By Ryan Pearce
February 24, 2010

In many circles in the defense community, the Stryker Interim Fighting Vehicle is considered the most enduring legacy of a concept introduced by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Transformational Warfare was initially hailed as an ingenious plan to reduce casualties on the battlefield by making the soldier at all levels, smarter. The idea, oversimplified as a man with a computer attached to his gun would be more capable than the two men without computers soon became bastardized. In many areas, the man was removed from the picture all together, and it became a computer with a gun could do the same job as four men. From this, Stryker was born. Designed to do job that 100 years ago would’ve been done by a horse, Stryker became a glorified mini-van outfitted with more computers than Bill Gate’s home, Stryker was pressed in to service on the streets of Iraq’s 21st century battlefield as a sort of desert-vomit colored silver bullet to the solution of transporting infantry to and from. Stryker failed.

by Ryan Pearce
December 15, 2010

On November 24th, nary a day after the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island on November 23rd 2010, the United States dispatched warships of the 7th Fleet, including the USS George Washington (CVN-73) as a show of force. This, of course is only a portion of the expected response that the United States would show in any situation of a similar nature, especially as it is an anticipated that the armed forces will be called upon on an increasing regular basis as a “Power Projection” force. With this future mandate, the image of a massive nuclear powered aircraft carrier steaming just offshore—with nearly a hundred fighter-bombers on its flight deck—will quickly become a staple for any viewer of CNN and its contemporaries watching the evening broadcasts. While these vessels and their air wing make a clear showing of the modern U.S. military’s strength, what remains unclear is their role in every facet of the world stage. The threat of an aircraft carrier steaming off the coast of whatever country in the past has been more than sufficient to cause many warring states to come to the peace table. However, one must realize that these particular instances have involved threats easily engaged by F/A-18E/F Super Hornets dropping massive quantities of precision guided bombs on relatively fixed infrastructure. In essence, the states that have backed down at the sight of an American warship; have had something to lose to the sheer firepower that these vessels can unleash. Visions of the first gulf war, with fighters launching sortie-after-sortie against powerplant, communications nodes, and other industrial targets is a very clear reminder that an aircraft carrier steaming off your doorstep is not a threat to be underestimated.

However, that was the past. The future of modern warfare, and thus the future of the Navy lie in how it will deal in Conflicts-Other-Than-War (To be abbreviated as COTW/OOTW). Many of these conflicts involve small regional states controlled by dictators or warlords who are always moving. The most appropriate historical examples of what future OOTWs will look like will resemble the guerrillas of Vietnam operating on the Ho Chi Minh trail, the Iraqi insurgency, or operations similar to those Somalia and Bosnia. Very rarely is there any fixed infrastructure. In a very real sense, the costs needed to launch a single Super Hornet, armed with a single weapon on a single sortie against a target in this new environment will be multiple times than the target they’d be called on to strike is worth.

What is now needed is a new vision in Operations-Other-Than-War. Beyond just warships, beyond just new airplanes, and beyond new tanks, but in fact an entire shift in strategy. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeild saw this reality, and out of this, his Transformational Warfare policy has become a perverted roadmap for the Department of Defense, and will likely shape defense policy (and by defacto, international political policy) well into the future. Unfortunately, the current idea of transformational warfare only translates into a modernization of the concept of HyperWar (Kearney, Thomas & Bailey, Rosanne, “Combat Enters Hyperwar Era,” Defense News). Transformational warfare’s wiz-bang gadgetry doesn’t address the fundamental flaw of too much for too little.

Although it is only my opinion, a vision of Scaled Response including facets from both Transformational Warfare as well as Conventional Warfare would be ideal, as it would combine the capability to engage in peace support operations (PSO) at an extreme level of aggressiveness, whilst also being fully able to respond to full scale regional conflicts with no loss of capability. This duality eliminates the problem of the “Hundred Dollar Problem/Thousand Dollar Solution” that currently plagues the Department of Defense. Some steps have already been taken to reduce this problem, namely the testing of the laser guided Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System and the introduction of the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb. Both weapons go far to reduce the cost and more importantly, collateral effects of these more compact and more focused weapons compared with their contemporaries.

I ask all of you to not mistake my thoughts on the subject as a supporter of Transformational Warfare, and in fact to understand that I find the idea fatally flawed. Be that as it may, the idea of a light, highly responsive, extremely lethal reactionary force is borderline genius, as long one understands that the need for a conventional military is not extinct. Much to the chagrin of many in the defense community, the threat posed by conventional standing militaries in the Middle East by Iran, or in Southeast Asia by China, still shows that the need for a conventional armed forces is still highly necessary at present–and well into the future. However, “Transformationalists” are right about one thing, Quasi-conflicts will become more prevalent in the modern world stage.

by Michael Durao
December 7, 2010

Although air superiority has been taken for granted by the United States in its recent counterinsurgency actions since the end of the Cold War, the development and acquisition of fighter jets meant to ensure the control of airspace – and, as a result, reliably deliver close air support to ground forces more capable of tangible, strategic victories – has remained a multi-trillion dollar aspect of defense spending across the globe.  This is in part a result of the inherent complexity of aircraft compared with other military hardware, but it is also-being subject to an unstoppable technological momentum derived from a desire for more capable airspace control, one that will always continue regardless of the acquisition policies of one nation or transnational faction.  This paper will set out to demonstrate that momentum on a worldwide scale through study of the ongoing development and acquisition of 5th generation fighter jets, and that the technological system of the US defense industry has taken on an autonomous role that is ill-prepared to meet foreign technological momentum.  For the sake of clarity, the components that I use to set 5th generation fighters apart from their 4th and 4.5th generation counterparts are active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars for stealth through low probability of intercept (LPI) scans to prevent hostile passive detection of its own radar emissions plus low-radar cross section (RCS) airframe design including internal ordinance bays for stealthiness against hostile active radar scanning.  By that definition, the 5th generation currently includes the American F-22A Raptor and F-35A/B/C Lightning II, will include the Russian/Indian T-50 PAK-FA when it enters operational status in approximately 2015, and will include the Chinese J-XX a few years after the PAK-FA goes into production.  Technological momentum refers to the idea set forth by Thomas P. Hughes that moderated the dogma of technological determinism, suggesting that technologies interact with societies as both causes and effects themselves.  In showing the reality and ramifications of technological momentum in this field, I will focus on the initial race to outperform the 4th generation, the cancellation of the F-22 Raptor in favor of the F-35 as an instance of technological autonomy run amok in the American political system and defense industry, and the continued development of 5th generation fighter technologies overseas as a demonstration of the current American system’s futility in preventing technological momentum outside of its legal and geographical jurisdiction.

The first area where technological momentum in fighter development becomes apparent in the history of 5th generation fighters is in examining the F-22’s origins as part of the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program.  Beginning in 1981, the United States Air Force (USAF) began studies into replacing its relatively new F-15 Eagle high-tier fighter in response to the new Soviet MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker fighters, which were generally regarded as almost on par with the USAF’s inventory and expected to eventually be outperformed by indigenous Soviet stealth and aerodynamic developments (GlobalSecurity.org).  This is where the F-22 began as an effect of technology – Soviet 4th generation fighter jets, which were themselves an effect of the USAF’s development of its own 4th generation fighters.  However, actual flight testing of the YF-22 prototype and its rival YF-23 Black Widow II did not begin until 1990, at which point the Cold War was rapidly marginalized as the USSR’s fall appeared increasingly inevitable, and while the Gulf War a year later involved air combat, most of the Iraqi aircraft encountered were mediocre 3rd generation craft shot down by USAF F-15s with no friendly air-to-air losses. 

For the time being, though, the ATF program was merely research and development with four airframes, relatively cheap compared with acquisition programs and far from the public and political spotlight.  But when the YF-22 was chosen as the victor of the ATF competition it came time for acquisition, and the USAF campaigned hard to procure a high-tier, advanced fighter that provided no significant benefit over the F-15 in recent conflicts such as intervention in Somalia and peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia, especially after Serbian MiG-29s spectacularly failed in combat against F-15s in the latter (acig.org).  As a result, the USAF changed its marketing of the F-22 to Congress and the craft became a cause rather than an effect, an influence on political aspects of society.  

First, the F-22 was renamed the F/A-22, with the A standing for “attack” and mimicking the Navy’s naming convention for its multirole F/A-18 aircraft.  The F-22, however, has never been intended for multirole capabilities and its ability to carry a small inventory of bombs was an afterthought.  More notably, the plane was reverse adapted into a jobs program with significant support from the heavily unionized aerospace industry.  This drove bipartisan support that continued well into the 2000s, with Republicans supporting the craft for its ability to project power overseas while Democrats bowed to union interests, as evidenced by Chris Dodd’s pleas for its continued acquisition (senate.gov), even joined by Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein (Kaplan).  Reverse adaptation being defined by Langdon Winner as “modifying … needs in accordance with the requirements of planning,” this occurred in the form of the F-22 becoming a response to a manufactured need for defense and aerospace jobs after its initial cause became irrelevant.

When Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as the Secretary of Defense, he entered the office with a desire to transform the US military into a force tailored to fighting insurgencies, not large-scale conflicts against other superpowers.  He described this as “matching virtue to necessity,” (Donnelly and Schmitt) a literal inversion of the definition of reverse adaptation.  While Bush was indecisive on the matter, Obama’s 2009 defense budget limited F-22 procurement to 187 airframes.

The great irony here is what a thin, unconvincing facade of technological control Gates’s actions erected.  He prevented further building and procurement of Raptors, but the money and resources went directly into the F-35 instead (Kaplan).  Obviously the F-22’s price was not the issue as the F-35 is over double the cost of the Raptor at nearly $300 million per airframe (FY2011 Budget Estimates) in addition to being less capable.  Gates exerted control over one application of technology, but he has not altered the procurement system whatsoever: the F-35 is yet another jobs program, just one that promises more jobs at an even greater expense.  As a low-tier fighter rather than high-tier, the F-35 has always been planned to be produced in more numerous numbers than F-22s, though not in the wildly disproportionate amount the current plan calls for.  Nearly 2,500 F-35s will be produced for the US military alone (PBS Newshour), and several hundred more will be sold to export customers in NATO and elsewhere.  It is also made even more unkillable than the Raptor by its subcontracting being an international affair, especially threatening heavy investment by the British defense industry in the jet and Italy’s contracted agreement to produce F-35s for all other NATO customers.

F-22 production, meanwhile, was originally planned as 1,000 fighters overall during the Cold War, but realistic plans for more adequate Raptor acquisition today call for half that number to better replace the USAF’s F-15s.  It is also subject to a ban on exports imposed by Congress because the plane is so advanced, meaning production would definitely end after all USAF orders are filled.  The F-22 is a victim of all of these circumstances, and while Robert Gates may have successfully capped the program at 187 airframes the broken system of military Keynesianism continues to manufacture need for the sake of jobs rather than meeting threats.

And it couldn’t have come at a worse time.  A year after its funding was cut off, the “Cold War relic” outpaced the relevance of the impotent F-35 when Sukhoi unveiled the T-50 PAK-FA prototype in early 2010.  Developed jointly between Russia and India, the T-50 is a high-tier air superiority fighter intended as Russia’s first foray into the 5th generation.  While the plane’s performance is still unknown to the West, some notable defense commentators had already declared the F-35 unable to counter the T-50 based on knowledge of its avionics suite and higher air-to-air payload well before the first prototype had flown (Kopp and Goon).  Were this development limited to Russia and India it would be irrelevant, as direct conflict with either nation is unlikely, but the PAK-FA’s true virtue is its low price tag, promoting widespread proliferation of aircraft that can easily outmatch anything short of a Raptor.  At approximately $100 million per airframe, Vietnam is expected to be the first export customer (Johnson), and other nations expressing interest such as Venezuela, Algeria, and Egypt are far from superpowers; further technology transfer following PAK-FA acquisition by small states is to be expected.  The threat of widely proliferated 5th generation air superiority fighters is heightened by the planned Chinese J-20, which will likely see even more exports when it enters service in the 2020s (Gertz).

What the PAK-FA and J-20 demonstrate is that the inertia of technological momentum cannot be stopped, especially in defense technologies.  Much like the proliferation of nuclear arms due to their strategic value, the paradigmatic advantages offered by 5th generation aircraft over any aircraft from the 4th generation ensure not just air superiority, but air dominance if a foe is not similarly well-equipped, and the allure of such military dominance will inevitably be worth investing in to someone.  However, despite these real strategic concerns the American defense industry has grown into an even more uncontrollable mess than it was in the Cold War, and after two decades without meaningful weapons technology development in the East those charged with oversight of procurement are more concerned with jobs generated – a manufactured goal meant to keep the system running – than their stated goal of deterring aggression with superior hardware.  Very soon, as PAK-FA exports begin, the US will be faced with a technological threat that it has the means but not the political will to address.  As the unnecessary and inept F-35 becomes the costliest weapons program in history (PBS Newshour,) efforts to bring about that will present the nation with an unprecedented opportunity to reverse the autonomy and political control of the defense industry.  The real and tangible threat of PAK-FAs wantonly sold around the world will be the result of an unstoppable technological momentum, and it can only be met with recognition that hundreds of billions of dollars wasted on securing defense sector jobs and buying thousands of fighter jets made to fight current counterinsurgencies – unwinnable conflicts that will likely be abandoned before the end of the decade – are not the solution.

Michael Durao is an Beowulf Associate who's analytical expertise is focused on aerospace platforms.  His particular concentration lies in the analysis of the capabilities and proliferation of Eastern air defense and air-to-air systems, defense acquisition reform, and the evolving paradigms of 21st Century warfighting.

by Michael Durao
January 11, 2011

Recent leaks concerning China’s new J-20 prototype fighter serve to highlight glaring deficiencies in American defense acquisitions.  The capabilities of the J-20 remain shrouded in typical Chinese secrecy, but Western analysis has already cast a skeptical eye on its stealthiness and capabilities.  Regardless, the J-20 and the far more capable Russian/Indian T-50 unveiled one year ago demonstrate that the West’s monopoly on 5th generation fighter technologies has ended, and that independent, cheap development of these technologies will drive their proliferation to potential adversaries in the third world.  Contrary to the claims of politicians and military leaders, the airborne battlespace is not irrelevant, and the second it’s lost the close air support that makes American forces so potent on the ground will give way to massive casualties and a neutering of power projection capabilities.