Defense Industrialist

The secrecy around the USAF’s LRS-B brings military value, but some ill-understood costs.

Yesterday, Northrop Grumman won the contract from the US Air Force to develop and build its new Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B). For advocates of the big planes, the announcement came none too soon. The USAF’s bomber fleet today consists of 158 aircraft, but with only 96 ready for combat service, and of an average age of 39 years. To remedy both age and quantity, the USAF wants to procure a fleet of 80 to 100 LRS-Bs to replace its B-1Bs, B-52Hs, and perhaps eventually its B-2As as well. Beyond some broad parameters concerning financial goals, little is known about these future bombers, and that creates two clear problems. First, secrecy can bring great military value, but also its own ill-understood costs. Second, obscuring details also naturally complicates analysis, leaving many to wonder whether to support or oppose what they don't understand. By probing the known unknowns of the LRS-B, we will try.

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If DND does drop the JSF, think radar jammers, cruise missiles, and a second seat.

This week’s federal electoral victory by Canada's Liberals probably means the end of the F-35A as a prospective fighter jet for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). The immediate bad news accrues to Lockheed Martin, which stands to lose $6 billion in future revenue, and its remaining customers, for whom smaller volumes will mean as much as one percent more per production aircraft. The remaining longer-term question is what this means for Canada; US Senator Orrin Hatch, after all, called the decision “stupid.”  But it’s not that prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau is outrightly refusing the stealthy airplane. Rather, he’s promising an open competition on a much smaller budget, presumably now for a twin-engined jet, which pretty much restricts the race to Boeing’s F-18E/F Super Hornet and Dassault’s Rafale C/B. The philosophies behind those aircraft designs differ markedly from that behind the F-35 Lightning II, so what else the Canadian military buys must now change as well.

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To “Win in a Complex World”, the US Army can only be so complex.

The US Army is in no rush to replace its combat vehicles. Sure, the service is upgrading its European Stryker brigade with 30 mm guns and anti-tank missile launchers. But there’s no real plan for wholesale replacements of Abrams tanks, Bradley troop carriers, and Paladin howitzers before 2030. For as Brigadier General David Bassett, the Army’s head buyer for ground combat systems, complained at last week’s Association of the United States Army (AUSA) show, “years ago we were limited by technology; now we are limited by money… I see a lot of great technology and ideas but we are constrained by budget.” I must say, however, that I am less concerned. Fact is, buyers are always constrained by technology, but contractors displaying at AUSA 2015 showed ideas well-grounded in technical and operational feasibility.

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Is it time for a counterinsurgency-specific A-10?

The US Congress's recent decision to extend the service life of the A-10 Thunderbolt II reveals resistance to current thinking at the Pentagon. A more powerful China and an increasingly assertive Russia have focused defense planners’ attention on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But even as insurgencies continue in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, the Pentagon seems intent on using the USAF’s version, the F-35A, to replace one of its most capable flying tools of counterinsurgency, the A-10C. Although an aging aircraft, the A-10 provides a more cost-effective and doctrinally suitable solution for fighting guerrillas. As the Air Force has lacked aircraft specific to counterinsurgency—other than its gunships—since the Vietnam War, now might be time to dedicate the A-10 to such missions.

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The West needs “a complete strategic rethink” of how it goes to war.

In The Australian last November, David Kilcullen argued that “the West’s failed counter-terrorism strategy requires a complete rethink.” Set aside for the moment James Fallows’ screed in The Atlantic last December. Thirteen years of not-quite-winning two wars in the Middle East and South Asia, despite overwhelming material advantage, is not a good track record for national strategy. At this point, the air campaign against ISIS may be holding the line, but it is not rolling anyone back, and cannot do so alone. Frankly, as I argued here more narrowly a few days after Kilcullen (see “Software is Eating the War,” 3 November 2014), the West's whole defense-industrial strategy could use a thorough rethinking too. Ominously, though, shifting economic and technological trends are rendering questionable its hitherto highly successful massed-precision way of war-fighting. If technological rescues aren’t available soon, a fundamental reorganization of the forces may be necessary.

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When safeguarding the global commons, should we rely on it less?

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter would like to stop buying and launching navigation satellites—at least as a military project. Sure, Lockheed is testing GPS III, and a team at the University of Texas is working on centimetric accuracy without differential. Through the MEOSAR project, the Canadian military will even use the new satellites to update the Cospas-SARSat system for geolocating search-and-rescue beacons. But GPS is looking more vulnerable to spoofing than we previously figured. So during a podcast hosted by venture firm Andreesen Horowitz in April, Carter argued that future forces would want their navigation on micro-electromechanical chips with inertials and precision clocks. Even just by reducing the need for constant updates from above, that sort of technology could improve the systemic defensibility of satellite navigation. 

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Defense contractors are repurchasing shares because investment incentives are lacking.

About a month ago (14 August 2015), Politico Pro highlighted how the largest US defense contractors are running their businesses substantially for cash, passing as much of their earnings as they can to shareholders as dividends and share repurchases. “Top Pentagon officials,” the reporter went on, “have complained that the companies, which unlike many other corporations get the lion's share of their funding from taxpayers, should be using their cash to increase their investments in research and development on new technologies that could help the military in the future.” Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and (predictably) Bernie Sanders have been complaining in this way about business generally. So has even HASC ranking member Congressman Adam Smith. That might not seem very Adam-Smith of him, but the narrower point about defense contractors may be well-taken. The issue is how to fix their incentives. 

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The Battle for the Soul of the American Military, Part 2

On Monday, I wrote of how Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, who is running for president, wants a bigger Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. A large part of the solution involves cutting staff at headquarters, and in streamlining management. The corporate parallel is indicated at HP with Fiorina’s successor, Meg Whitman, who is not running for president, but who plans to dismiss 33,300 staff over the next three years, mostly out of the old Electronic Data Systems (EDS) unit. Cloud computing is crushing that business. EDS, of course, was founded in 1962 by H. Ross Perot, who twice ran for president. Perot built that company from scratch when he failed to convince IBM that running computers could be as lucrative as making them. After making a few billion dollars, he sold the company off to General Motors in 1984, around the same time that the car market acquired the Hughes Aircraft Company, in a dream of putting computers and heads-up displays in Oldsmobiles. If that seemed a little ahead of schedule for the 1980s, it says a lot about what’s wrong with the structure of the US armed forces today.

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The Battle for the Soul of the American Military, Part 1

Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, who is now running for president, wants a bigger Army, a bigger Navy, and a bigger Marine Corps: 50 brigades, 300 to 350 ships, and 36 battalions. How would she pay for it? The debate at which she asserted those numbers provided little time for detail. Earlier, though, she had offered at least that she wouldn't replace thousands of retiring federal workers, in order to decrease “the weight, the power, the cost, the complexity, the ineptitude, and the corruption of the government.” In contrast, at the Common Defense (COMDEF) forum at the National Press Club earlier this month, former Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale repeated his oft-heard plea that federal workers get greater respect. Fiorina’s words weren’t likely what Hale had in mind, but he did agree that there should be fewer federal workers—just better ones. Much of the problem lies in finding them the right work to do.

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The Threat of Poor Man’s Air Power

In a not too distant future, war has broken out between NATO and Russia. Battles are being fought all over Europe and Russian forces are moving to capture Paris. With sizable ground forces and air dominance, US helicopters and tilt-rotors are supporting the troops overhead, forcing Russian troops to retreat. However, previously hidden among high rise buildings, Russian attack drones break onto the scene, destroying much of the American attacking force.

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