The United States did not have a large defense industry for most of its history. Because threats were episodic rather than continuous, the traditional practice was to mobilize the commercial economy for war production when danger arose, and then demobilize when it had passed.
On July 1, as Americans are preparing to celebrate Independence Day, a new chief executive will take over at Britain's biggest defense contractor. Once viewed as a colonial oppressor, Britain is now America's oldest and most reliable ally. BAE Systems, the enterprise that incoming CEO Charles Woodburn will manage, is the hub of Britain's military-industrial complex.
Against that backdrop, the Air Force has decided to push ahead on an oddly ill-timed initiative to experiment with using light fighters against low-end threats like ISIS. The Air Force doesn't have any light fighters today, so developing such a plane would require squeezing another new program into an already over-subscribed modernization agenda.
Things have not gone well for the Pentagon's much-criticized acquisition system since the 9-11 attacks. The military got a lot more money for new weapons than anyone could have predicted when the new millennium began, but tens of billions of dollars were squandered on programs that either were canceled or delayed by controversy.
When Barack Obama became president eight years ago, the Air Force had an elegant plan for replacing its Cold War fighters that would preserve America's global air dominance through mid-century. It would buy a "high-low" mix of agile F-22 air superiority fighters and less costly but highly versatile F-35 fighters. Both planes would be stealthy, meaning invisible to radar, with the F-22 sweeping the skies of potential adversaries and the F-35 striking surface targets, suppressing enemy air defenses, and collecting intelligence.
The two fighters were supposed to operate together using secure data links in a one-two punch that no adversary could resist. But the Obama administration almost immediately began unraveling this plan in the mistaken belief that Russia was now a friend and future enemies would look like Al Qaeda. In other words, they would lack air forces or air defenses. So F-22 production was terminated at barely half of the Air Force's minimum requirement, and F-35 development was restructured four times, increasing costs and delaying deliveries.
Along the way, the Air Force's elegant vision of what it needed for the future became increasingly confused. One year it would say it needed to get away from operating small fleets of specialized aircraft, and the next year it would propose buying more specialized aircraft in small lots. It repeatedly reversed itself on which planes needed to be kept in inventory and which needed to be retired as its thinking about future air power wandered all over the map. Eventually, it came up with a vision whose authors tried to avoid even using terms like "fighter" and "bomber."
That cloudy vision of tomorrow has now been inherited by the Trump defense team. With congressionally-mandated budget caps likely to be lifted in the near future and the new administration still getting up to speed, some of the half-baked ideas the vision advances could find their way into the defense budget, to the lasting detriment of U.S. national security. I'll talk about two of them here -- a light fighter designed to operate in undefended air space, and a super-stealthy fighter designed to escort bombers deep in the Russian or Chinese interior.
The light fighter concept is supposed to reduce the cost of maintaining conventional fighter fleets by fielding a much less capable plane that can be operated in "permissive" air space -- in other words, air space where enemies are pretty much defenseless against U.S. planes. Its main role would be to conduct close air support of friendly forces on the ground, which requires careful coordination with those forces since the targets being attacked are nearby. The new fighter would be useless in air combat, but cheap to operate in attacking ground targets.
This idea should be dead on arrival in the Trump administration, because it was conceived as a response to the threats and budget constraints of the Obama years. By the time it gets fielded ten or more years hence, there probably won't be undefended air space anywhere that U.S. forces are operating -- even rag-tag insurgents will have shoulder-fired missiles and drones that threaten the lightly-equipped U.S. planes. So the plane will be useless, unless it gets dolled up with additional capabilities that increase its cost.
Close air support in permissive air space is one of the least challenging combat missions the Air Force performs. In addition to high-end jets like the F-15E and F-16C that can perform the mission, it has the A-10 Thunderbolt II that was designed for close air support and the AC-130J gunship. And that's before we even get to other joint assets suited to the mission like the Navy's F/A-18 Super Hornet multi-role fighter and the Army's AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. Where the Air Force has a challenge is near-peer threats, which is why F-35 is being bought.
Of course, all of these planes cost more to operate per flight hour than the hypothetical light fighter -- or at least, that's what the PowerPoint slides claim. But does the concept really make budgetary sense? The service would have to spend money developing and fielding a new plane at a time when it says it is strapped for funds. That will take the better part of a decade even if it modifies an off-the-shelf airframe, and it will be many more years before the lower operating cost covers the price of development and starts generating savings.
That might never happen, given how threats are evolving. But the budget will take a much bigger hit from another bone-headed idea the service has come up with for carrying out the most demanding missions again near-peer adversaries like Russia and China. That is called "penetrating counterair," and involves developing a tactical aircraft stealthier than F-22 or F-35 that can support the B-21 bomber in strikes against heavily defended targets deep inside Russia and China. This would require very long range and very high speed to work.
Superficially, the penetrating counterair concept sounds like the role P-51 Mustangs took on in supporting B-17 bombers over Germany during World War Two. But the ranges involved in attacking targets in places like Western China would be far greater, especially when you consider the time required to hunt down missile launchers that are mobile, concealed, or deceptively based.
Even in an era of Trumpian budgetary largesse for the military, this concept sounds unworkable. The penetrating counterair plane -- let's call it a fighter -- would need to have twice the speed of the bomber to defeat enemy air defenses (Mach 1.5 versus 0.8) and it would have to be both super stealthy and super agile. Initially the Air Force plans to buy only 50 or so, but it would still have to go through all the usual steps of designing, developing and testing the plane, meaning each one would be likely to cost the better part of a billion dollars.
And that's just the beginning, because Air Force internal plans indicate it doesn't just need penetrating counterair to support bomber missions, it also needs penetrating reconnaissance and penetrating jamming capabilities. So in order for its 100 next-generation bombers to accomplish a problematic mission in the midst of an East-West war, the Air Force doesn't just want the new bomber, it wants a whole family of aircraft along with the network required to coordinate operations. We're probably talking hundreds of billions of dollars here.
Chances are that Secretary of Defense James Mattis will get the briefing on this outlandish plan, and tell the Air Force to forget it. Unlike in the case of the new bomber, most of the technologies associated with penetrating counterair are immature, making their cost and development schedule impossible to predict. The Air Force needs to set aside its fantastic ideas about the future and get focused on replacing the Cold War fighter fleet with more survivable planes. That's what will deter aggression in Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis has issued his initial campaign plan for rebuilding America's military, pursuant to a presidential directive signed January 27. If Congress provides necessary funding, the Mattis plan would reverse a steady erosion of the joint force's warfighting edge that resulted from caps on military spending during the Obama years. In fact, the plan may usher in a surge of spending on new military technology unlike anything seen since the Reagan years.
All four of the military services General Mattis oversees would get a boost, but the biggest beneficiary during President Trump's tenure will be the service that is currently in the direst straits -- the Army. That's because the fixes the Army needs can be implemented more quickly than expanding the Navy's fleet or fielding a new Air Force bomber. In fact, making the Army healthy again could be largely accomplished during Trump's first term -- which is a good thing since it is pivotal to deterring East-West war in Europe.
After two decades of fighting lightly-equipped insurgents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has fallen behind near-peer adversaries -- most notably Russia -- in a wide array of capabilities including long-range fires (missiles and artillery), air defense, force protection, electronic warfare, and cybersecurity. The Army needed so much money to sustain the force structure and readiness demanded by a global war on terror that there wasn't much left for replacing old equipment -- especially after Congress capped spending in 2011.
So today the service is still relying on combat systems bought during the Reagan defense buildup three decades ago (or earlier). A few new systems have been fielded along the way such as the Stryker wheeled troop carrier, but because they were configured for fighting irregular forces like the Taliban, they need more firepower and protection to provide a credible deterrent in Europe. At the moment, the two light brigades of U.S. troops permanently stationed in Europe, including a Stryker brigade, aren't much of a deterrent to Russian aggression.
The Mattis campaign plan consists of three steps, aimed at quickly closing readiness gaps and then building up capability. Like I said, the Army benefits most in the near term because what it needs can be fielded fairly fast. Step One in the Mattis plan is to deliver to the White House by March 1 proposed changes to the 2017 budget fixing readiness shortfalls across the joint force. Readiness includes everything from training to maintenance to munitions stocks.
Step Two, delivered to the White House by May 1, would rewrite the 2018 military spending request for the fiscal year beginning October 1 to buy more munitions, invest in critical enablers, grow the size of the force, and fund demonstration of new capabilities. Step Three, based on a revised national defense strategy, would lay out a comprehensive military modernization program for the years 2019-2023. The revised strategy would include a new "force sizing construct" that would boost the size of all the services, but especially the Army.
Congress has already passed legislation to reverse the shrinkage of the Army that had cut the number of brigade combat teams by a third during the Obama years. Brigade combat teams are the Army's basic formation for conducting maneuver warfare, and typically contain about 4,500 soldiers. There are three brigades in a division, and three battalions in a brigade. What the Army needs as it shifts focus from Southwest Asia to Europe is more armored brigades, equipped with the latest Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.
The Army isn't lacking for tanks and troop carriers -- it has thousands of each -- but fighting rag-tag insurgents provided little incentive to modernize these vehicles to the highest level of capability. If it goes up against a rapidly modernizing and professionalizing Russian Army in Eastern Europe, much of the armor currently in inventory could be defeated by enemy forces with better protection and superior firepower. It could also suffer heavy casualties from Russian tactical missiles, which out-range and out-number U.S. missiles in the theater.
The Army has plenty of programs to remedy these deficiencies. For instance, the Paladin Improvement Program for its main self-propelled howitzer greatly enhances vehicle performance, and a Long Range Precision Fires program would field a more lethal missile with greater reach for exchanges across hundreds of miles of territory. But these programs are not being funded with the degree of urgency that recent developments in Europe would seem to warrant. In fact, new versions of the Abrams tanks are being built at the rate of only one per month.
There is so much slack capacity at the nation's sole surviving tank plant that it could easily surge production to 30 times current levels, building all the upgraded tanks the Army needs for additional armored brigades before President Trump's second inaugural. The Mattis plan would likely implement many of the initiatives the Army recently proposed to Congress for funding critical needs, such as accelerating the fielding of new helicopters, buying more survivable armored vehicles faster, and providing better battlefield networks that will allow communications on the move.
If you are not near the fighting, it is easy to take a detached view of whether such items should be funded. But if you have been to war as Secretary Mattis was repeatedly over four decades of service in the Marine Corps, you know why something like being able to maintain communications links on the move is so important. Without those links, you might not know where friendly or hostile forces are in a fast-moving fight. And if you have to halt to set up fixed communications gear, you become a lot more vulnerable to being killed.
And that's before you even consider threats to tactical communications like electronic jamming or cyber attacks that Russian forces have become adept at executing in Europe. The latest Army communications gear can cope with all those challenges, but first it has to reach the force -- and at the rate that is currently happening it will take decades. Similarly, the Army knows exactly what smart munitions it needs to counter Russian forces in Europe, but that won't matter on the first day of war if the munitions aren't bought and forward-positioned for the fight.
The good news is that all of these enhancements can be had for a few days of additional federal spending per year. The Mattis plan doesn't need to break the bank to restore the fighting edge of America's military. In fact, if everything Mattis decides to do is fully funded and the economy doesn't grow at all during the Trump years, defense spending will still be barely 4% of the economy in 2020. It was 6-10% during the Cold War. So if Congress goes along, the Mattis campaign plan is eminently feasible, and the U.S. Army in particular can be brought back from the brink.
--- And Thousands Of Jobs On Earth
There's a conference next week near Capitol Hill to discuss a project that may lead to the greatest technological achievement in history -- and yet chances are, you haven't heard about it. The project is NASA's effort to develop a huge rocket and spacecraft that will one day carry astronauts to Mars. If you wanted to build a case for why our nation still has the makings of greatness, this would be Exhibit A. And if you wanted proof that such projects can be good for a country's economy, this particular project provides plenty of evidence.
The official names for the rocket and spacecraft are the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Several of the companies involved in the effort including both prime contractors (Boeing and Lockheed Martin, respectively) contribute to my think tank, so I try to keep up with the program. In a sense, though, I've been following the Mars program since I was a kid -- decades before it was begun -- because I grew up in an America that assumed once mankind had conquered the Moon, Mars was next.
Mars was the most common setting for all those science-fiction novels I read in high school, and it was almost always Americans who were leading the way. Back then, many of us believed it was our nation's destiny to lead mankind into deep space. We now realize that the stars may be beyond our grasp -- it takes 40,000 years for light to reach the center of our galaxy from Earth -- but that makes the only other Earth-like planet in our solar system even more appealing as a destination.
If human beings are ever going to walk on the Red Planet in my lifetime or that of other baby boomers, NASA's new rocket and crew vehicle are the reasons why. The Space Launch System and Orion are the foundation of the only serious effort anywhere to return human beings to the Moon, and then begin reaching further outward. The first mission to test everything is scheduled for next year, and the first mission with astronauts on board could happen as early as 2021.
A manned mission to the Red Planet won’t come until the following decade, although President Trump might elect to speed that up (NASA currently receives one-half of 1% of the federal budget, a tenth of the share it claimed during the Apollo missions to the Moon). President Obama didn’t care much about the space agency’s manned exploration program, which shows what happens when leaders are too detail-oriented to have a vision. Like a lot of other folks these days, his idea of science was focused more on the microcosm than the cosmos.
Under continuous prompting from Congress, though, Obama at least kept open the option of one day following up all those robotic probes we send to Mars with real people. It is a daunting mission. The baseline version of the new rocket will need to lift a 77-ton payload, and the one that eventually aims for the Red Planet will lift nearly twice that -- 143 tons. Just to put that in perspective, the maximum takeoff weight of Boeing's latest 737 MAX jetliner is 88-97 tons, including fuel and passengers.
The way NASA has designed the rocket, it will gradually evolve to accomplish more challenging missions without having to undertake a redesign. Boeing's liquid-fueled core will be used on all the evolved versions, as will Aerojet Rocketdyne's four RS-25 engines. What will change with each successive variant is the upper (or second) stage and the solid-fuel rocket boosters that provide additional thrust to escape the Earth's gravity. The propulsion systems on the initial version of SLS are refined from technology previously used with the Space Shuttle -- so at least we know they work.
Superficially, the Orion crew vehicle too seems to harken back to an earlier NASA effort. It is often described as resembling the Apollo capsule that transported astronauts into an orbit around the Moon. In this case, though, looks are deceiving -- it has 50% more interior volume, can carry up to six astronauts, and is equipped with technology engineers couldn't even imagine when Apollo was designed. Orion will be safer and more habitable -- which is a good thing, because crew vehicle flights will typically last for weeks.
Initially, SLS and Orion will carry astronauts to the Moon and an asteroid to develop experience for the first Mars mission. Cis-lunar space provides a potentially fruitful staging area for Mars flights. An asteroid visit would provide useful insights if Mars missions involve the Red Planet's moons. Asteroids have other intrinsic factors justifying a mission, such as the likelihood that an asteroid impact led to the Earth's last mass-extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. NASA has organized these missions as stepping-stones in its "journey to Mars."
The early steps in that journey will cost about four days of federal spending at current rates from its inception in 2011 through the first manned mission on Orion. But that's four days of federal spending spread out over a dozen years, and it includes everything from the launch system to the crew vehicle to the ground infrastructure to the new upper stage. Meanwhile, the program will be generating many thousands of jobs in the U.S. and dozens of technological breakthroughs.
Those jobs are spread across 49 states -- the program has 1,700 suppliers -- and currently employ over 10,000 workers. For instance, NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans where Boeing is building the liquid fuels tanks for the SLS core employs over 3,000 personnel. The SLS effort is being managed by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, which generates many hundreds of jobs locally. And the Orion spacecraft program, which is managed from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, currently employs 3,000 workers nationwide.
That's before we even get to the economic boost NASA's new rocket and space vehicle will give Florida's Space Coast when they begin operating from Kennedy Space Center next year. Like any other big infrastructure project, NASA's journey to Mars will create lots of jobs. The difference in the space agency's case is that they will be high-tech, high-paying jobs that enable one of the greatest achievements in history. It will be an episode without parallel in the chronicle of American civilization.