PARIS --- The budget proposals unveiled Feb 24 by the Pentagon are based on several high-stakes gambles that, when viewed together, are breathtaking in their brazenness.
The biggest of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's gambles (Gamble n° 1) is that the US can reduce its military if it retains a technological edge and the agility to respond on short notice to crises anywhere in the world. This is taking a second “peace dividend” after the first one was immediately shown by the first Iraq war to be a failed gamble.
But the most reckless of these gambles concerns the F-35 fighter, whose enormous cost, long delays and huge shortcomings, both in terms of design and performance, require no introduction.
The Pentagon, in effect, is still gambling that Lockheed Martin will eventually come up with an affordable product that performs to requirements (Gamble n° 2), and it is willing to stake the future of US combat aviation on that unlikely premise. This in itself is a huge gamble, given Lockheed’s lackluster performance on other major programs, like the Littoral Combat Ship (see below), and its past performance on the F-35.
Furthermore, the Pentagon still refuses to fund any research into alternatives (Gamble n° 3), so making sure that if the F-35 were to fail catastrophically, no Plan B exists to equip US combat aviation.
Keeping all the Pentagon’s eggs in the F-35 basket is an exceedingly irresponsible position for Hagel to take, especially as this is the first budget to come out on his watch – so it his decision, not his predecessors’. This irresponsibility is compounded by his obstinate refusal to consider possible alternatives, especially as almost every week brings news of a fresh F-35 failing. Hagel will not be able to say he didn’t know.
But European fighter manufacturers are likely to applaud him, however, because if the F-35 ultimately fails they will make a killing by selling their Eurofighters, Gripens and Rafales to the US Air Force, US Navy and Marine Corps.
Hagel’s A-10 plan is also based on iffy numbers. Ha says that retiring the entire A-10 fleet will save “$3.5 billion over 5 years,” or $700 million a year. This is peanuts compared to the $400 billion cost of the F-35 program, so there seems to be an error of one or two orders of magnitude in his thinking. Using these figures, will he be able to convince Congress that axing the A-10 makes financial sense? (Gamble n° 4).
The gamble within a gamble
The operational rationale for retiring the A-10 is that Hagel assumes that in future the US will only fight wars where the enemy will have “more advanced aircraft or air defenses” and where the A-10 “will not survive or operate effectively.” (Gamble n° 5)
But who can say what wars the US will have to fight in 5 years’ time, let alone in 15 or 20? And, on the evidence of the past 20 years, what makes Hagel think that he can?
Note, by the way, that Hagel seems worryingly detached from reality: in his Feb 24 remarks on the budget, he calls Iraq and Afghanistan “long and large stability operations,” not wars, despite their cost in blood (thousands of US and allied soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of civilians, killed) and treasure (over $1.5 trillion).
A final observation on the A-10, which Hagel off-handedly describes as a “40-year-old single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield.” While the A-10 may indeed be 40 years old, Hagel seems to have overlooked that, after very effectively flying combat missions during the first Iraq war, the A-10 was also engaged in operations in Serbia and Kosovo, before proving itself in Iraq and Afghanistan as the best Western close air support aircraft available.
Quite how this can be reconciled with his claim that the A-10 is “single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield” only he can explain.
The Pentagon also is retiring the U-2. This may not be a bad idea, given its age and operating costs, but the plan is to replace it with the Global Hawk – a long-range UAV the Air Force wanted to retire last year because its sensors underperformed despite their very high cost. Hagel now claims that Global Hawk costs have been reduced, but glosses over the issue of their performance. (Gamble n° 6)
Plan B or no Plan b?
While the Pentagon refuses to even discuss hedging its bets on the F-35, it has no hesitation in acting decisively on other programs.
One example is the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), which Hagel admits can only operate safely “in a relatively permissive environment.” The consequence: the US Navy will only buy 32 (instead of 52), and will go back to the drawing board to design “a capable and lethal small surface combatant..…a frigate.”
Hagel “directed the Navy to consider a completely new design, existing ship designs, and a modified LCS” – all things he refuses to consider for the F-35.
Hagel has adopted the same approach for armored vehicles. He says he will “terminate the current Ground Combat Vehicle program and re-direct the funds toward developing a next-generation platform,” while the Army and the Marine Corps will have “to deliver new, realistic visions for a vehicle modernization by the end of this fiscal year.”
This is also the case for the Army’s long-standing plans to find a replacement for the OH-50D Kiowa. After decades of fruitless but very costly efforts, the scout helicopter concept is killed off, the Kiowa fleet retired and replaced by Apaches.
So non-performing programs can be terminated, and their funds re-directed to alternatives, when convenient; it just cannot happen with the F-35.
Why an approach that works for small ships, armored vehicles and helicopters is not applied to combat aviation is a great mystery, and all the more so that it is in combat aviation that feasible and affordable alternatives exist – major upgrades of F-15, F-16 and F-18E/F fighters.
Will sequestration save US combat aviation?
Given this absolute reliance on Lockheed and the F-35 (“faith-based defense?”) it seems that only sequestration will restore sanity to US combat aviation plans.
Hagel notes in his budget presentation that “If sequestration-level cuts are re-imposed in 2016 and beyond,” the services will “need to make far more significant cuts to force structure and modernization.”
For the Air Force, these cuts would include “slowing down purchases of the Joint Strike Fighter – resulting in 24 fewer F-35s purchased through Fiscal Year 2019.”
And the “Navy would also halt procurement of the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter for two years,” at which point the program would probably enter its death spiral.
Congress should take heed if it wants to avoid seeing Eurofighters, Gripens and Rafales flying with US Air Force roundels in 2030 (Gamble n° 7).
Story history: Minor editing changes and corrections added after posting on Feb 25.