History Spot: Case Studies in Defence Procurement

Yes, it’s my avatar for a reason. The De Havilland Mosquito was the most accurate bomber of the first half of World War II, with the lowest ordinance expenditure per target, the lowest loss rate and the highest kill probability. It could race in at treetop level for precision work, or soar above anti-aircraft fire while heavier bombers were slaughtered in droves. When the RAF needed to take out a particular wall of a prison to free French resistance fighters, they used the Mosquito.

But that was not all. The Mosquito, as the fastest aircraft in the world at its introduction, was ideal for conversion as a fighter, night fighter, fighter bomber, U-boat killer and numerous other roles. It combined heavy armament with high speed and needed no escort. The wooden airframe was as strong as contemporary metal airframes, but much lighter, and it avoided drawing on critical war supplies and skilled labour- any cabinetmaker could help produce a Mosquito. It was in many ways the most perfect military procurement program in history, made all the more so by the fact that Geoffrey De Havilland designed the aircraft in the face of Air Ministry skepticism and forced the RAF to recognise its merits. The only flaw in the program was that many more weren’t built, and that a serious update was not funded until the end of the war. This was the Hornet, one of the highest-performing piston-engine fighters ever made.

Here are two documentaries on the aircraft that made Hermann Goering “turn green and yellow with envy.”

Less celebrated but certainly a spiritual successor to the Mosquito philosophy, the Douglas Skyhawk was the backbone of US carrier striking power for many years. It is an attack aircraft that has been used as a fighter and an aggressor trainer, and continues to serve in other air forces.

Despised by Tacair jocks in the US Air Force for decades, the A-10 “Warthog” stands alone as the most effective close support aircraft ever conceived. Designed to be everything that fast jets are not- slow enough for accurate targeting, a stable gun platform, rugged and extremely well-armoured, the A-10 has proven its ability to soak up damage and still fly home, to support troops with accurate fire in situations where other fixed-wing aircraft would risk friendly fire, and above all to destroy massed columns of tanks. And that is exactly why the US Air Force tries to give the job of this cheap, effective little aircraft away to expensive and vulnerable fast jets every five years- they don’t like any aircraft whose job is to support the Army.

Casualties of Budget and Strained Relationships

With the US government in partial shutdown, publicly-owned shipyards are furloughing workers and restricting activities to critical maintenance. This sort of thing will have far-reaching implications for the readiness of the world’s largest navy.

Time may be running out for the A-10, the world’s best close-support aircraft. The Chief of US Combat Air Command has said that if sequestration continues, the “Warthog” will be sacrificed to fund the F-35 and the role passed to that aircraft. The Army, understandably, is not happy. It isn’t just an issue of the A-10’s famous 30mm Gatling cannon- the F-35 is a more delicate platform with a higher minimum speed, and would have to carry out the close support role from a distance and at speeds that make it difficult to distinguish the situation on the ground. It will also of course be much more expensive, something that will become instantly apparent the first time an F-35 takes ground fire. An A-10 can be shot to pieces, fly home with its pilot safe and be repaired and back on the line in a matter of days or weeks. An F-35 in that situation would be a total loss.

***

Tom Clancy, author of such classic techno-thrillers as The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising, has passed away at the age of 66. In his memory, USNI republishes his 1982 article advocating hovercraft as nuclear launch platforms. Not perhaps the tribute he might have wanted. Clancy was a man with a clarity of vision about his country’s potential and role in the world, which the country unfortunately did not share.

***

Argentina is replacing old Mirage IIIs in its inventory- with used Mirage F1s from Spain. The Argentine armed services have been unable to recoup their aging equipment stocks for decades, and that seems unlikely to change.

China’s J-31, the “other” stealth fighter, is likely destined for export, filling demand for stealth aircraft created by the F-35 among the sort of countries America doesn’t sell to.

***

The Diplomat on tensions in the Russo-Chinese relationship- still rosy on the outside, but Russia is struggling to show its neighbour that it is still a great power to be dealt with. Russian suspicions of China’s strategic intentions go back to the Mao era, and are compounded by Russia’s history of invasions from the east and geographic indefensibility. Paranoia, perhaps.

Meanwhile, Russia is irritating China through its enhanced strategic ties with Vietnam and its involvement in that country’s offshore drilling exploration. Vietnam has ordered Su-30MK2 aircraft from Russia as well as a new batch of Kilo class submarines. If the Americans were making those sales, China would call it containment. Although Vietnam’s navy and air force are in no position to take on China, Vietnam plays on its previous record of fighting against the odds to intimate that it could raise the cost of hostilities prohibitively.

At the 65th anniversary of the founding of the South Korean Armed Forces, the ROK Army paraded a new land-based cruise missile (caution, the picture in the BBC article was of old Nike Hercules SAM variants). South Korea already has a land-attack cruise missile capacity.

After years of hemming and hawing on both sides, Taiwan is again saying that it wants to buy new American weapons, including a replacement for its F-16s. Taiwan, which held undeniable military superiority over the People’s Republic of China at the turn of the millennium, now faces a People’s Liberation Army that has modernised in every dimension and holds vast numerical and technological advantages.