Defense Industrialist

Just “how can Canada best” contribute to the fight in Iraq and Syria?

The Americans are bombing. The French are now bombing by the score. The British are slinging Brimstone. The Canadians will train the Peshmerga. That’s right—making good on a campaign promise, new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau still intends to withdraw the six F-18 fighter-bombers of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), even if many Canadians would be happy to leave them there. Instead, he will greatly increase the force of 69 commandos that the Harper Government had sent to train Kurdish troops fighting Mr. Baghdadi’s gang from the north. "How many that will be, what form that will take, what kind of engagement we’re going to have,” the new PM told reporters on his own plane,  “those are things that we’re going to work out.” The basic question, he believes, is “how can Canada best be a strong and positive contributor to the continued and continuing mission against ISIL?” So is that on the ground or in the air?

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Egypt’s procurement of helicopter carriers is truly strategic.

As I wrote the other day, the Al-Baghdadi Gang has truly found tragic ways to combine brutality with stupidity. Attacking Russia and France in the same month, as Robert Pape of the University of Chicago wrote in the Boston Globe, is clearly an indication of desperation. Dealing with his thugs is requiring a lot of bombs and thousands of troops, but Daesh has already lost a third of the ground it once held. Yet even after a Syrian or Iraqi or Kurdish flag is planted in Ar-Raqqa, some of those hoods will slip away to do damage elsewhere. Dealing with that will require mobile and agile forces, and that’s why we should reflect again on Egypt’s recent decision to acquire the two spare helicopter carriers that France has on hand. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate, strategic, and dramatic break with past patterns of military procurement in the Middle East.

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The GCC air forces need, deserve, and can handle outside support.

The tragedy of Paris this past weekend may eventually prove to have been the beginning of the end for the Al-Baghdadi Gang in Al-Raqqah. Wantonly attacking the citizens of two UN Security Council members in a week wasn't just heinous, it was stupid. So if the Coalition air forces have been running through a lot of ordnance pummeling troops and infrastructure, the pace is only stepping up. Getting them the weapons, though, hasn’t been easy. As Air Force Secretary Debbie James stressed at last week’s Dubai Air Show, her department has been trying to speed up its part of the export review process. Some of the bureaucratic anguish is about maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME), an American policy since 1968, and a matter of law since 2008. At a certain point, however, obsession with Israel’s security undermines American efforts to help Arab states help themselves, and Arab security calls out for whatever America can reasonably send.

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Does the Long-Range Strike Bomber need nuclear capability, and does nuclear capability need the LRS-B?

Recapitalizing the air-breathing segment of the American nuclear triad has generally not been the US Air Force’s first argument for developing its new Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B). Sustaining a global capacity for massive, repeated, marginally economical surgical strikes has long been the core of the argument. But nuclear certification is planned for 2027, just two years after the Air Force’s declaration of initial operating capability in 2025. Eliminating the immediate nuclear requirement would save some money in the beginning, but only a small fraction of the cost of the whole program. For this reason, adding nuclear capability to the LRS-B continues to be programmatically appealing. The bigger question, however, may be how useful the LRS-B is for American nuclear strategy.

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Our new anthology of fiction describes the wonders and worries of the Pentagon’s plans for human-machine collaboration.

Today, the Atlantic Council is publishing an anthology of short fiction and graphic art it curated over the first year in its Art of Future Warfare Project. Entitled War Stories From the Future, the collection makes good on the Project's mission statement: “…to advance thinking [about] the future of warfare [by] cultivating a community of interest in works and ideas arising from the intersection of creativity and expectations about how emerging antagonists, disruptive technologies, and novel warfighting concepts may animate tomorrow’s conflicts.” Writing in a Forward to the anthology, General Martin Dempsey, the recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commends the book's ten stories for their “power to develop the professional imagination.”

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Starkly different defense conferences discussed why military procurement is still so broken.

The Lund Initiative at the Atlantic Council was busy with conferences this weekend. Two of us spent our time at the 2015 Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) at the University of Chicago, and another spent it at the Reagan National Defense Forum (RNDF) at the Presidential Library in Simi Valley. I spent at least a few minutes of my time watching a YouTube video (but in a good way). The conferences were very different, with the usual panel discussions out west, but Post-It note sessions in the Midwest. Put together, though, the conversations at each discussed why military procurement is still so broken.

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The inherent unknowables in this highly classified development effort render questionable the value of an appeals process.

So Boeing, on behalf of its teaming arrangement with Lockheed Martin, has protested. Late last month, the US Air Force chose Northrop Grumman to develop and build its hoped-for Long-Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B), and the losing bidder is naturally unhappy. Two friends at the defense conference I’m attending this weekend expressed alternate but emotional reactions: well of course they protested said the writer; geez I was hoping they wouldn’t said the consultant. I wasn’t calling the odds, figuring that the nuances of corporate strategy and the degree of corporate indignation were unknowable. But that’s the problem with this episode of the drama—the unknowable knows inherent in this program are nearly inscrutable, but the policy implications of yet another protest are more clear.

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Is the bomber’s target set feasible, or even advisable?

What’s the most important role for the USAF’s planned Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B)? What could it do that fighter-bombers, cruise missiles, and drones couldn’t? Arguably, a big manned bomber offers a unique combination of massive, repeatable, human-on-scene air power at a distance, which is valuable when targets are challenging but plentiful. Already today, hardened targets are plentiful and tough to find. But mobile targets, one of the LRS-B’s planned target sets, while perhaps more plentiful, are near impossible to find. That calculus leaves aside the political questions—even if the LRS-B’s likely targets could be attacked, should they? Policymakers should consider all these questions before endorsing the next bomber.

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Historical experience with incentives and concurrency provides cause for cautious optimism.

Is Northrop Grumman’s plan for developing the US Air Force’s new Long-Range Strike Bomber realistic? That’s another known unknown in this mystery plane program. We do know that the development contract will be cost-plus-reimbursable-incentive, meaning that a percentage will be added to the direct material, labor, and overhead costs in order to create a profit margin for the contractor. That percentage will vary with a subjective assessment of how well Northrop Grumman is performing as it works to design and test the prototypes. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute called that approach “out of sync” with the Obama Administration’s Better Buying Power (BBP) enthusiasm for fixed-price deals. However BBP has been interpreted throughout the bureaucracy, fixed-price was never meant as a panacea. For unfashionable is preferable to uneconomical, and some historical experiences suggests that the Air Force might be getting this right.

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Is the price tag for the LRS-B feasible?

As Lara Seligman wrote in Defense News overnight, there’s a lot “we still don’t know” about the LRS-B, and as  development moves forward, there’s a lot we still won’t know. Northrop’s just-up website features not even the shrouded plane of its Super Bowl advertisement, but just a zoomie with a buzzcut and aviator sunglasses. On his earnings call with investors, CEO Wes Bush said that the company was "ready to get to work,” but that he wouldn’t even be taking questions about the bomber. The Air Force has provided third-party estimates for the development and production costs, but not Northrop Grumman’s actual bids. So what do we know about the money, and how much confidence can we have in the figures? The USAF and industry together now have several decades of experience with designing, building, and buying stealth aircraft, but the economics of buying any complex weapons remain the same.

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