Defense Industrialist

Does the future find need for fewer troops, on more ships, in more units, and more focused on small wars?

In October 1957, Commandant of the Marine Corps General Randolph Pate sent Lieutenant General Victor Krulak a brief memo with a simple question: “Why does the U.S. need a Marine Corps?” Recalling his work on a study in 1946, to save the Corps from “summary destruction” by Marine-hating President Harry Truman, Krulak responded simply that the U.S. did not need a Marine Corps. As he later wrote in his book First to Fight, the US didn’t need a lot of things, but the US wanted a Marine Corps. At a recent meeting at the Brookings Institution, I had the opportunity to take in ideas from almost a platoon of senior officers of the USMC, and many less martial-looking think-tankers from around Washington. These prompted me to devise four incendiary questions about the best future for the service.

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The long-term survivability of the LRS-B is a known unknowable.

Will the US Air Force’s new stealth bomber be sufficiently survivable? Naive calculations sometimes presume, to quote Stanley Baldwin’s 1932 speech in the House of Commons, that “the bomber will always get through.” History has proven otherwise, and at the start of a ten-year development effort, the LRS-B’s survivability is clearly a known unknowable. It’s just possible that technological developments in sensors and directed energy may indicate that American airpower will relatively fall from its position of dominance. But before the USAF lets that happen, the service has a few technological and operational options of its own to pursue.

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Does building big bombers concentrate too much power in a single platform?

Writing in Forbes two years ago, Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute argued that about $550 million would be cheap for a new bomber. The price of the LRS-B may be about half again as much as an A380 jetliner, and the latter need not penetrate air defenses. Retired Lieutenant General David Deptula of the Mitchell Institute has argued against dwelling on unit cost, asking instead, “How many targets can you kill with a couple of long-range bombers versus an armada of short-range aircraft?” The former is arguably cheaper. If those short-range aircraft came from an aircraft carrier, the full cost would be considerably greater, and the carrier itself is a big and concentrated target. But aircraft cannot absorb damage like ships, and the loss of a single bomber would still be very costly. With the LRS-B, is it too much so?

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Ash Carter’s emphasis on aircraft and quality over ships-in-quantity may be the wrong call on technology and strategy.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter just told the Navy to spend less money on ships and more on jets. In a memorandum this week, he directed Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to cap purchases of Independence and Freedom-class ships at 40 (instead of 52), to rely on one shipbuilder from 2019 onwards, and to plough the money saved into F-35Cs. Carter is torqued that the Navy for years "has overemphasized resources used to incrementally increase total ship numbers,” as if ships was what the Navy was supposed to buy. Until now, these particular ships had survived the critics, but now, the Joint Strike Fighter is eating the budget, and it must be fed. Given trends in military technology, and a fundamental question about American strategy, I do wonder if this re-emphasis on aircraft and quality over ships-in-quantity may be the wrong call.

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Are even the computers smart enough for the gray zones?

General Joseph Votel, head of US Special Operations Command, is worried about “gray zones.” As he told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities back in March, he is vexed by today’s “ambiguity on the nature of the conflict, the parties involved, and the validity of the legal and political claims at stake.” All these complexities, he said, “require us to invest time and effort in ensuring we prepare ourselves with the proper capabilities, capacities, and authorities to safeguard US interests.” That’s a lot to ponder. But the HASC’s “Emerging Threats and Capabilities” panel sounds a lot like our own “Emerging Defense Challenges” Initiative here at the Scowcroft Center, so this got me thinking—just what new structures are needed to think through the problems of modern war?

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Just how politically problematic is concentration in the defense industry?

Back in September, Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's procurement chief, took the trouble to make a rather forceful on-the-record statement about Lockheed Martin’s then-pending purchase of Sikorsky. He admitted that the deal posed no classical anti-trust concerns, but he worried about how even this dissimilar restructuring in industry could affect the conduct of the firms involved:

     With size comes power, and the [Defense] Department's experience with large defense contractors is that they are not hesitant to use this power for corporate advantage. The trend toward fewer and larger prime contractors has the potential to affect innovation, limit the supply base, pose entry barriers to small, medium and large businesses, and ultimately reduce competition—resulting in higher prices to be paid by the American taxpayer in order to support our warfighters.

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The new bomber isn’t coming soon, but some stopgaps should be.

Seven years ago, Robert Haffa and Michael Isherwood of Northrop Grumman’s Analysis Center argued that the US Air Force urgently needed a new bomber—indeed, by 2018. Enemy missiles, they thought, could shut down the remaining forward airfields from which American fighter-bombers could fly. Those fighters were already fewer in number, and thus not so available to escort B-52s and B-1s. Rumors of forthcoming Chinese stealth fighters seemed threatening enough at the time. The strategic situation hasn’t improved since then, but is the USAF’s planned Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) still urgently needed? Whether or not it is, it’s not coming soon, but some useful stopgaps should be.

This question of urgency has been around almost as long as some of those aircraft. As Congressmen Randy Forbes and Chris Stewart argued in the National Interest two years ago, the existing bombers are old. The average age of a B-52H is fifty-three years, a B-1B twenty-eight years, and a B-2A twenty years. All the same, as Julian Barnes of the Wall Street Journal was reporting even then, the Air Force has long been advertising that it can keep the older bombers flying until 2040, and the B-2s longer yet. Even the B-52s are not really half-century airplanes—during the Cold War, when not flying for training, they mostly waited on strip alert. And since then, the wings, the fuselages, the engines, the cockpits—almost every part of the aircraft—have been replaced.

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What three recent cases tell us about relative burdens in military procurement.

Just the other day, I noted how outgoing Air Force procurement chief Bill LaPlante has been insisting that the Pentagon’s business of buying weapons has been improving over the past few years. Not everyone, however, is equally moved. On 18 November, at our event on “The Space Race in Business,” Jay Gibson of XCOR told of how he had recently brushed off entreaties from the access-to-space-vexed Pentagon. “I’m not interested in doing business with you,” he told the Building, “but after I’m commercially successful, call me, and I’ll do business on a FAR 12 basis with you.” Gibson was referring to the chapter of the Federal Acquisition Regulations on commercial items, and space flight increasingly qualifies. That got me thinking about three recent cases of procurement and non-procurement of much more quotidian systems—bayonets, pistols, and armored trucks—and what they tell us about the relative burden of administrative overhead for companies big and small in military procurement.

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Testing Bill LaPlante's hypothesis of improving military acquisition

The Lexington Institute’s Dan Gouré says that the much-ballyhooed Third Offset “will fail unless it first defeats the DoD's acquisition system.” The department has again missed its goals for competing enough contracts. I myself have lamented how broken the acquisition system is. But as a retired Air Force general patiently countered to me last week, it may not be so broken as it once was. Perhaps, as outgoing Air Force acquisition chief Bill LaPlante told Breaking Defense in his last interview, “we used to suck, and now we don’t suck as much.” What’s his evidence? “Our net costs continue to come down,” he told National Defense; “I have all the data.” That’s encouraging, but addressing cost specifically does beg the question about how many ways one can suck, and what exactly constitutes not sucking.

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Russia is laying the groundwork for further professionalizing its military.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria illustrates that in the minds of Kremlin planners, the primary criterion for great power status is military might. Further cruise missile strikes and bomber sorties continue to showcase the depth of Russian military modernization. However, if Russia wants to remain a modern military power, it needs to rethink and reform its approach to people. Military failures in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and to a lesser degree Georgia have clearly demonstrated the need to end conscription, but Russian authorities have serious societal hurdles to overcome before adopting a fully professional force. Their first two steps already involve strong efforts in image and indoctrination.

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