Defense Industrialist

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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John McCain grossly exaggerates the power of defense contractors, and unfairly criticizes Patrick Shanahan.

As Sydney Freedberg covered for Breaking Defense yesterday, Senator John McCain of Arizona was rather tough on the administration’s nominee to be deputy defense secretary. C-SPAN has the video, at roughly the 3:02:00 mark:

    I want to move forward as quickly as I can with your nomination, [but] I am concerned. Ninety percent of defense spending is in the hands of five corporations, of which you represent one. I have to have confidence that the fox is not going to be put back into the henhouse.

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As with steel, it isn’t now, and it won’t be in the future.

National security, the late economist Merton Miller once reminded me, gets invoked to justify all sorts of tomfoolery. Last month, I wrote about the Trump Administration’s Section 232 investigations into steel imports, concluding that they were simply not a threat to national security. Indeed, as the editors of the Wall Street Journal wrote last week, “the case against steel tariffs is so overwhelming that it’s hard to believe even [Commerce Secretary] Ross can find a way to justify it.” The Trump Administration is also considering imposing duties on aluminum imports, and has opened another investigation under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 (19 U.S.C. 1862). However, as with steel, imported aluminum is not a threat to national security now, and it really cannot conceivably be in the future. In the first place, military uses of aluminum are a small portion of American consumption today. In the second place, as I will explain in detail, Canada. Quite to the contrary, cheap imported aluminum has actually been beneficial to American national security, just by driving down the cost of military aircraft.

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Volvo’s sale of Renault Trucks Defense won’t be a test of anything.

The report in Defense News this week on how “Three bidders emerge in battle to buy Renault Trucks Defense” contains a prediction of just who won't win that auction. For some time, Volvo has been aiming to sell RTD, and bids are now in from three firms: the Franco-German KMW-Nexter Defense Systems (KNDS), the Belgian Cockerill Maintenance & Ingénierie (CMI), and the American private equity firm Advent. The article was largely built on two unnamed sources, and provided a quick judgment of the art of the possible:

    General Dynamics is unlikely to be on the short list as it is “impossible” France would accept a bid by a U.S. company, the first executive said. He pointed to the lack of reciprocity due to the Buy America Act and the America First campaign as the reason.

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Don’t ask for audits in the middle of the war on ISIS.

In a report this week, Amnesty International expresses its annoyance that “the US Army failed to keep tabs on more than $1 billion worth of arms and other military equipment in Iraq and Kuwait.” As the human rights group continues, “the [Defense] department’s Golden Sentry program,” carried about by the End-Use Monitoring Division of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), “is mandated to carry out post-delivery checks” to ensure that weapons do not wind up in miscreant hands. After an audit in September 2016, obtained recently by Amnesty through a Freedom Of Information Act request, the US Army acknowledged during that brutal militias had probably gotten hold of some of the guns it had given to the Iraqi Army. That’s not shocking given the chaotic nature of that civil war. According to the Defense Department’s Inspector General, the main shortcoming was that “the use of manually populated spreadsheets increased the risk for human error when inputting and updating equipment data.”

For my part, I don’t think that the Mahdists are just exploiting a mistake in cell C26.

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The DoD IG should craft a broad investigation into the classification of the B-21 bomber program.

For Bloomberg Politics, Anthony Capaccio reports this week that the US Defense Department’s Inspector General (DoD IG) has opened an investigation, at the behest of the Congress, “into whether the Air Force has imposed excessive secrecy on fundamentals of its $80 billion program to develop and build the new B-21 bomber.” The obscurity into which the Air Force has placed one of its top procurement priorities is remarkable: even the estimated unit price is classified. The stated reason is plausible: from such a figure potential adversaries might infer the bomber's rough size, and thus start tuning their radars before the prototype is built. Fairly, were the B-21 a “black” program, whose very existence were obscured, we would know far less. All the same, it’s fair to ask how much secrecy is too much,  and how we might know.

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It hasn’t been, it isn’t now, and it probably won’t be in the future.

Last month, President Donald Trump promulgated a memorandum on “Steel Imports and Threats to National Security,” directing Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to consider whether “steel is being imported into the United States in such quantities or under such circumstances as to threaten to impair the national security.” Prices are too low, he wrote, because the world is awash in excess capacity. The memo notes that Ross has already initiated an investigation under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 (19 U.S.C. 1862). If he finds a problem, he may recommend “steps that should be taken to adjust steel imports so that they will not threaten to impair the national security.” Governments mostly “adjust” trade with inefficient and unexpected results, so before taking “steps,” we should ask three questions. When have steel imports been problematic to national security in the past? Is the situation presently getting worse? And what circumstances might exacerbate the presumed problem in the future?

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Will the renewed American enthusiasm for hypersonic weaponry pay off?

Last month, Guy Norris reported for Aviation Week & Space Technology on how the Chinese government has revealed a national plan for hypersonic aircraft research. On this side of the Pacific, people have been getting stressed. Norris's earlier report in February covered a classified assessment within the US government that warned of possible breakthroughs in Chinese hypersonic technology, and of how American efforts were “lacking urgency.” Norris, Joe Anselmo, and Graham Warwick even produced a Check Six podcast episode on the issue. But during the previous administration, the Army, Navy, and Air Force Departments did all seem to be talking up new ideas for fast-moving weapons. So does the Pentagon need to be putting more money there? Does any other defense ministry? Perhaps, but sometimes necessity is truncated by feasibility. For with hypersonics, the tactical advantages are great, but so are the technical challenges.

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Thoughts on corporate strategies in the military aircraft industry 

Last week, I provided a guest lecture at the Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy, that graduate college of the National Defense University formerly known as the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. The school was founded in 1924 as the Army Industrial College, on a recommendation from Bernard Baruch, the noted financier and chairman of the former War Industries Board. In 2012, it was renamed after its most famous graduate, Dwight D. (1933). For almost a century, the school has been intended as the brain trust for matters of logistics, resourcing, industrial mobilization, and military-economic policy. The issue posed to me was how corporate strategy in the business has evolved over the past five years.

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