The United States has a long tradition of tapping the ingenuity of its scientists and engineers to improve weapons of war. Technologies such as electronic warfare, precision-guided bombs and advanced sensors and communications have been incorporated into the existing platforms of tanks, planes and ships to protect their crews while making them more lethal in combat.
Sometimes, these developments are aimed at countering specific enemy advances, such as the introduction of Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missiles in Vietnam. Other times, these new capabilities, such as GPS navigation and infrared imaging, are meant to offer more general battlefield advantages. Regardless, these weapon systems, which may remain in service for decades, even generations, require updating in order to remain effective and survivable over time.
At the same time, the Pentagon often abandons what works in favor of radical, high-technology concepts that promise more than they deliver. In such cases, the service may start with a clear, achievable weapon system with a straightforward concept of operations tailored for its intended users. Examples of these include the A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft, M1 Abrams main battle tank and AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, which have remained effective through upgrades and popular among the rank and file for many decades. However, big-ticket items experience what might be called “requirements creep” as military decision-makers and even political leaders load additional features and new roles onto the original system. The result of such programs—even those that make it into production—are often jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none weapon systems that are too expensive to acquire in effective numbers, employ at any useful operational tempo, or maintain at necessary levels of readiness.
When critics say that the U.S. military procurement system is broken, as Marcus Weisgerber has effectively argued in Government Executive, they are generally comparing the current system with a wide range of older, more successful programs that have buttressed America’s position as the world’s preeminent military power. Weisgerber claims that the Pentagon spends too much time and money developing weapons that don’t perform as promised and that this erodes America’s military advantages. Several of the sources cited in the article argue that the answer is to fast-track new technologies through aggressive research and development in order to sharpen America’s edge in the face of military modernization programs in China and Russia.
Others, however, say America’s worship of technology is part of the problem. “We buy weapons that have less to do with battlefield realities than with our unending faith that advanced technology will ensure victory, and with the economic interests and political influence of contractors,” wrote James Fallows of The Atlantic in 2015. “This leaves us with expensive and delicate high-tech white elephants, while unglamorous but essential tools, from infantry rifles to armored personnel carriers, too often fail our troops.”
A Tale of Three Elephants
Technology, then, is a double-edged sword. While it can provide the means to defeat enemies and save friendly and innocent lives, it often becomes something of a holy grail. The quest for high-technology solutions to warfighting problems drags out development time, loads expense onto procurement and compounds the complexities of maintaining new weapons over their life cycles. High-tech programs might be worthwhile if they produced results. However, these programs regularly fail to deliver despite all the time and treasure spent.
Pink Elephant: Future Combat Systems
After its significant role in achieving victory in the 1991 Gulf War—a war that caused the West’s enemies to reevaluate their own warfighting methods—the U.S. Army began studying land warfare capabilities to replace its veteran-heavy armor that had spearheaded the advance into Kuwait and Iraq. Rather than specifying a new generation of these successful weapons, planners envisioned a web of manned and unmanned systems, sensors and precision-guided ordnance tied into a command-and-control network. These studies evolved into the Future Combat Systems (FCS) program, which was led by Boeing and Science Applications International Corp. and was tasked with integrating the various components developed by contractors encompassing most of the military industrial establishment.
The FCS program was very much in keeping with the trend toward network-centric warfare that was then sweeping through the Pentagon and Western militaries more broadly. The approach stressed a real-time awareness of what was happening on the battlefield compiled from multiple sources and an ability to call on an array of weapons to destroy identified threats. All this would be enabled by an advanced battlefield network. At the time it was trendy to proclaim, “The network is the weapon.”
FCS was supposed to produce a family of lighter, smarter, more agile weapons that would dominate the evolving battlefield while protecting soldiers with defensive countermeasures and keeping them out of harm’s way. It did none of these things. After spending $20 billion through 2009 on what RAND Corp. called “the largest and most ambitious planned acquisition program in the Army’s history,” the Pentagon pulled the plug. While some aspects of the program linger on in some modernization efforts, the pursuit of FCS largely resulted in little beyond vaporware. In 2018, Dan Lamoth reported in The Washington Post that the U.S. Army established its Futures Command in part to address the fact it spent over $35 billion on new weapons development since 1995 with almost nothing to show for it. Indeed, in addition to FCS, other expensive programs that went nowhere include the $8 billion Comanche helicopter, $6 billion Joint Tactical Radio System and $2 billion Crusader self-propelled artillery gun.
Sea Elephant: Littoral Combat Ship
While the Army lost a decade or two in its pursuit of a high-tech fix, the U.S. Navy forged ahead with building and commissioning vessels of its Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) class that came nowhere near fulfilling the requirements laid out for the $30 billion program. As is typical with such efforts, the original concept had merit. The Navy, coming off the Cold War with a highly effective oceanic “blue-water” fleet, faced the obsolescence of its frigates and perceived a need for operations in coastal “green-water” regions—the so-called littorals, such as the Persian Gulf and South China Sea. Rather than develop a replacement frigate along with a corvette or large patrol ship, planners envisioned a revolutionary class of relatively inexpensive ($220 million) coastal combatants with modular, interchangeable payload packages for conducting anti-surface, anti-submarine and minesweeping duties as needed.
The Navy failed its first hurdle in 2010 when it could not choose between the two leading designs—Lockheed Martin’s more conventional monohull or General Dynamics’ exotic trimaran, a three-hulled vessel reminiscent of a high-speed ferry. Instead, it chose both, an unorthodox decision that was proffered to Congress as a cost-saving measure on the logic that the two teams would compete on future builds. Representatives and senators were happy because pursuing both designs meant production would be spread to more districts. The two variants required dual manufacturing facilities, dual training regimes for crews and maintenance personnel, and dual pipelines for spare parts. In the end, the production of the ships cost about $550 million apiece.
Maddeningly, after a reported $7.2 billion in development costs, the mission-specific modular mission packages never materialized due to a cascade of systems integration problems. As a result, the Navy canceled this foundational aspect of the LCS program in 2016. Each ship, in what is anticipated to be a class of 35 vessels (down from 52) split between both variants, will now be equipped with fixed mission packages for its intended role of surface combatant, minesweeper or sub chaser. The problem is that the ships are too valuable to risk against hostile gunboats and too vulnerable and lightly armed to take on surface ships, aircraft or subs of a decently equipped enemy. Today, they are mainly deployed for anti-piracy, drug interdiction and peacetime “show the flag” missions, although there are plans to integrate—at added expense—more effective weapons and sensors in the future.
Realizing its mistakes, the Navy has decided to build 20 conventional frigates based on an Italian design as a stopgap measure while it evaluates proposals for a brand-new frigate class.
Flying Elephant: F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
So much has been written about the travails of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II (formerly the Joint Strike Fighter) that it doesn’t bear repeating here. Essentially, the Pentagon planned to build a fifth-generation fighter replacement for the U.S. Air Force’s venerable General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. The new fighter was also meant to work for the Navy and the Marines (hence, “joint”), and variants of the F-35 were expected to replace the Northrop Grumman A-10 Thunderbolt II, Boeing F/A-18 Hornet and Boeing AV-8 Harrier II. Suffice it to say, the original plan, meant to contain costs, went out the window.
Conceived primarily as an attack aircraft, the F-35 would perform strikes on ground targets and limited air combat roles, while the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor fifth-generation air-superiority fighter would rule the skies. The latter, arguably the best fighter in the world, is nevertheless shockingly expensive at over $150 million per plane (or $335 million, counting development costs). The Pentagon ended production after building fewer than 200 Raptors, too few to fight a war with.
As a result, the F-35 has been forced to take on the role of air-superiority fighter, a role for which it is not suited. The aircraft lacks the speed, endurance and payload the U.S. needs to defeat adversaries from China and Russia. Advocates say the F-35 outfights fourth-generation fighters such as the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and Boeing F-15 Eagle, but these encounters are under controlled, mock-combat conditions. In many ways, it is unfair to expect the F-35 to be a superlative air-superiority fighter because it wasn’t designed to be one. At the same time, the Pentagon has placed itself in this position with a $1.5 trillion wager. Moreover, many allied nations are counting on the F-35 for their armed services.
Despite the pile of chips on the table, there are signs of cold sweat among the gamblers. In April, members of the House Armed Services Committee told F-35 program officials and stakeholders that it might be time to fold. While the military continues to insist that the plane is essential and that it needs over 2,000 of the planes, one representative said it was time for the Pentagon to “cut its losses” while another used to the term “rathole” to describe the expensive, underperforming aircraft. Nevertheless, over 500 have been delivered so far, including to the United Kingdom, Australia and Israel.
Despite the official line on the F-35’s indispensability, customers are already hedging their bets. The F-35 is so expensive to operate that services are mulling over a variety of cheaper, lighter aircraft to take over missions where they don’t really need to bring the Lightning. There are even discussions of deploying “companion trainers” so F-35 pilots can maintain their flying hours without necessarily having to fly their F-35s. The U.S. Air Force is committing to buy at least 144 Boeing F-15EX fighters, a modernized version of the veteran Eagle, to assume more of the air-superiority burden. Ironically, instead of replacing aircraft, the F-35 may end up proliferating the number of required aircraft types.
Perfect Is the Enemy of Good
As indicated earlier, the Gulf War offered a number of lessons to friend and foe alike. Military analysts at the time were concerned about the quantity and quality of Iraq’s tanks, artillery and air-defense systems. The U.S.-led coalition, however, rapidly overran Saddam Hussein’s forces with a combination of strategy and technological superiority. The lesson: More technology is better.
After the war, potential U.S. rivals began a process of paring down their massive, obsolescent, unwieldy armed forces and modernizing them to be more useful. In particular, Russia and China have been fielding successive generations of existing weapons while developing new systems. Generally, this has been a process of gradual improvement, although China also has been developing a suite of new weapons for its air, naval and missile forces. As a result, both nations are more capable of asserting themselves energetically and sharply challenging the West than they were at the time of the Gulf War, 30 years ago.
By contrast, the U.S. has largely squandered the military advantages it possessed in the 1990s. Rather than pursue a policy of gradual improvement, it endeavored to replace tried-and-true land, sea and air platform types with radical new and unproven concepts. The record is not good. The Army is still fielding the same tanks it had 30 years ago. The Navy has a frigate it doesn’t dare expose in combat. The Air Force has a handful of advanced fighter jets that are too expensive to operate routinely and insufficiently numerous to face a rising China in a protracted conflict.
The U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in recent decades on systems that have not enhanced national security. That money would have bought a lot of upgraded tanks, improved frigates and modernized F-15s, which the U.S. is now buying anyway. The Pentagon spends a lot of money on exotic platforms, such as stealth. Larger numbers of more conventional platforms with better sensors, communications and weapons would serve America better in a conflict with a near-peer power.
The U.S. has not fought an extended war against a relatively modern military since Vietnam, which was hardly a peer. Such wars are fought in campaigns, and flashy weapons that may shine on day one may not be available—or replaceable—as the war grinds on. A war with China fought to a victorious conclusion would require weapons that go the distance. Rather than pouring resources into specialized platforms, the Pentagon should focus on the communications, sensors, weapons and countermeasures that enable crews to engage the enemy successfully and get back to base safely. An F-15EX that can be refueled, rearmed and sent back into action is better than an F-35 sitting in a hangar with a crack in its fuselage.
A conventional platform requiring less maintenance is more useful on campaign than a finicky one. Instead of a specialized platform, the focus should be on advanced mission systems (command, control, communications, sensors), offensive weapons (missiles, bombs, guns) and countermeasures (jammers, decoys, defensive weapons). The weapons and mission systems should be able to fit a variety of platforms, which should be designed to accommodate newer systems as they become available. This is equally applicable for fighting vehicles, surface warships and fighter-bombers.
Lavish, long-shot bets on advanced technologies are fine, but only if you have alternatives when they don’t pay off. Rather than pouring resources into an elite cadre of boutique, bespoke weapons, the U.S. military needs to build on what it does best with more advanced versions of its robust warhorses.