Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Impact of the Gates Reshuffle

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently announced massive cuts in and reshuffling of US military budget priorities. The move has a whole lot of people in a huff, but exactly those thatyou'd expect: the defense industry, congress, and big wigs in the military. I'll first contest that absolutely no cut in military spending (save appropriations for wars abroad) will make any of these folks happy, so I have no problems with ignoring their opinions and getting straight to the facts. The industry's objections should be self-evident. Congress has a series of constituencies to answer to, very many of whom have an army base or a plant or something related in their home towns--just go look at the military bases all over the US; Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics (probably the 4 hardest hit, in order) have dozens of US offices/factories each, and dozens of suppliers, who have dozens of suppliers. And the military, like all bureaucratic departments, loves toys, loves money, and doesn't like being targeted. Anyway. That budget.

The biggest-ticket blow is the F-22 Raptor. It's a beautiful aircraft, but at $138 million each, it's an absurdly expensive item. At $83 million, the uglier F-35 gets the job done at less than 2/3 the price. And while the F-35 isn't quite as "cutting edge" an air superiority fighter as the F-22, it's still better than anything else out there, and certainly better than anything the US is actually going to have to shoot at for the next 20 years, which is about the lifetime if most of these planes. The F-22 / F-35 dualism has been a bit like a VHS / Beta gimpfight, and it has been incredibly inefficient. If the Defense Department wants to pay the defense industry a few million bucks per year to keep the R+D departments coming up with new ideas, that's lovely, but paying top dollar for planes that are 95% redundant is like paying people to dig holes and fill them in again. And to be fair, Gates is accelerating the F-35 program to fill the replacement quotas for the Air Force--they'll get toys, just not the diversity they want. And yes, there will be fewer jobs, because the production lines will be vastly more efficient.

The next item that's getting whacked is the Boeing YAL-1 anti-missile laser. Another big-ticket project, which actually is relatively cheap compared to the above-listed items, still probably has very little practical application in the near future, and doesn't need much more in the way of development--just production. The point of the aircraft would be to shoot down theatre ballistic missiles (TBMs) or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Sounds lovely. But the YAL-1 would have to be circling over the launch sites of such missiles, with near-complete air superiority already established. The instances in which the US air force is going to be over a country, armed with serious ballistic missiles but no anti-air weapons, are vanishingly few. This did happen in the Gulf War, and it was a serious political issue that almost made the war a disaster--so the impulse to develop this technology is understandable. And it is cool. But it is a waste of money.

Gates is ending production of the C-17 Globemaster, which is a big ol' cargo plane. And a good one. But the primary rationale: We have enough. They have long lifespans, and we already have vastly more airlift capability than the rest of the world combined. This is nice for NATO missions, but Gates may be quietly telling the world: "Stop freeriding off American airpower. Buy your own." Will Europe respond? No idea. But I think it's sensible.

Additionally, the $87 billion ground portion of the Future Combat Systems revamp, which includes light combat vehicles, a logistics/utility vehicle, and a number of unmanned ground vehicles, is getting scaled back, though it's unclear to me by quite how much.

The final big-line item that is going down is ground based anti-ICBM missile defense. We've been testing it for 20 years against dummy missiles, and it has a pretty good track record. But 20 years ago, the Soviets were able to make decoy, evasion, chaff, E/M, and other technologies that could trick the interceptor. Trying to hit a missile with a missile is hard enough, especially in mid-flight/entry, when it is going stupidly quickly. But when it is ducking, weaving, deploying decoys, sending confusing E/M signals, sending chaff, etc, it's nearly impossible. I'm not even sure it would be feasible to build enough of these to make the probabilities work out if someone sent a few dozen nukes at us--we might get a few. But the probabilities start getting so vanishingly small that the tens of billions of dollars that the program still calls for are looking to not be worth it.

Now, the Gates budget is still over $500 billion. Most of the new money is going into anti-insurgent and anti-terror technologies that assist with tactical urban warfare knowledge, communication, troop protection, and other asymmetric-warfare issues (where Future Combat Systems-type stuff is mostly useless in these environments). This is, frankly, pretty smart. Projecting into the next 20 years, the likelihood of a war with China or Russia is absurdly small, where the likelihood of a war against militants/insurgents of some sort is much higher. US spending in the area will also enable the US to help other countries fighting their own counterinsurgencies, like Colombia, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan (which will be going on in some aspect for many years, like it or not), the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and a whole host of others. A re-shifting of priorities is late in coming.

Change is hard. It has the potential to be tough on some American workers. But, frankly, it might actually be better to pay the laid-off workers to dig holes and fill them in again. The United States currently still has a mostly-Cold War budget, and needs to focus the wars it's fighting, and the ones it's going to fight in the next 20 years. If it doesn't win them, deter them, prevent them, or otherwise alleviate them, the problems for itself and its allies will be far greater than what the Russians can do in Ukraine, or the Chinese in Taiwan. The US Congress will probably frustrate the effort, but may say, "well, I guess we can just spend more." But the shifting of priorities--hopefully something Gates can concentrate on over the next 8 years--will put the US military in a much better position to be able to deal with the problems it's actually facing.
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