The Pentagon’s drive for innovation is up against adversaries’ efforts to “occupy leading positions” themselves.

Back at the beginning of August, I wrote an essay about how soon was too soon with new weapons. Some historical perspective, I thought, should inform the aims of the Pentagon’s Third Offset strategy. And yet, to focus a moment on a more mundane technology, the US Army has needed a light tank for twenty years. Today, the threat of new Russian tanks in inaccessible corners of Europe strongly suggests an immediate need. The Army is once again seeking ideas from would-be suppliers, and may finally launch a program. But is the Army already too far behind the curve? So here’s another general question about the timing of military innovations in materiel: how late is too late? 

Consider also the US Army’s travails with 155 mm mobile howitzers. Before BAE Systems’s Paladin Integrated Management (PIM) upgrade to the long-serving M109, the artillery branch had been through two more ambitious efforts to renew its fleet: the unlamented Crusader and the FCS spin-off Non-Line Of Sight Cannon (NLOS-C). As such, Sydney Freedberg of Breaking Defense once called the PIM “the little cannon that could.” However, as Jen Judson reported for Defense News in August, this M109A7 doesn’t fire as fast as the Army’s testers would like, even “under non-stressful firing conditions.” As Courtney McBride wrote for Inside Defense, they’re also concerned that problems with the fire suppression system could “could endanger crews.”

How important is all this? Low-rate, initial production (LRIP) began in April 2014, so the Defense Department’s Inspector General is unimpressed with such testing failures late in the process. On the other hand, the gun does shoot faster than the M109A6 it’s intended to replace, it incorporates multiple other upgrades, and it’s actually the first mobile howitzer for the US Army with any automatic fire suppression at all. Whether contractor, a subcontractor, or the government should pay for the performance shortfall is a separate question. The alternative, though, is sticking with guns from the 1990s.

Or, consider Leonardo’s 76mm Super Rapid naval gun. As Barbara Opall-Rome of Defense News quoted an Israeli naval captain working on ship upgrades, “we’ve been waiting for this gun for many, many years.” The Egyptian Navy has had the same weapon for some time, he noted, and “now it’s our turn.” Fairly, the actual likelihood of a gun battle amongst the Israeli and Egyptian fleets is low. Further east, though, the Kuwaitis and the Qataris had waited four years for mere approvals for exports of F-18Es and F-15Es. The American relationship with the Israelis held up the sale, but did the threat from the Iranians not matter?

Then there’s ground attack. The US Air Force’s A-10C might yet get replaced with the A-27B or the AT-6 or even the AC-130J, but Secretary James is considering delaying the retirement, and the depot is working “to keep A-10s flying indefinitely.” To be fair, none of those aircraft will likely be as survivable as an A-10C, but at some point, the Thunderbolt IIs will eventually become unserviceable. Predicting when is hard: the USAF first got concerned about unexpectedly severe wing corrosion on its KC-135 aerial refuelers in the 1980s. The definitive replacement program with the KC-46A Pegasus got underway only a few years ago, and the old Stratotankers are still flying. So far, no American ground troops have died because a hangar-queen KC-135 couldn’t refuel a broken A-10C.

There are clearer examples, if we want to reach back further. The introduction into the Royal Air Force of the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire in 1937 and 1938 proved none too soon for the Battle of Britain. Conversely, if the German aircraft industry had succeeded with jet propulsion two years earlier, the Luftwaffe might have come at USAAF and RAF bombers with whole Jagdgeschwader of Messerschmidt 262s. Jets would lack the range for bombing for some years thereafter, so the strategy would have been asymmetric (and more on that below). In more exotic realms, the observability of an enemy’s boffins ranges widely. Word about new stealth bombers (though maybe not their prices!) tends to leak out eventually. In the dark expanses of space, hiding in plain sight is not impossible, but it is hard. In the darker realm of cyber, the potential for zero-day exploits render foresight inherently harder.

Along those lines, General Robert Neller, the Marine commandant, says that he has thrice read the article by General Valery Gerasimov, the Russian chief of staff, in the February 2013 Military-Industrial Courier. Translated and republished in January by Military Review, Gerasimov’s article contains some real insight: “we must not copy foreign experience and chase after leading countries, but we must outstrip them and occupy leading positions ourselves.” To find the exploitable vulnerabilities of potential enemies, “leading military scholars” must advise the General Staff with military theory “backed by the function of prediction.” Part of that prediction is estimating when a new system will be technologically mature, organizationally absorbable, doctrinally suitable, and thus really ready for combat. It’s easy to pull that trigger too early, or too late.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

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