Defense Industrialist

Why not a drone? Some reasons for and against manning the next strike aircraft.

As I noted last Friday, Northrop Grumman has been awarded development of the US Air Force’s hoped-for Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), and the political-industrial campaign to kill the project is on. Unsuccessful teamed bidders Boeing and Lockheed Martin may each see a commercial interest in seeking a premature death for the effort, but with different hoped-for outcomes. Lockheed has its F-35 program to defend, and so may be happy to see the entire thing just go away. Boeing will be building tankers to refuel whatever aircraft the USAF buys (unless and until it loses a KC-Y competition to Airbus), but seeks no easy exit from the combat jet business. Rather, by challenging the fundamental requirement for a big manned bomber, Boeing could seek a do-over in a drone competition. The company may have a military argument too. Over months of researching the need for the LRS-B, I have heard arguments from plenty of industrialists, technologists, and strategists that the next bomber should be ab initio unmanned. The next bomber could be a drone, but there are reasons, good and bad, that it probably won’t be.

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As Lockheed may soon argue, why not just more stealth fighters and cruise missiles?

Early this week, the US Government Accountability Office turned away another contract protest, ruling that the US Air Force had acted reasonably in awarding development of its future Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) to Northrop Grumman. We yet await Boeing’s decision on whether to sue in the Court of Federal Claims, as teammate Lockheed briefly did after losing the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) program to Oshkosh. Regardless, the political-industrial campaign to kill the LRS-B has already begun. Yesterday, retired General Mark Loh warned at the Mitchell Institute that “there are people out there that are going to try to kill it; they are all over this town.” In Forbes two days prior, Loren Thompson had already begun his awaited assault, assailing Northrop as incapable of executing the program. So what might Boeing and Lockheed prefer at this point? Whatever new aircraft fly for the USAF, Boeing will be building tankers to refuel them. Lockheed, though, will have a strong incentive to convince the Defense Department to forgo the big bomber, and instead build as many stealth fighters and cruise missiles as money allows.

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Why the shift of billions from procurement to development funding?

Funding for American military materiel is set to shift from buying to designing. If the US Congress more-or-less adopts the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, spending on research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) would increase by 5 percent—$6.4 billion—over fiscal 2016 , and procurement would decrease by 4 percent—an equally offsetting $6.4 billion. When monies for development increase relative to those for procurement, there are at least three possibilities. The first begins with how the US federal government accounts for software purchases. A second may portend systemic problems with sustaining military-technological advantage. The third may flow from an assessment that the Pentagon has been buying the wrong stuff. As this budget was ballyhooed as a signal of future Pentagon priorities, pondering the economics underlying this shift can reveal the challenges ahead for military innovation and recapitalization.

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Rather than mandating that women register, just terminate that useless practice.

Should women be registered for the draft? Now that Defense Secretary Carter has removed the exclusion of women from all combat jobs, the Army chief of staff, the Marine Corps commandant, and Senator McCaskill of Missouri want all women registered. The secretary himself says that’s up to the Congress, but Senator Ernst of Iowa is at least urging the Obama Administration to take a stand on the issue. Congressmen Hunter of California and Zinke of Montana introduced last week the appropriately-named Draft Our Daughters Act, but only to instigate debate. Hunter is particularly unimpressed with the idea of drafting women and then assigning them to the infantry—as we could expect the bureaucrats to do. Senator Lee of Utah, saying that he “can’t trust this president or the courts” to get it right, has introduced legislation to ban the government from requiring women to register. But here’s another idea: don’t register anyone. Because whatever the moralizing, conscription is just stupid on the economics.

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iRobot’s sale of its defense division to Arlington Capital indicates that commercial markets will drive innovation in autonomy.

On Politico’s Morning Defense today, Jeremy Herb asked some think-tankers what to look for in today’s budget release. Plenty wondered what spending cuts would offset the emerging Third Offset, and even suggested that our New New Thing would be getting underway more slowly than the hype would have. From the news flow, we might have thought otherwise. On Defense One this morning, Patrick Tucker wrote about the US Army’s contract with Cal-Berkeley to develop robotic cockroaches. In Small Wars Journal last week, Gary Anderson of GWU’s Elliott School wrote that "to beat ISIS, we ought to try robotskrieg”—building a droid army to clean out their mine-infested warrens. And fully a year ago on War On The Rocks, Paul Scharre was musing about the difference “between a Roomba and a Terminator” in the coming swarm. So, are hordes of hackable killer robots about to descend on our enemies—or us—or not?

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Which is the question—should carrier drones be tankers, or should tankers just be seaplanes?

Turning the US Navy’s next carrier-based drone into a tanker, as the service announced this week, is probably a reasonable idea. For some time, buddy-tanking F-18 Hornets has been a questionable use of other Hornets, but one  completely necessitated since 2009 by the full retirement of the Lockheed S-3 Viking. The drone-tanker also makes for a modest start. On the USNI blog yesterday, Commander Salamander called it a “Choice of Prudence,” questioning whether the hardware and software needed for autonomous combat aircraft were really ready for the hardest missions. As I have argued previously, this also allows the Navy to build operational experience with carrier-based drones before it proceeds with plans for a penetrating, stealthy, unmanned bomber. Pumping jet fuel through a drogue hose at altitude is a task that doesn’t clearly require an aircrew, and that doesn’t create a killer robot. But rather than questioning whether the carrier-based drone should first be a tanker, we might also ask why the fleet’s aerial tanker should be carrier-based. Then, we should ask what other questions are going unasked.

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Economies Of Scale Ain’t What They Used To Be.

Last month, while the world’s elites were gathering in Davos, Switzerland for Klaus Schwab’s World Economic Forum (WEF), I was in Washington hosting an address by the acquisition executive of the U.S. Special Operations Command, James “Hondo” Geurts. While the setting for these two occasions could not have been more different—our beverages were self-served in paper cups, it shall suffice to say—their central messages bore a striking consonance. Both underscored that talented, focused people are the keys to progress and effectiveness in an age of increasingly complex challenges. However, listening to Geurts and thinking about the particular significance of this people-first maxim for aerospace and defense brought into focus what I regard as an important corollary to the rule: economies of scale just ain’t what they used to be. Small is the new black.

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Complaints over fairness indicate how hard military procurement can be, and how strategic urgency must sometimes trump procedural justice.

In North America in the past several months, three defense contractors have complained to US and Canadian federal reviewers that they’ve been treated unfairly in procurement programs for new military vehicles. Lockheed Martin has complained about Oshkosh’s winning production of the JLTV in the US, General Dynamics has complained about BAE Systems and SAIC winning development of the ACV in the US, and Oshkosh has complained about Mack winning production of the MSVS SMP in Canada. The particulars of these cases differ, but the companies’ reactions indicate just how difficult getting military procurement decisions can be. In the case of the JLTV, the government’s reaction also indicates why sometimes the government needs the right to be wrong.

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In the USAF, mission-capable rates are not a matter of age or scale efficiencies. 

In Air Force Times this week, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. pulled some descriptive statistics from USAF records to report on “which aircraft are most mission-ready”. His list included the various types of attack, bomber, cargo (including gunship and electronic warfare), fighter, rescue helicopter, tilt-rotor, tanker, and drone aircraft currently flying in the Middle East. Mission-capable rates—the percentage of time that an airplane possibly needed for a mission actually was ready for a mission—varied over the past year from 92 percent for the MQ-1B Predator down to 47 percent for the B-1B Lancer. What the table didn’t show was how those rates related to his other two descriptors: the size of the USAF’s fleet of that aircraft type, and the average age of the aircraft in that fleet. A common refrain holds that having more of any single type of aircraft makes maintenance more scale-efficient, and that newer aircraft are easier to maintain than older aircraft. Ceteris paribus, both are almost unassailably true. For the USAF, however, neither relationship is actually putting rubber on the ramp.

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What the military departments can learn from SORDAC

Yesterday evening, the Atlantic Council hosted James “Hondo” Guerts, chief of the US Special Operations Research, Development and Acquisition Center (SORDAC), for a speech and discussion about what makes his organization different. Uniquely amongst the US acquisition executives, Geurts has integrated responsibility for research, development, procurement, and logistics across Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Contrary to some presumption, he also has no unique authorities in law. Somehow, his organization still works through the feared Federal Acquisition Regulations (FARs) to produce some impressive material successes. Something in its secret sauce is the envy of military departments trying to figure out how to quickly and cost-effectively buy hypersonics, anything labeled cyber, and those swarming refueling drones. So how can the rest of the military do some of what SORDAC does? Actually, they are already having great success with his pattern. They just need to do more of it.

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