Op-Ed: The Weapons We Need For A War We Don’t Want (excerpt)
(Source: Reuters blog; posted July 20, 2015)

By P.W. Singer and August Cole
Terrorism and Middle East insurgencies are not going away. Yet in the 21st century, the United States must understand it faces a return of a serious national-security concern that shaped the last century: the risk of great-power conflict.

The Defense Department’s new military strategy acknowledges this by noting the implications of the renewed rivalry with China and Russia. The possibility of a major war with great powers, like World Wars One and Two, is “growing,” according to the U.S. National Military Strategy released this month.

Consider, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is back on high alert after Russia’s land grab in Ukraine, while the United States and China are competing in an arms race over the Pacific Ocean. When the nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently testified before Congress about the most critical security threats, he led with Russia, not Islamic State.

Yet the U.S. defense establishment still has one foot in the past and only a tentative one in the future. The Pentagon talks the talk of military innovation to deal with this new mix of threats but doggedly pursues costly weapons programs anchored in dangerous past compromises. Not only are the weapon systems unlikely to deliver well in today’s conflicts, they also could become vulnerabilities exploited by America’s adversaries during wartime.

The risks of these old ways of thinking were highlighted recently when a test pilot’s report was leaked to the War Is Boring website. The report revealed that an F-16 fighter — with 40-year-old technology — had bested the Pentagon’s planned new warplane, an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, in simulated combat.

The F-35 being tested, according to the report, couldn’t hold its own in close-in dogfighting. The Pentagon and manufacturer didn’t challenge the story’s merits, but rather argued the test was unfair — because the plane wouldn’t need to fight up close.

What is fascinating is that the same argument was made almost 50 years ago about the F-4 Phantom, a twin-engine fighter designed for air superiority and reconnaissance. It was first sent into battle without an internal cannon — because of the Pentagon’s optimistic assumption that the new generation of air-to-air missiles made close-range air duels a thing of the past.

The result was that outdated North Vietnamese MiGs were able to shoot down these Phantoms in dogfights, which the Pentagon had planned not to have. So the Phantoms had to be equipped with the very guns once considered unneeded. The Navy then had to create the Top Gun program to teach what had become a lost art of aerial dogfighting.

No More “Fingers Crossed” Planning

This same problem of “fingers crossed” planning — hoping for the best — has played out repeatedly in Defense Department programs. The Navy, for example, is buying $479-million warships that its own testers have found would not be “survivable” in an actual battle. The Air Force’s new KC-46 aerial refueling tanker lacks defensive systems for anything above a “medium threat” environment. Here again, the Pentagon is crossing fingers that ships or planes won’t be in a battle different from those planned for — as if the enemy never gets a vote in the matter. (end of excerpt)


Click here for the full story, on the Reuters website.

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