On the Eve of the Big Chop: Time for the US Military to address some deep-seated problems

With sequestration looming, painful cuts in US defence spending are regarded as all but certain. The services are starting to get their cosmetic cost-cutting measures lined up- furloughs, personnel cuts, a program here, a few fighters there. The great danger is that no one seems to be looking at why defence needs cutting back. One would almost think that America’s budgetary problems had nothing to do with the two very expensive wars of the past decade, still less with massive systemic waste inherent in the way defence is done in America. According to SIPRI numbers, the United States spent 4.7 percent of its gross domestic product on defence in 2012, or 41 percent of all acknowledged global defence spending. Adjusting for inflation and including defence-related debt, the defence budget is bigger today than it was at either of the Cold War peaks. This is a truly ridiculous excess in today’s economic climate.

The nub of the issue is, and it would take a very ignorant or disingenuous person to dispute this, the US doesn’t need to spend that kind of money to maintain its current level of defence. Not only could it maintain its position but it could do substantially better for a lot less money, if only it would stop defending the indefensible in the defence and procurement systems.

Why Is Defence So Darned Expensive?

1. Lack of Competition:
Since the end of the Cold War, there has been an unavoidable string of mergers and takeovers in the defence industries worldwide. Unfortunately, this has meant that there is a virtual monopoly going on in several sectors, most notably fighter aircraft and shipbuilding. That means that the only way to restore any sense of competition, and thus assert control over spiralling costs, is to be willing to import, or at least licence-produce, overseas designs. This will never happen so long as the revolving door between government and industry and the place of defence industries in campaign financing go unaddressed.

2. Preparing for the Last War Syndrome:
Since the late 1990s, and especially under Secretary Gates’ leadership, the Pentagon has funnelled vast amounts of money into re-orienting toward the kind of equipment the descriptions of which could include “light,” “agile,” “littoral,” “air-transportable” or any of a hundred similar buzzwords. In other words, they were investing in the kind of wars they were presently engaged in, as though the US military’s future was in brush wars and counterinsurgency.

3. Poor Need Identification:
The really pathetic thing about these programs was that they were not only unsuited for future inter-state conflict, they were equally unsuited to Iraq and Afghanistan. The US Army spent millions developing the Future Combat Systems Ground Vehicle family, only to conclude that they were too suceptible to damage. The US Air Force procured the F-35 with the idea that it would take over close air support functions, when every soldier on the ground knew that fast jets are entirely unsuitable for the role.

4. Reaching for the Stars:
America more than any other country is highly susceptible to feature-creep when designing new weapons, even if it makes them uneconomical. The F-22, the DDG-1000, even, pathetically, the Littoral Combat Ship and the F-35 are victims of this line of thinking. As the joke goes, we have the perfect weapon- but only one. The truth, of course, is that in many cases it isn’t the perfect weapon, because minor features have been emphasised over the traditional characteristics of a good weapons system, such as ease of maintenance and low cost of ownership.

5. Failure to Fill the Middle:
The result is that low-priority but critically important aspects of warfare get ignored or underfunded- the Navy will give the DDG-1000 class peripheral vertical launch systems to counteract a threat that has never materialised, but it will not buy supersonic anti-ship missiles in an era when the latter are proliferating rapidly. The Pentagon is often convinced that it can get away with a few super weapons on the one hand and a big equipment roster on the other, without ever settling on the middle ground of a small force with good but not science-fictiony equipment. The last procurement system that thought this way was… Nazi Germany. Way to take a lesson from the losers, folks.

6. The Procurement System
This one really does start in Congress. Procurement money is in the United States what pork-barrel social programs are in other countries. Campaign financing, the revolving door between government (and the Pentagon) and industry, and all of the exquisite legal means of corruption that litter the system, distort each program to the point where procurements are neither economical nor the best thing for the soldier or sailor in the field. During the Civil War, Samuel Colt would present custom-engraved revolvers to generals, secretaries of war and the chief of the ordinance department. Colt’s product, at least, had some value. It was only when Eli Remington offered to produce not only his own revolver but Colt’s as well for less than half of Colt’s asking price that the Union Army began to realise it had been practiced upon. Unfortunately, it is Colt’s practice and not Remington’s that predominates among major defence contractors today.

Cost-Effectiveness, Anyone?

Now above all is the time to cut, or at least cut back on, the pet programs that the Pentagon refuses to admit cost a great deal of money and return little useful capability. Rather than rehashing the argument, I refer you to those who have laid out the information extensively and cogently.

Littoral Combat Ship:
The USA’s New Littoral Combat Ships
Congressional Research Office
Wrong Ship at the Wrong Time

The F-35 Air-to-Air Capability Controversy
Canada Preparing to Replace its CF-18 Hornets
The Joint Strike fighter Program
Air Power Australia Technical Analysis

To those who said three years ago that these programs were on track, performed useful missions and that critics just didn’t understand the needs of the US military in the 21st Century- I think the cat’s out of the bag.


You’d think that we’d already got to the most difficult part with procurement, but doctrine is the really sore issue. Remember the Powell-Weinberger doctrine, the one that won the 1991 Gulf War? Unfortunately, that and all the other lessons of Vietnam went by the wayside as the United States dove into the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and through lack of effective stabilisation measures created insurgencies in both countries. At the other end of those sorry episodes, it is time to stop and re-evaluate.

Model Doctrine:

1. The United States Military exists to defend the union against aggression, to support peace through global alliances with peaceful states, and to contribute to the defence of global common interests. It does not exist to fight small wars against minor powers. If it is deemed politically necessary to do so, the Powell Doctrine should be applied rigorously.

2. The United States Military will be prepared to intervene in wars of aggression by large powers against their weaker neighbours. To this end, its primary focus will be upon maintaining balanced conventional warfare capabilities on land, at sea and in the air.

3. If it is deemed politically necessary to invade and occupy a country, the United States Military will not do so without obtaining a prior, public political commitment from the Commander-in-Chief to a rational stabilisation plan adhering to established principles of occupation, with a primary focus on rapid and safe return of the civilian population to its normal occupations and the creation of a credible government structure with the expertise to run the country. If any of these preconditions are not met, the United States Military will assume no responsibility for the consequences.

4. It is not the purpose of the United States Military to participate in counterinsurgency operations. Where it may be necessary to do so, it will only be done with the clear support of the majority of the host population and under a firm timeline.


Following re-organisations in the 2000s, the Army is configured primarily for multiple prolonged low-level conflicts, while claiming to be able to adapt to any situation. This configuration is personnel-intensive, but does not concentrate key resources in a way suitable for high-intensity warfare. The Army has to all intents and purposes forgotten the lessons of AirLand Battle, the manoeuvre doctrine that was so successful in 1991. Even its opposing force training has re-oriented away from manoeuvre warfare and toward counterinsurgency. In an era of rising tigers, the Army has put down its spear and is training intensively to crush ants. There is every danger that this will become another instance of the common military error of training to fight the last war.

The technology of armoured war is changing and developing rapidly, and the United States, which has essentially stood still for the past decade, risks losing its pre-eminence. Although armoured forces are expensive in terms of equipment, a concentrated armoured force with the right training and doctrine does not need to be large to be effective. The Armoured Cavalry Regiment was the most effective armoured formation ever developed by the United States, and though now abandoned, its mission remains as timely as ever. A small and concentrated force based around even three ACRs would be a far better investment in conventional war than Stryker Brigade Combat Teams, which cannot convincingly bear the burden of a real land campaign.

None of which is to say that the expertise accumulated over the past decade should be abandoned. Rather, it should be concentrated into a second arm of “light” formations, which would be capable of operating in environments and situations where heavy mechanised forces are unsuitable, in any kind of operation from war to peace support.

Both arms would focus on building and retaining the vast array of specialised expertise that makes the US Army distinct from smaller forces, but in a much more concentrated package. This, frankly, will help to deter the misuse of the forces in extended wars of attrition. New soldiers can be raised, but expertise and equipment take time and money to develop. The bottom line is that the US Army is not a fire brigade, to be used in every small conflict that crops us. Putting aside political considerations, in a military sense, counterinsurgencies and brushfire wars are purely optional engagements. The serious conflicts that may well emerge as the world changes will not be. How much better to prepare for the latter.


The Air Force would do well to consider that its basic and irreplaceable mission is to establish air superiority over United States territory and anywhere where US forces may fight. Brushfire wars seem to have given some people the idea that the USAF will automatically be able to operate when and where it chooses without serious opposition. The rapid proliferation of advanced fighters and surface-to-air missiles contradicts that assessment. The first order of business must be air superiority, closely followed by suppression of enemy air defences. If the USAF allows its superiority in these two areas to slip, it will massively complicate matters for every other mission.

This does not mean buying as many fifth-generation aircraft as possible. It means, first, that F-22 production should be restarted at any political cost. Second, it means that the balance of US fighter forces should be at least on par with the Generation 4.5 standard. There are many ways to do this that, while politically difficult, are far more cost-effective than the current approach, which stakes the future of the air force on replacing an aging fleet with a fighter that is experiencing massive cost overruns and capability underruns. Total number of airframes is always negotiable- if you have to trade numbers for quality, do it.

The Air Force would also do well to consider that the one tactical service it provides that has ongoing political and military relevance even in smaller conflicts is close air support. It is time for the Air Force to get over its institutional distaste for that mission and start investing in it, rather than merely pretending to do so.


The US Navy has two indispensible tools, the carrier strike group and the submarine force. Everything else is negotiable relative to these two priorities. The vast array of ships which do not fall into these categories or support these arms should be regarded as optional.

The bottom line for the Navy- and now is the time for bottom line thinking- is that to maintain US alliance commitments and presence, there must be a minimum of 8 carriers and strike groups available (not in refuelling), distributed roughly as follows:
1 Atlantic
2 Mediterranean
2 Pacific Circuit
1 Japan-Based
2 Pearl- Indian Ocean Circuit

Note the emphasis on the Pacific and Indian Oceans. To escort these eight carriers, roughly sixteen cruisers, thirty-two destroyers and sixteen submarines. Of course, there are other missions that require more of each of these types, but the good news is that the Navy enjoys substantial leeway in hull numbers relative to this minimum and to any potential adversary. Its regional superiority in the most likely theatre for naval warfare, the Pacific, remains considerable. This gives the Navy the ability (though certainly not the inclination) to make substantial cuts while retaining the ability to invest in key areas.

The Navy seems at times to have conceded that its primary mission is to support operations ashore. Today, numerous powers are developing advanced and capable navies, and if anything, the relevance of blue-water operations is rising fast. While the US Navy can muster more hulls than any potential adversary, it is falling behind in key technologies, notably supersonic anti-ship missiles and anti-submarine warfare. Its fleet of Super Hornets, though better for the addition of AESA radar and supported by a dedicated Electronic Warfare version, will increasingly find the world’s fleets of Generation 4 and 4.5 fighters tough nuts to crack. The other long-term problem, though, is developing a realistic successor to the Arleigh Burke class, now that DDG-1000 has been capped at three ships. As Flight III and even IV designs have skyrocketed in cost while encountering significant design limitations, it is time to start from scratch, with a hull that is a warship first and stealthy second.


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