PARIS --- A recent opinion piece by the US Chief of Naval Operations has revived the old debate that lurks in the background of every defense procurement decision: is it better to buy many simple, inexpensive platforms or fewer, highly-capable and more expensive ones, knowing that both will ultimately carry the same weapons?
Writing in Naval Proceedings magazine, Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert argues that “we need to move from ‘luxury-car’ platforms—with their built-in capabilities—toward dependable ‘trucks’ that can handle a changing payload selection.”
While most attention has so far focused on whether Greenert was taking an indirect “ big swipe” at the F-35 fighter, the question it raises takes on a new pertinence given the financial wasteland faced by many of the Western world’s military establishments.
Several recent conflicts have shown that the military’s universal tendency to over-specify platforms often backfires by generating such complexity that they cannot properly carry out some of their missions.
Operations in Afghanistan, for example, have amply demonstrated that the most effective aircraft for close air support is the venerable A-10, since more modern and capable fighters are too fast, too complex or too expensive to fly the kind of missions required to support ground troops. This realization took the US Air Force, which had long tried to retire the A-10, somewhat by surprise, and ultimately forced it to instead re-wing the aircraft to extend its lifetime. It also led to the emergence of the Light Air Support competition to provide effective, inexpensive variants of turboprop trainers to the Afghan air force for ground attack missions.
Also in Afghanistan, it was discovered that humble aircraft such as the MC-12 Liberty twin turboprop are highly effective at ISR missions, despite costing just a fraction of their fast jet colleagues, and this led the US to deploy most of its inventory there.
But the ultimate demonstration of the primacy of payloads over platforms is the unmanned aerial vehicle, which in the past decade has taken on such a dominant role that it is fast becoming the mainstay of military operations in Afghanistan and, indeed, of the US government’s campaign to assassinate terrorists throughout the Middle East.
As a platform, the UAV is a joke compared to modern combat aircraft: it is slow, not at all maneuverable, and difficult to fly, and so is the very antithesis of what air forces generally look for in a combat aircraft. Yet, their payloads mixing sophisticated sensors, laser-guided bombs and Hellfire missiles make the Predator and Reaper UAVs perhaps the most effective Allied weapon deployed in Afghanistan.
Obviously, what works in Afghanistan may not work in other battlefields, where an enemy with sophisticated anti-air weapons and modern combat aircraft would soon sweep Predators, A-10s and Super Tucanos from the sky.
Yet, there are areas where huge amounts of money might be saved by taking a “payload-over-platform” approach without suffering an unacceptable loss of capability.
The US Navy, for example, has modified a commercial airliner, the Boeing 737, to replace its fleet of P-3 Orion maritime surveillance/anti-submarine aircraft. There is certainly a case for buying used 737s and fitting them to carry large quantities of independently-targeted smart bombs to replace the B-52 bombers which will have to be replaced at some point in time.
In 2006, a single B-2 Spirit bomber dropped 80 500-pound smart bombs in a single pass, each aimed at a different target, using the smart bomb rack assembly (SBRA). Why not, for instance, fit a similar rack inside a 737 to gain a similar capability at a fraction of the B-2’s $500+ million cost? The stand-off range at which these bombs, or other smart weapons, would be dropped would guarantee the 737’s safety.
Others have argued that replacing old military aircraft with modified jetliners could save $100 billion, so the issue of payloads over platforms is certainly getting a new airing.
By giving it the legitimacy that comes from being recognized by a service chief, Adm. Greenert’s article has the very great merit of elevating this debate to a new level. It also places the spotlight squarely, if stealthily, on the next big issue that will inevitably dominate defense acquisition as more, and harsher, cuts bite into Western defense budgets.