  2. This means means securing oil fields and pipelines in Iraq, so that oil can be sold at market prices. (Oil smuggling is a major means of financing the Iraqi insurgency.) It also means keeping a sizable military force in southern Iraq, to keep the Iranians in line. The world cannot tolerate jihadi states controlling that much of the known reserves. Reliable access to oil at stable prices for as long as the oil lasts, while using those oil reserves to buy time to develop alternate fuel sources, is absolutely crucial to the stability of the world’s economy—not to speak of ordinary people’s lives.
  3. This means bracing ourselves for a confrontation with Iran, at a time when we are running out of tanks and aircraft. And the Iranians have been putting their money not into aircraft and tanks, but into anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems.
  4. Since Vietnam, we’ve become used to losing wars, but our national mythology says that we can still win any battle we engage in. Our strategy may be bankrupt, but we’re tactically invincible. For the Iranians, and a lot of other people who want to see us brought low, however, the next step is to show that Americans can not only be defeated strategically, but tactically, to show that Americans are not invincible on the battlefield.
  5. Of the three most likely outcomes of such a confrontation, all are bad; I rank them in descending order of awfulness. None of them should surprise us; when they happen, we must resist the temptation to go into spasm so that we can keep our representatives from spasing, as well.
  • Defeat Iranians by employing battlefield nuclear weapons. President Ahmadinejad of Iran might consider the sacrifice of a few thousand conscripts worth the increased moral stature in the Islamic world of provoking the United States into using nuclear weapons against Asians, especially Muslims.
  • The largest tactical defeat of American forces since Bataan and Corregidor, because we refuse to be provoked into use of nuclear weapons. The loss of a battalion (or even a brigade) might be “cheap” compared to the political and diplomatic consequences (which in this case will carry direct human costs) of using nuclear weapons.
  • Pay a ferocious human price (of the type we have not seen in decades, if not generations) to convince the Iranian Army not to tangle with American troops, even if Iran is technically the victor on the battlefield.

Currently, the Army and Marine Corps are not only stretched thin, we no longer have the hardware we used to. We have one main battle tank, the Abrams: General Dynamics has just been awarded two contracts, totaling $359 million to upgrade 350 M1A1 Abrams, with a $62 million option for 50 more upgrades. The upgraded tanks are not scheduled for delivery until July 2008 through October 2010. (Despite the ambiguous language of the first paragraph, these were upgraded, rather than built-from-scratch, M1A1s; the production line is closed.) Even given that many of the tanks to be upgraded must be withdrawn from training or operations, this is a self-indulgent schedule. The cost, slightly over a million dollars in upgrades per tank, is also self-indulgent. We used to have half-a-dozen fighter houses; now we have two (Boeing and Lockheed), and so the program acquisition unit cost of the F-22 Raptor is about $345 million a copy for a current projected buy of 183 copies. Even if the Air Force, as an institution, loved the CAS (close air support) mission (which it never has), these prices put you in the realm of too expensive to lose, too expensive to use. Not just for aircraft, but also for tanks.

And then there is the Army’s Future Combat system, which a GAO report describes as “a new generation of manned and unmanned ground vehicles, air vehicles, and munitions, each of which taps into a secure network of superior combat information.” The report continues, “FCS is at significant risk for not delivering required capability within budgeted resources. Three-fourths of FCS’ needed technologies were still immature when the program started. The first prototypes of FCS will not be delivered until just before the production decision. Full demonstration of FCS’ ability to work as an overarching system will not occur until after production has begun.” (“Highlights.”) A second GAO report states that, “The FCS has demonstrated a level of knowledge far below that suggested by best practices or DOD policy. Nearly 2 years after program launch and about $4.6 billion invested to date, requirements are not firm and only 1 of over 50 technologies are mature—activities that should have been done before the start of system development and demonstration. If everything goes as planned, the program will attain the level of knowledge in 2008 that it should have had before it started in 2003. But things are not going as planned.” Although billions of research and development money have already been spent, the FCS is not supposed to achieve full operational capability until 2016, at a projected Research and Development cost of 30.3 billion dollars. (Pages 2, 23.) This is, of course, an optimistic estimate. (R&D money is not operations and maintenance money. It is also not procurement money.)

These prices result from a combination of two philosophies. The first is gold-plating, pure and simple, born not only of greed but the admirable, if utterly compulsive, engineering desire to make everything as good as possible. The second is that until the end of World War Two, the US military regarded most of its weapons (the exceptions would be battle ships and carriers) as expendable, which meant that the humans in them and who used them were also expendable. We went with a third-best philosophy: we couldn’t buy the best design, because it was too expensive to get the numbers we needed. The second best design had too little capability but was not cheap enough to justify the lost capability. So we bought the third best because its design was good enough and we could build the numbers we needed.

After World War Two, we believed we could not match the Soviets in numbers, particularly the number of lives we were willing to lose, as compared to the number of lives we thought they were willing to loose, so we chose to attempt to beat them on quality. Ideally, technology was supposed to make weapons systems cheaper, but that hasn’t happened because military technology doesn’t have the economies of scale that civilian technology does. And since the buys of a particular program often change dramatically because of political decisions, this usually drives up the cost o
f a weapons system, because tooling costs are part of unit cost. (This is one reason why the F-22 costs so much.)

The wars we are facing require us to reverse approximately 50 years of weapons acquisition philosophy, and start buying numbers again because numbers matter. But our philosophy must shift to using numbers to minimize human casualties—for example, radically increase the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, whether they deliver munitions or scout for troops in a city. (The F-22 is the last generation of crewed fighters this country buys, and the Air Force fighter mafia should be required to face this now, not later.) The future is going to be bloody enough without squandering money in the false belief that we are rich enough to do everything we want, or pretending that quality can substitute for quantity.

Even more fundamentally, however, we, as citizens, are going to have to reject the prevailing belief that the military is about money and budget share and interservice rivalries, and the ability to hire other, less fortunate (in the case of the Right and Left) or less humane (in the case of the Left) people to attend to these matters for us. We Americans are going to have to assert, as citizens, that the military and the defense establishment are a matter of the common defense, for which we are responsible, pay for, participate in—and understand. (You could, and I will, say the same for a lot of other issues we are told are far too complex for us.)


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