Defense Industrialist

Each fall, I am privileged to speak at the SpeedNews AerospaceDefenseChain conference, on a panel with three distinguished industry observers, recurrently entitled “The Four Horsemen—Outlook and Trends Within the A&D Industry.” The title is a cheeky moniker which the panel’s moderator has adopted to brand what is always a lively quartet of ideas on the mostly bright future of aerospace and defense.

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Barcelona's maritime specialization would be welcome in the Mediterranean.

Well back in August 2014, I wrote here about “The Military Implications of Scottish and Catalonian Secession.” After this past weekend’s events in Catalonia, I thought that I should republish a slightly updated version of that essay, this time focusing on the Catalan question. It is important to remember, after all, that the secessionist government in Barcelona has indeed endorsed joining both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Fairly, both organizations have warned that accession is not remotely automatic, depending rather on the agreement of every existing member state. Those are slightly different lists of 28 countries, and one must only remember the juvenile and endless exclusion of Macedonia by the Greeks—over a branding dispute—to understand how long a blackballing can last. As two of my Atlantic Council colleagues once questioned, the EU may not soon admit Catalonia, as some member states (particularly Belgium) have cause to fear further secessionist activity.

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To rebuild robust air forces, Europeans should just get back to basics.

Early last month, as David Cenciotti of The Aviationist reported, A-10Cs of the Maryland Air National Guard were again practicing landings and take-offs from stretches of highway in Estonia, though with occasional casualties amongst the roadsigns. About a year prior, it was A-10Cs of the Regulars, out of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, doing the same thing on a different stretch of Estonian road. Notably absent from either exercise was the Luftwaffe, the Armée de l’Air, the Aeronautica Militare, and every other European air arm. Yes, they are rotating squadrons through the local air policing mission, but why are they sending no more? Again, those-in-the-know in Europe have been asserting that greater military capabilities without pan-European unification is all-too-difficult, but they won’t step up with a wing or two to actually protect Europeans along the Baltic. Fortunately, as I have been writing here at the end of the summer, I find that European countries can do better, and without the impossible political process of ever-closer union.

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To rebuild robust naval forces, Europeans should think less like Americans, and more like Russians.

As I noted yesterday, Brexit has opened all sorts of talk about the future of British and European military activities. To continue the argument today, let’s tack towards naval matters. In “All the Queen's Ships” (Proceedings of the US Naval Institute, January 2017), James C. Bennett of the Economic Policy Centre in London recommended formation of a Union Navy, loosely composed of the Royal, Royal Canadian, Royal Australian, and Royal New Zealand Navies, under their single sovereign. As one might expect in his argument, “the four main Westminster democracies” could afford greater military capabilities together than separately. To an American, this might seem another brilliant idea that our allies will never get on with. But if practically speaking, discussing this is a waste of oxygen, then just how silly is talking about forming a single European Navy from the polyglot members of the European Union? To the contrary, Europeans can get on with rebuilding robust naval forces as a continent of equals—just by thinking less like Americans, and more like Russians.

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To rebuild robust land forces, Europeans should think a little like Americans, a little like Russians, and otherwise for themselves.

Shortly after the Brexit vote last June, those-in-the-know in Europe started calling for a renewed effort at a common European military force. A year ago this month, General Vincenzo Camporini, former head of the Italian general staff, told Defense News that all was now possible, as the obstructionist British were finally leaving. The imperative, as Defense News reported last September, has been variously described as ranging “from budgets and migration to a resurgent Russia or independence from NATO.” As Bloomberg reported that month, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka was asserting that the European Union really “can’t do without a common army in the long term,” though solely on the matter of money. Also that month, but from front-line Lithuania, Reuters reported that German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen was calling for a “Schengen of defense,” citing one reason in particular: “that is what the Americans expect us to do.”

As an American, I will now belatedly set the record straight. Americans, or at least those in the administration in Washington, would for once like Europeans to manage their own defense. Function, however, will be far more important than form. For decades we have been hearing about the profound importance of a common European Army, and almost nothing has happened. The countries of the European Union can collectively defend their eastern frontier, if they’d just care to do so. What they can’t do is do it as the European Union, so they should just stop trying. Instead, it’s time to move on from that idea, and pick up a few others that might actually work. Getting landward defense of Europe right has at least three organizational axes—national, industrial, and operational—and all can be achieved without exquisite coordination from Brussels.

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Whatever opprobrium the president is owed, his administration's more important initiatives deserve attention.


Donald Trump’s twin business advisory panels have collapsed. Members of both the Manufacturing Council and the Strategy & Policy Forum had been resigning quickly, and according to today's Wall Street Journal—“CEOs Scrap Trump Panels”—they voted yesterday just to disband. At first, the president asserted that he could replace all the “grandstanders” with compliant substitutes; he later claimed on Twitter that the disbanding was his idea, to save them all from public pressure. In “Why A&D CEOs May Be Happy To No Longer Counsel Trump” (Aviation Week, 16 August), Michael Bruno did opine that “few in the business world are likely” to consider the actions anything but “an astute public relations move.” Then again, Bruno also expressed worry about attracting talent to any organization too closely identified with Trump. In “Trump Loses Corporate America” (Wall Street Journal, 15 August), Holman Jenkins took the hard-nosed view that the administration is proving itself incapable of delivering useful change, so no one in business owes Trump the time of day. Or, we could permit business leaders some righteous outrage after those not-so-presidential prevarications following last weekend’s would-be fascist uprising in Virginia. Either way, after seven months of not-so-businesslike business in the White House, interest amongst business people in taking the man seriously seems to have evaporated.

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Project Solarium as a model for assessing defense-industrial policy

It is hard not to read a pretext for protectionism into the Executive Order President Trump signed last month under the ponderous title, “Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States”. And yet, the Administration also has gone out of its way to wrap the initiative in the mantle of ambitions far more weighty and strategic, and that’s the thing that caught my eye about the announcement. What if we really could have a serious deliberation about defense-industrial strategy?

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As the long term prognosis for the rare-earths business shows, the administration should move carefully in “strengthening supply chain resiliency.”

On 21 July, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on “assessing and strengthening the manufacturing and defense industrial base and supply chain resiliency of the United States.” Within 270 days, the departments of defense, commerce, labor, energy, and homeland security, in consultation with a host of other agencies, are to create an exhaustive study of the materiel needed by the military, the manufacturing capabilities needed to produce them, and the threats that others might pose to security of supply. Last Tuesday, Colin Clark of Breaking Defense wrote than an unnamed administration official has insisted to him that the review is not being formulated merely as an excuse for protectionist measures. The next day, Jerry Hendrix and Robert C. O’Brien wrote approvingly on that site of how Trump was acting “to revitalize America’s defense industrial base.” But despite the endorsements, there remains room for mischief in any governmental review of national security and international trade. For some lessons, we can begin by considering the years-long anguish over imports of rare earth elements.

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Avoiding despair about military radio communications is the first step towards robust solutions.

The US Army may be taking a knee in its pursuit of modernizing its battlefield radio communications. After fifteen years of pursuing its Warfighter Information Network Tactical (WIN-T) program, the service seems to be reconsidering the specifics of its path towards robust, on-the-move networking. Recent observations of Russian battlefield successes with electronic warfare have been disquieting, leading the Army and the Congress to question whether what’s being bought really is what’s necessary for success, or even survival. Whatever the art of the possible, tactical communications are an end-to-end problem that must be addressed as such. Some mix of innovation in electronics and operating concepts will be necessary, but US forces ought to be confident that they are better positioned to adapt than their adversaries. In short, no one should panic in the short run that the game is already lost.

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Ein kleines Gedankenexperiment on the consequences of spending targets

Back in September 2014, I wrote in this column about whether percentages of gross domestic product (GDP) were a useful metric for military contributions across alliances. Back then, only five of NATO’s 28 member states were on track to meet its two percent target in 2015: the United States, Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Estonia. Much of the alliance was treating two percent not as a floor, but an aspiration, or even a bad joke. Since then, some European countries have sharply increased their spending, but to points still far below the not-actually-mandated minimum. Of late, we have even seen a slew of essays about how thoroughly unrealistic that demand really is, including one at War On The Rocks calling upon NATO to “Abandon the 2 Percent Obsession.” What we have not seen is a cold calculation of what the reverse would really mean for Europe—that is, if the United States spent only two percent of its GDP on its armed forces. So let’s run the numbers.

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