Experiences with cruise missiles, MRAPs, and Iron Dome provide a warning about the F-35.
When and why do defense officials choose to procure equipment specifically to reduce wartime casualties? As recounted at a recent Cato Institute conference that I attended, there are competing answers attempting to explain why voters offer or withhold their support. Officials sometimes act in wartime for more political and calculated reasons, but even the most clever intentions can lead to unhelpful entanglements. Thinking through some recent history, I recommend caution in predicting the strategic impact of new weapon systems, and particularly the F-35.
This third reason explains the American enthusiasm for cruise missile diplomacy in the 1990s, and repeated orders for more weapons. Those surgical and punitive attacks were all that Bill Clinton thought he could manage after calling home the Rangers from Mogadishu in 1993. But he did manage to expand the target set, eventually calling his ineffectual attack on Osama Bin Laden’s Afghan camp and supposed Sudanese chemical factory “Operation Infinite Reach”. Overreach would have been a more accurate term.
The need for political maneuvering room may also partly explain the MRAP program. In May 2007, Defense Secretary Gates was clearly very concerned about fatalities, but he and his team also had a war to wage. Without political support at home, that effort could have ended earlier than it did. More so, higher fatalities then could have negatively affected American domestic political support for the Iraqi government’s belated efforts today to fight Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s faction—the so-called ISIS.
Finally, consider the Israeli development of the Iron Dome missile defense system. Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on civilians in 2006 should have been enough to spur the project, if saving lives were the whole issue. But while the IDF is the Israeli Defense Force, its well-known aggressive culture doesn’t favor defensive weapons or strategies. Perhaps it was indeed political pressure to shield civilians from the effects of war that led to Iron Dome. Either way, Iron Dome then allowed the Israeli cabinet to deal with the Gazans without launching another full-scale invasion of Hamas’s wretched little city-state.
Thus, as a group of noted business historians observed some years ago, “any successful institutionalization, in essence, can create its own internal contradictions as unintended consequences.”* In the case of American cruise missiles, the new offensive weapon enabled a more offensive strategy, but one ultimately with indecisive results. In the case of the MRAP, the defensive weapon helped further an offensive strategy—the Surge—which may have helped a bit to keep the US in the current war. In the case of Iron Dome, the defensive weapon led to a more defensive strategy, whether that was what the strategic situation merited or not.
The context this week is the US Air Force’s effort to replace—it’s a debatable point, yes—the A-10C with the F-35A. In a recent interview with Defense News, Major General Jay Silveria, the highest-ranking pilot to have flown the Lightning II, explained that F-35 pilots will rely on all that sensor fusion to find targets for high-altitude precision attacks. That means generally no more low-altitude gun-runs, which lets aircrews avoid the firing envelopes of insurgents’ anti-aircraft cannons and shoulder-fired missiles. That sounds good, but any perception—apart from the reality—that high-altitude precision warfare can penetrate opponents’ maskirovka can induce an enthusiasm for warfare on the cheap. And as we’ve seen before, that doesn’t always end well.
James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.
* Huseyin Leblebici, Gerald Salancik, Anne Copay, and Tom King, “Institutional change and the transformation of interorganizational fields: an organizational history of the U.S. radio broadcasting industry,” Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 3 (1991), p. 337.