Tuesday, February 08, 2005


Fred Kaplan's Least Favorite Defense Programs.

This post continues the discussion I began in my previous posting, "Slate's Fred Kaplan Really Dislikes Rumsfeld." Please click there to read the prelude.


Slate's Fred Kaplan concludes his analysis of the Fiscal Year 2006 defense budget ("Rummy's Got a Secret") by listing a number of programs that he in his infinite wisdom deems are less worthy than whatever defense efforts he believes America should fund. In each case, I feel that there are valid arguments for and against these efforts; however, I believe that is true for most every defense program funded today. What matters is *why* Kaplan thinks these programs are unnecessary; I would suspect his reasons run contrary to prudence and logic.

I'll spend most of my effort on the F/A-22, which I know pretty well, but I'll have a few words for the other efforts too. So, let's dive in, shall we?

The F/A-22 Raptor: The Air Force's newest jet fighter, the F/A-22 has a number of characteristics unique among American fighter aircraft. For one, it's stealthy. It also has the ability to conduct supercruise, i.e. it can travel above the speed of sound at full military power (normal aircraft can't travel that fast without using their afterburners, which rapidly uses up available fuel). Finally, the advanced avionics of the F/A-22 are intended to greatly improve victory in air combat.

The common complaints against the F/A-22 are that it's a Cold War-era system, that there is no need for a new fighter aircraft when we don't face any obvious challenges to our air superiority, and finally, that it's too expensive.

Addressing that last point first, there are two ways to calculate the cost of any weapons system: The flyaway cost, i.e., what it costs to fly a production plane out of a factory, and the "real" cost, which divides the research & development costs by the number of planes eventually purchased. While the flyaway cost is invariably less expensive than the "real" cost, obviously, the real costs better characterize the total investment in the aircraft.

For the F/A-22, the stated flyaway cost is $133 million a copy, while the adjusted cost is $256 million a copy.

The problem here is that the "real" costs are no longer relevant-- the research and development for the F/A-22 is complete. All that money we spent over the past decade is gone forever, i.e. "sunk cost." Thus, the only real measuring stick for the price of an F/A-22 today is approximately $133 million a copy.

So, that brings me to the next argument against the F/A-22: current systems are effective enough, and a whole lot cheaper. The nearest active equivalent to F/A-22 capability is the F-15E Strike Eagle. To purchase a new F-15E right off the line today would cost approximately $75 million a copy.

So, for less than twice the cost of a new F-15E, we can buy an F/A-22 that is stealthy, faster, and more survivable.

Kaplan, however, proposes a false choice:
Is this program really needed, given that we already have stealth planes and no other nation has an air force capable of shooting down many of our non-stealth planes?
First, our current generation of stealth planes are based on an earlier generation of technology ("earlier" equaling "more vulnerable to evolving enemy countermeasures"). Second, and far more important, neither the F-117 nor the B-2 are fighter aircraft, but bombers. Today we have no stealth fighter aircraft in service.

As for the canard that no other nation has an air force capable of shooting down many of our non-stealth planes, that is patently false. Simulations prove it so. So have exercises. We're not making this stuff up, Fred.

American pilots are the best trained pilots in the world, but even with modernization they're still flying twenty-year old airframes based on thirty-year old (or more) designs. The performance capabilities necessary to achieve air superiority are constantly evolving, and American fighters will not only face off improved Russian designs, but also advanced European aircraft exported to potential adversaries.

However, it must also be emphasized that the very notion of "air superiority" is anathema to the United States Air Force. Air dominance is the watchword. We don't plan to fight our wars in a situation where massive fleets of aircraft slug it out, day after day, in order to decide who wins the air war. We plan to fight from day one with total control of the skies, an environment completely permissive to aerial strike missions, as well as completely protective of our ground and naval forces.

It's the harsh reality of technological innovation, but without at least *some* F/A-22's to provide that "kick down the door, silver bullet" force, it will be that much harder for the Air Force to make our future enemies their bitch.

And hard means "failures," which means casualties that could have been avoided.

FYI, here's a good summary of the F/A-22 debate from the July 2004 issue of the American Spectator.

-- Trident II Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile: Kaplan wonders why we're funding the procurement of five additional Trident II D-5 nuclear missiles.

First, he read the FY06 budget documents wrong. The more detailed budget justification materials will not be released to the public until later this month, but previous year versions are available online.

The FY04 Trident II documentation (see pages 11-18) show the five missiles then planned for purchase in FY05. These missiles were purchased last year, and if the FY06 schedule looks anything like the FY04 schedule (page 15), the last brand new D-5 missile will be delivered in FY07.

However, due to the Pentagon's "full funding" rules, most anything purchased has to be purchased in one year, i.e. you can't buy a missile with three year's worth of funding. While the D-5 missile has an exemption to that (advance procurement, which means some money can be budgeted in a prior year), the bottom line is that, pending the release of the final FY06 documentation, I can't see how there are any funds in FY06 for new Trident II missiles.

So, what does the $1 billion pay for? After the Cold War ended, the decision was made to keep the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines-- the subs that carry the Trident missiles-- in service well into the 21st Century. While the number of submarines-- and the number of warheads their missiles carry-- were reduced per the START treaties, the seaborne leg of the nuclear triad (bombers, subs, and silo-based ICBM's) remains a key component of our nuclear deterrent.

Like atomic rock-paper-scissors, each leg of the triad brings special abilities that the others don't have. Submarines at sea are survivable, which means that an enemy's first strike can't eliminate all our retaliatory weapons. What submarines give up in flexibility (you can't order a missile to turn around, like a bomber) and immediacy (unlike a silo-based ICBM, you can only order a sub to launch when you can communicate with them), you gain confidence with an assured deterrent.

As for why the D-5 Trident II is more important than the C-4 Trident I missile that preceded it, remember, these submarines-- and the missiles they carry-- must now continue in service for decades. We've already fielded an entire fleet of D-5 missiles to our 14 operational Ohio submarines. Just keeping the missiles healthy (and thus keeping confidence in the deterrent) is going to require a billion dollars a year in modernization funding. The Air Force does something similar with its Minuteman III missiles-- you've got to ensure that the rocket motors, the fuel casings, the guidance systems, and a myriad of moving parts continue to work.

Just think of it as very expensive and very complex automobile maintenance; you wouldn't depend on a car that didn't get its oil changed in ten years, so why would you depend on a *nuclear missile* that didn't get tweaked every so often? The answer is, you wouldn't.

Now, imagine how difficult it would be to maintain *two* models of cars, one that takes synthetic oil, the other dino oil, when you are guaranteed a supply of only synthetic. Does it at all make sense to support an entire fleet of D-5 missiles, except for the five C-4 missiles we never replaced because Fred Kaplan says we should save the money? Money, by the way, that was budgeted and appropriated LAST year, and not in the FY06 budget Kaplan is having such a snit over?

-- The Virginia-class submarine and the DD(X) destroyer. Kaplan asks, "Does our current fleet of submarines and destroyers face even the slightest threat?"

The short answer is no, but the question Kaplan should be asking is, "Does our current fleet of submarines and destroyers deal with our latest threats?" The answer to that question, alas, is also no.

Both the Virginia submarines and the DD(X) are being designed from the ground up to be able to operate close-in to enemy shores. In both cases, the vessels are also designed to be modular, meaning they can be flexibly outfitted per the requirements of their particular mission. To use the example of the Virginia class, need to deliver Special Forces? The Virginia can comfortably carry SEAL teams and minisubs. Or, do we need to collect signals intelligence off of an enemy coastline? The Virginia can swap in special intel gear that gives it greater capability for intelligence gathering. Or, is the mission a cruise-missile strike package? Again, the Virginia can change it's loadout. But, in the end, it's not your Cold War-era hunter/killer sub-- the new sub is designed for the kinds of missions we ask our submarine force to do *today*.

The DD(X) is similar in its goals, only it adds as a surface combatant increased gunfire support (something the Marines have sorely missed since the retirement of the Iowa-class battleships), as well as a stealthy hull minimizing the chances of enemy detection-- or, in the worst case scenario, the chances of being struck by enemy cruise missiles. Hopefully Kaplan knows about that latter threat; but if he doesn't, I'm sure the Iranians or Chinese could show off their expertise in that arena.

Finally, one last comment on sub- and shipbuilding: while it may sound wasteful to do so, the simple fact is, we *must* continue to build subs and ships, even at a slow rate, if we are to continue to employ the labor force necessary for any future production. For instance, if the United States decided tomorrow to stop submarine production altogether, what would be the chances of building a successful-- and affordable-- submarine, say, ten years from now? The shipyard will have long closed down, and the designers, engineers and craftsmen skilled in building submarines would have retired or moved onto different jobs.

The reality is our defense infrastructure relies on a basic level of guaranteed production if we want to have *any* hope of ever increasing our capacity in the future. I recognize that this argument is often used to justify a lot of wasteful "pork," but a the core requirement is sound, and unavoidable.

-- CVN-21. Kaplan says
A few months ago, Rumsfeld pretended to be efficient by announcing the decommissioning of the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy. He didn't tell us, then, that he was planning to build a new one in its stead.
Did Rumsfeld need to? We are always building aircraft carriers. As long as we have aircraft carriers, we will need to build new ones, because eventually, old ones retire. The significance of the Kennedy decommissioning is that, for the first time, the Navy is allowing itself to draw down to 11 versus 12 operational aircraft carriers. The fact that we will continue to need to build new carriers to replace the 11 carriers we still maintain on active duty is not a gotcha, at least not to anyone but Fred Kaplan.

-- Missile Defense.
Well, it's a slight cut from last year's $10.5 billion but, given this program's continued testing failures and ambitions that seem beyond the scope of modern engineering and physics, the time may be particularly ripe for a swipe.
I wouldn't be surprised if the day after a North Korean ICBM hits Hawaii Kaplan still thinks the time for swiping missile defense is ripe. Or, perhaps, the day after an Iranian missile strikes Riyadh. Or a Chinese missile impacts Japan. Or a Pakistani missile lands in Tel Aviv.

The submarine wasn't operationally successful in warfare for over sixty years after its development. Good thing the British didn't waste any money and effort on countering German U-Boats until 1917, eh?

Every military decision is inarguably sound right until the moment after it becomes obviously stupid. Given the stakes involved with missile defense, the richest nation in the world can afford to spend a relatively modest amount working on the effort.

Anyways, that's it. I've written more than enough tonight, sorry for the ranting. It's just that it's sooo easy to dish out a quick criticism of what the Pentagon does, and why, and sound wonderfully learned. The problem is, like everything complex in life, there are many layers beneath the superficial arguments pro and con.

I, for one, have heard them, and I've made them. In fact, while I defended the F/A-22 earlier, that's because I see the logic of the Air Force arguments in favor of the plane. However, I actually have my own reservations about the aircraft, and in the end, Kaplan and I may arrive at a very similar decision, albeit by wildly divergent paths. The difference in my opinion, however, is that, you know, I actually think about this stuff.

The only thing Fred Kaplan ever seems to really think hard about is how he's going to portray ever single military decision as further evidence of the incompetence of those he politically disagrees with.

Sorry Fred, I call bullshit.

This posting was made on my personal computer.

Since you are talking the F-22s, Dave, I was wondering if you'd be willing to give me your thoughts on the Eurofighter and the F-16. About a month ago you made some enigmatic remarks at Ace's about those two fighters and its been haunting me ever since. Like Jacob Marley, but with less chain-rattling.
Dave, I'm going to bookmark this post and the last one as examples of why I read blogs. The contrast between your knowledge and that of some media tool who downloaded the .pdf and said, "them're some big ol' numbers!" couldn't be greater.

Most of us, even those of us who like the military and things that blow up, never hear this stuff in the MSM. Even the Slate thing you're criticizing actually represents an improvement. We're lucky if we get reports like:

"Congress today debated the F-22 fighter, with Rep. Hank Goober (D, Minn) calling it wasteful excess when the homeless are blah blah blah zzz blah spending comes at a time when Rumsfeld is still reeling from criticism of Abu Ghraib. With more on that we go live to Dirk Cleftly for a special rep-[click]."

You mean there are actual REASONS we spend all this money? The weapons systems work together somehow? They're updated against likely political threats? And all this time I thought you guys just asked for a semi fulla moolah and headed down to the DeathMart, the twitchy Rod-Steigerish generals just going, "Ah needs me some murderous Infantry cannon fodder fresh from America's poor neighborhoods and a new laser cannon we can mount on a border collie. Hey, Admiral Killberger, wadn't one o' your flattops lookin' a little rusty? Hell, it's older than my daughter's car. Pick ya out a new one!"

Now I guess I could pick up a lot of this stuff if I read Jane's Defense every week, but I lack the time, they don't actually make these decisions either, and they don't include movie reviews and withering sarcasm.
Actually See-Dubya, Jane's includes quite a bit of withering sarcasm; you just have to know where to look.

I'll be the first person to admit I ain't too smart. And my writing is sloppy and repetitive. There's a reason why I work for a living, and not as a "journalist."

That said, because these issues are so complex, there are plenty of opportunities for critics to shape the data to fit their preconceptions. It's a danger I try to avoid, although I recognize I'm not always successful (I've always had a soft spot for things that go "boom"). However, so many Pentagon critics-- dare I say, the overwhelming majority-- are too preoccupied with scoring points instead of conveying understanding. Even the few journalists who *do* write accurately about the Pentagon face the constant challenge of "what do I summarize, how do I summarize it, and why?" That's a tough task for anyone who doesn't work in this environment, day in and day out. I cut an awful lot of slack when the media doesn't get the answers right-- my gripe is they so often get the *questions* wrong, which for a Pentagon reporter is inexcusable.

It's even worse here at budget time. Everyone seems to think they can understand exactly what the Pentagon is doing just from a press release. I can tell you that year after year I spend *months* explaining very small slices of the budget to highly-educated congressional staff-- and they often STILL don't understand what we're doing at the end of the year. Yet people like Fred Kaplan waltz on in, story after story, thinking that reporting on the Pentagon is like covering a football game-- big plays, big players, and a box score. I wish it were that easy-- I'd get to go home earlier each night.

Good military journalism is possible-- see Andy Pasztor in the WSJ-- but it requires patience, determination, and a healthy respect for the complexity of the subject matter. Sadly, most journalists-- often on the Left, but also on the Right-- don't demonstrate these qualities in abundance.

Anyways, glad you liked the pieces. I don't always get to write in detail about this stuff, but I enjoy it when I do.

Now, back to the monkey jokes.

Dave, as usual, when you post about military things, I learn a lot. Thanks (once again).
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