The last plant in the U.S. that can build tanks is a sad symbol of America's industrial decline. Located in Lima, Ohio, midway between Dayton and Toledo, it currently produces only one M1A2 Abrams tank per month. During the Reagan years, it turned out 60 per month. Another 60 were built each month at the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant, but that site was closed during the Clinton years. So now there is only Lima, assembling a mere dozen tanks per year.
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.