Two From the 3Ds

First, on the F-35, the Inspector General disagrees with the Pentagon and Lockheed on quality assurance.

Second, prospects for reforming Canadian defence procurement- the Harper government is trying to solve problems that originated from poor policy with bureaucracy.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

RCAF Priorities Outlined to Montreal Industry

In an address to Montreal aerospace industry representatives on Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Yvan Blondin, Commander of the RCAF, outlined the future procurement priorities of the Air Force, which go well beyond fighter replacement. The general touched on a variety of subjects, ranging from the effects of the delays in procuring CH-148 Cyclone helicopters to the force’s expanded presence in the Arctic. His message for Canadian industry was clear: find ways for the Air Force to save money.

One avenue for saving money prominent in the talk was the improvement and expanded use of flight simulators. This accords with some of Blondin’s previous comments that reducing maintenance costs and prolonging the service life of the current fighter fleet might involve less flying time.

Future capital acquisitions mentioned included an unspecified number of drones- from the context, it was clear that these were to be more than the reconnaissance drones Canada already uses- search and rescue transport aircraft (a role separate from the CH-149 recently acquired), and a number of disposable stores acquisitions, including new sonobuoys and torpedoes. The search and rescue and anti-submarine equipment particularly fill definite gaps. Canada is notorious for its poor search and rescue coverage given its territory, and transport and rescue squadrons field some fairly old airframes. Likewise, Canada still uses the Cold War-vintage Mk.46 torpedo.

It was difficult to get a sense of Gen. Blondin’s direction for the force from the talk. While he did indicate that a major reassessment of Air Force doctrine was underway internally, little that was really new seemed to enter into the priorities he presented. Gen. Blondin has been a supporter of the F-35 program, albeit hedging his bets a little more than his predecessor.

What was most interesting about the evening was the attitude among the industry representatives. They seem to recognise that this government’s procurement plans are likely to face re-evaluation, particularly the F-35 purchase. Several of these companies manufacture components for the F-35, but they seem fairly well aware of that program’s cost problems, and are unfazed by the prospect of having to reorient. One company which manufactures F-35 components, for example, also has contracts for the Super Hornet, the C-130 and a number of Sikorsky helicopters, as well as a civil aviation business line. The Canadian aerospace industry tends to specialise in discrete components, such as landing gear and avionics, and so generally have a wide pool of programs and clients in both military and civil aviation to balance out problems with any particular program.

Fighter Procurement News- India, Netherlands

India’s much-heralded purchase of the Dassault Rafale fighter, critical for closing a yawning gap in India’s force structure left by the retirement of MiG-21s and other older aircraft, is moving forward at a snail’s pace, as India contemplates an expensive integration of Russian missiles for the platform. Never mind that India has a large enough air force to comfortably use two sets of ordinance (as they already do with their Mirage fleet), or that having two ordinance sets provides a nice insurance against flaws in any one system, integration of new weapons and the consequent delay in procuring the fighters could well cost more than maintaining two sets of ordinance.

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The Dutch government, in a stroke of illogic that beggars belief, has decided to purchase only 37 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters over the next five years, while selling their new naval support ships. The expensive F-35 was always going to cripple Dutch force structure and defence procurement, but it seems the government is trying to mitigate the damage by purchasing a force so small as to be useless for anything beyond domestic air defence, a role for which the F-35 is hardly the optimal aircraft. There is a word that a government wanting to preserve capabilities while cutting costs should be strongly urged to consider: Gripen.

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Speaking of which, an interesting piece on the possibilities of the Gripen for Canada can be found here, and a more formal one from the Ottawa Citizen here. The Gripen in its new NG version is a real balm to the ills of modern fighters. It is not only reasonably priced, but has a low cost of ownership, a complete array of integrated weapons (a big problem with other platforms including Eurofighter and F-35), high speed (unlike the Super Hornet and the F-35), great manoeuvrability (the F-35’s dogfighting ability has frequently been questioned), up-to-date electronics… It is neither a demigod of aerial combat like the Eurofighter nor a full stealth aircraft like the F-35, but neither is it far behind in those areas, and if the RCAF can buy two Gripens to an F-35 with a guarantee that maintenance costs won’t leach money from other important capital programs (of which the RCAF has several), it would be more than worth it.

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In other news, the crisis in Syria has seen a prolonged congregation of Russian, American and NATO ships in the Eastern end of the Mediterranean. A map of the ships from earlier this month.

F-35 Still A Fiscal Curse

Two insightful pieces on the F-35 from Defence-Aerospace.com.

First, the real reason for the 22% drop in support cost estimates: they lowered the estimates– nothing else changed.

A second article, Disarmament by F-35, describes the cancerous effect of the program on acquisition budgets. The Netherlands, for example, will spend half its capital budget on 58 aircraft over six years. The strange loyalty shown to this “too-big-to-fail” program means that it starves other programs in any country that touches it. South Korea should be glad they got away…

Air-Sea Battle Debate Picks Up, South Korea Heads For Silent Eagle

Further to my posts on military doctrine and naval warfare in East Asia, and Mark’s posts on Air-Sea Battle, James Holmes reports over at the Diplomat on a debate that’s been heating up. Specifically, the question is whether Air-Sea Battle is needlessly escalatory, and whether, surprise surprise, a naval blockade approach (as for example the one suggested by Kline and Hughes a while ago) might be the better approach to a notional future conflict with China. Holmes provides some good sources and analysis, but unfortunately doesn’t seem to have heard of Kline and Hughes’ take, dubbed “War at Sea,” going with Hammes’ somewhat less innovative “Offshore Control” concept instead. Some of the caveats that arise toward the end of the article might be better answered under the former framework than the latter.

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Meanwhile, South Korea’s fighter competition seems to have reached a point where Boeing’s Silent Eagle is the last bird flying. The F-35 broke the bank, and the Eurofighter consortium seems to have fudged some of their paperwork.

The Silent Eagle is an untried, radar cross-section reduced F-15 variant. Its low-observable characteristics depend on carrying missiles internally in what used to be the F-15 conformal fuel tanks, which both reduces range and provides only a four-missile capacity. Of course, it has all the expected goodies in terms of avionics, but it still lacks the various aerodynamic upgrades tested on the F-15 airframe. What’s so great about that? Well, for one thing, the Koreans really wanted a stealth aircraft, since China and Japan will both have stealth aircraft. While it is highly doubtful that Silent Eagle is any more stealthy than any other Generation 4.5 fighter (bearing in mind the F-15 layout was not designed for low-observability, unlike the Typhoon), the name might carry some weight. Also, South Korea already has a fleet of relatively new F-15Ks, so there are advantages in standardisation.

Sequestration, Star Inflation and the Modern Military

While passing a DoD spending bill that would allow the sequestration-beleaguered Pentagon to fund such key programs as ten new Arleigh Burke class destroyers, new Virginia class submarines and the Joint Strike Fighter, the Senate subcommittee sharply limited the money that would put toward ramping up F-35 production in FY 2015. According to the chairman, “Aggressive overlap in designing, testing and procuring this aircraft earlier in its history got us into serious trouble, and this committee is eager to avoid a repeat of these problems.” Wisdom, they say, is a resource that becomes available after you need it.

Sequestration has also apparently given the Senate the gumption to take on some of the more ridiculous manifestations of Pentagon extravagance, in this case, star inflation. “According to a recent analysis, the US military is 30 percent smaller than it was at the end of the Cold War, but it has almost 20 percent more three- and four-star officers,” in the words of the Chairman. Funding for these positions has been reduced by $8 billion.

The Project On Government Oversight published a paper on officer inflation back in 1998 that is still worth the read- because nothing has changed, at least for the better. To quote:
“In 1945, the number of Army generals per active Army division was 14. In 1986, at the height of the Cold War, the army had 24 generals per division. Now, as we face no major threat, there are 30 generals per division. At the end of WWII there were 130 Navy ships per admiral. In 1986, at the height of the Cold War, there were 2.2 ships per admiral. Now, as we face no major threat, there is an average of only 1.6 ships per admiral.”

A more recent (2011) report from POGO highlights that even during the decade of the Iraq and Afghan wars, the percentage increase in enlisted personnel was the smallest of any rank category (under 5%), while 3 and 4 star flag officers experienced a nearly 25% increase.

The costs of star creep continue well beyond the retirement of the officers, as well.

Of course, the United States is not alone in this regard- Canada, with a force smaller than the US Marine Corps, had around one general or admiral per 1000 members as of 2012.

Some of this is understandable- after all, a high-tech, modern military does need more highly skilled people- but if you believe that explains what all those senior officers are doing, I have an island in Indonesia I’d like to sell you.

Neither, as a number of service members have pointed out, does this preponderance of highly-polished brass mean that the military as an institution, is any good at retaining talent.