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Posts Tagged ‘Air Force’

Fighting the Next War, Part II

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 25, 2009

The F-22, which the Air Force has alleged to be the fighter that could not be shot down, has been destroyed on the ground by the American Congress, two days before the news broke that the F-35– the Joint Strike Fighter– is at least two years behind schedule and won’t enter the production phase until at least 2016.

It’s been a bad week for the Air Force.

Where does this leave American air power as we head into the second and third decades of the century? Not in a particularly good place in the short term but, if the Air Force brass can get their heads around it, in a very good position for the mid to long term.

In the first part of this article I touched upon the F-22 suffering from many problems, the most critical of which was timing. Not only was the insanely expensive F-22 up for review during a financial crisis, but at a time in which unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) have been constantly in the news for their outsized role in the Afghan theater of the war. Every week we see stories of Reaper or Predator strikes against targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan and hear the virtues of this style of aerial combat– extremely long loiter times, no American pilots in danger or captured in sketchy places in the event of a shootdown, reasonably stealthy… and relatively cheap. If these drones work so well in the air-to-ground role, what can they do for air supremacy?

The idea of taking the human pilot out of the cockpit holds several advantages, not the least of which is taking the risk of dead American pilots off the table. From an aircraft design standpoint, removing the pilot, cockpit controls, life support system and ejection seat is a dream for the weight savings, allowing greater loiter time, greater deliverable payload and overall cost savings.

In modern fighters, the pilot is always the weakest link; fighters can pull far more Gs than the pilot can tolerate without losing consciousness. While it is true that could make UCAVs incredible dogfighters, that isn’t nearly as important in modern aerial warfare as is the fact that the higher G load the aircraft can handle, the better chance it has of avoiding  advanced SAMs You also eliminate the problem of limited mission duration by taking fatigue, food, and discomfort out of the equation. From a mission planning standpoint you can take greater risks; although these planes will be expensive, they will also be more disposable as you aren’t losing pilots when you lose airframes. It’s politically a lot easier to send a fleet of robots against a highly defended target than it is to send someone’s kids to do the job.

There are significant downsides to UCAVs in the air supremacy role; the control systems would be extremely complex, especially if any autonomy is expected. Active control systems are potentially subject to interference and jamming, and the technology to actively control these aircraft in the split-second environment of aerial combat may not even be possible due to broadcast lag time, demanding the aforementioned complex autonomy. When you take humans out of the loop, you also have the problem of the computer choosing incorrectly and destroying the wrong targets or making other mistakes. The “creepiness factor” of robots killing humans is going to inspire a Russian, Chinese and Iranian campaign amongst lesser developed nations to outlaw these things, and it is undeniably going to gain traction as America will likely be the only ones deploying autonomous systems like this for several years.

The biggest problem facing the move to UCAVs, though, isn’t technological– it’s oh so very human. The biggest obstacle is the revulsion with which UCAVs are viewed by the Air Force, which of course is run primarily by fighter pilots whose entire identities are invested in the fact that they have piloted high performance jets. Ever have a conversation with a fighter pilot? They talk about flying a fighter the way a 17 year old boy talks about sex– it’s the ultra-idealized, be all and end all of human existence. They cannot, for the most part, conceive of, first, a computer doign their job in the cockpit and second, of not spreading their profession to a next generation of fighter pilots. That’s a problem when these men and women are the ones who need to set strategic and tactical policy for the Air Force and as well as making the research and procurement decisions about future aircraft.

The Air Force has run up against a wall every bit as imposing as the limits of a human to withstand Gs– the potential of the next generation of planes has outstripped the costs that Americans are willing to pay for them. A plane that can cruise at supersonic speeds rather than only sprint at them, that can engage a dozen targets simultaneously while being nearly invisible to radar, that can maneuver like no plane before it– those are the features of the F-22. So is the $361,000,000 price tag per plane, for a plane that is designed to operate in units measured in multiples of 12. The next plane up, the F-35 JSF, is rumored to be significantly less capable int he air-to-air role than advertised and is getting very expensive itself; if its primary role is to be that of an air-to-ground attack plane with a secondary air-to-air capacity, then one has to question the wisdom of buyign it when UCAV technology has already been demonstrated to handle that role very well.

This week we’ve heard the Air Force make the argument that to deny the F-22 is to fight the last war rather than the next as the F-22, while useless in Afghanistan could be a huge difference maker in a more symmetrical war against a major power. The reality may well be that procuring the F-22 and F-35 may indeed be the move rooted in the last war, as technology has eclipsed the need for the human pilot in the cockpit; the Air Force may finally, unwillingly, be dragged into that realization by the White House quaterbacked drive that ended the F-22’s procurement cycle.

Posted in American Politics, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Fighting the Next War, Part One

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 21, 2009

America has a nasty habit when it comes to maintaining our military– we fight, throw all of our economic and industrial might into the battle… and then destroy the military created the day after the armistice is signed.  The ugliness of this cycle has, of course, become greatly magnified during the era of industrial-technological warfare; with the drawdown post-World War I setting us up for WW II, the post-WW II drawdown enabling the North Koreans to launch their war in 1950 and push the Americans all the way to Pusan within roughly 5 weeks. Drawdowns occurred even in the Cold War settings that followed Korea and Viet Nam, always returning America to a dramatically weakened strategic position than it was in during the war.

The reasons for this are clear– in a democratic society war fatigue runs high and the will of the people to be reminded of war after the fact is low, leading to demands for a “peace dividend” and for tremendously reduced military spending. This is, of course, a sensible response– unbridled military spending during peace time can be ruinous, but in the course of American history we have traditionally overcompensated for this sentiment and cut back to the point of fundamental weakness with relation to our global responsibilities.

As the most active portion of the ill conceived and strategically unsuccessful “War on Terror” comes to a close with the shuttering of the Iraq Theater, war fatigue is running particularly high at the same time America deals with a financial crisis that makes spending on military systems particularly painful. The situation is further complicated by the traditional dual impetus to reduce military capacity coming at a time of transitional technology, in which robotic systems seem nearly ready to displace traditional man-in-front systems.

Into this maelstrom flies the F-22 Raptor, a tremendously advanced aircraft with no clear role in the current war and a pricetag that represents the cost of ten to fourteen F-15s, the current American fighter in the air superiority role that the F-22 seeks to fill.

The Obama Administration’s stance on the F-22 is clear– we don’t want this thing. The Congress is divided between fiscal responsibility and the fact that suppliers for the F-22 project have been strategically salted throughout the most important Congressional Districts in the nation, making the vote tough for key Congressmen and Senators. The Air Force sees the design potential of the aircraft and wants many, many more. The other three services see the Raptor as the usual platinum plated Air Force toy– good only for air-to-air combat and useless in the close air support role that has been so incredibly vital to the Marines & Army in this and the past several wars. They may have a point– since 1991 and Operation Desert Shield/Storm, through Somalia and Kosovo and the WoT, the US Air Force has made fewer than 25 air-to-air kills against jets of an enemy air force, all of them in 1991 in the air war phase of Desert Storm. In that same time, over 10,000 missions have been flown against targets on the ground.

Oddly enough, that disparity makes, for both sides, the most militarily compelling argument over the F-22. The President, the members of the DoD not wearing blue suits, and the budget conscious can point to the scarcity of air-to-air combat and make the seemingly rock solid case that an incredibly expensive air superiority fighter is unneeded; the Air Force can conversely claim that we have fallen into the trap of falling the last war rather than preparing for the next against a more symmetric adversary against whom the F-22 would be a key to American victory over China, Russia or (in a stretch) Iran. “Fighting the last war” is a phrase loaded with meaning to military planners and historians, an indictment of the thinking that what worked last time will prevail next. The Maginot Line is an oft-cited example of fighting the last war; the French built a huge line of fixed positions that mimicked the trench system of the First World War in the hope that it would secure France from Germany; Germany on the other hand had prepared for the next war by developing mobile operations featuring tanks and trucks that easily outflanked the Maginot Line. It’s a damning accusation.

Later today the Congress will issue an up or down vote on continued funding for the F-22, and the vote counters are hard at work trying to figure out the balance between self interest, military necessity, financial prudence and technological advance. Running Local will be back after the vote with Part Two of the story.

Posted in American Politics, Obama Positions, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Sometimes There’s Never a Right Time

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 12, 2009

I had an interesting email exchange the other day with a friend who just returned from his second tour as the commander of first an infantry platoon and then an infantry company in the Afghan Theater of the war. We were discussing the resurgence of the Taliban, their improving tactics and the general difficulty of fighting in Afghanistan when the quality of our own troops came up.

As a commander, he is quite satisfied with the quality of men and women that he commands in the field; morale is showing some frays over the issue of multiple combat tours that always seem to get extended just when people start to believe they’re about to go home, but that’s been true of America’s wars for a century. While on the topic of morale, I broached the third rail of personnel issues for the Army, especially– soldiers who are gay.

Don’t ask, don’t tell has become a punchline in the military and the popular culture both. Only fools believe that gay and lesbian personnel aren’t a part of every company, every ship’s crew, every squadron; simple math tells you that the demographic distribution of gay Americans mandates that gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are members of every sizable unit of our Armed Forces. More commonly known amongst military personnel as “Ask, Don’t Tell” for the way the program is actually administered, the policy has been exposed to the hypocrisy that lies at its foundation over the past several years of war, which have seen dismissals from the service under the Don’t Ask rubric decline from the pre-war years– when the military needs specialists who happen to be gay, it seems, they don’t quite pursue their dismissal with the vigor that they do in peacetime.

My friend is sympathetic to the overall cause of openly integrating the force, but he falls back on a common refrain amongst even progressive military thinkers on the topic– you don’t do anything that might cause upheaval within the ranks during time of war. On the surface, that is a seemingly eminently logical point. Wartime is not the time for social engineering, it is a time for boosting morale and getting maximum performance from the troops. Anything that distracts from that goal is an unwelcome distraction, indeed. Why dispose of a policy that, if flawed, has kept something of a lid on the entire situation for fifteen years now?

The liberal knee jerk response is “Because it’s the right thing to do”, of course, and in a vacuum they are right– we know that segregation and bigotry is a fool’s errand as witnessed by the racial segregation our own nation experienced between the Civil War and Civil Rights. Outside of that vacuum, though, that argument isn’t nearly as compelling– even Abraham Lincoln dispatched with a cherished founding stone of our nation, the writ of habeas corpus, due the the exigencies of the Civil War itself, so “because it’s the right thing to do” doesn’t carry as much weight during this time of war due to precedent.

That dismissal, though, is countered to an extent by the excesses of the current war that have found protective coloration in precisely the habeas corpus argument; Guantanamo, “enhanced interrogation techniques”, extraordinary rendition, denial of lawyers and “new” interpretations of the Geneva Convention as it relates to the definition of “prisoners of war” are all beneficiaries of the Bush Administration’s willingness to relax not only our Constitution but also our uncodified standards of conduct. We were collectively complicit in that relaxation, of course– it is far too easy to wash our own hands of culpability and assign the blame to an unpopular President while forgetting that he was elected by the people to represent us and that, truthfully, many of us were so outraged and so angry in the time following 9-11 that even though we may have talked about how much we hated what Bush was doing we went ahead and re-elected him with an even larger share of the vote. American Democracy has eroded as a concept due to the excesses of the Bush Administration, but we can at least stop it from eroding to the point of football, where all ills are blamed on the quarterback even if the fault lies with the coaching staff or the defensive line. Yes, I am amongst those who spoke out against the Bush policies as did many people, who worked or gave money for Kerry and Obama, who worked to elect progressive Congressmen and other elected officials, but I am also an American and that is the overarching reality of all of our lives– we are part of a collective, part of a nation, and we must see reflected in our own eyes its flaws as well as its benefices if we are to be honest with ourselves.

So too, then, must we recognize that there will never be a right time to deny rights, dignity, responsibilities and privileges shared by most Americans to any subset of Americans based on parochial beliefs or even what some might see as demonstrable facts. We are one people in blame as we are one people in right, and as one people it is beyond our honest ability to deny rights ostensibly shared by all to the few. Amongst those responsibilities and privileges is the ability to serve our country in uniform if one so chooses, a right and privilege currently denied any homosexual who chooses to live as themselves rather than in the closet. Yes, allowing openly gay members to serve in the military may cause some minor disruptions in the force structure, but we already have a much larger issue of integration to inform us as to what we can expect– the largely seamless integration of African American soldiers into “regular” units of the military during the Truman Administration. Naysayers predicted catastrophe as a result of unit integration– remember, this was a time when legal integration was still very much a reality in the American South, so making the military much less ready to accept black troops than it is to accept gay troops today. The predictions of mutinies, readiness level declines and other dire events never came to pass, of course, and assuming that they would today over integration of openly gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines is rendered even sillier given that history.

The military command structure itself has implicitly said this by reducing the number of dismissals for homosexuality during the war. The generals & admirals have spoken– dismissing gay troops would cause a greater force disruption than leaving them in place in many cases, as witnessed by the hesitance over the last four years in particular to make a dismissal cases against homosexuals, especially those serving in the technical, intelligence, and language sectors of the military where these men and women serve not only with honor but hold skills and talents integral to the successful waging of the current war.

There will never be a right time to integrate and accept openly gay troops into the force structure– there will always be a compelling argument made by those whom the layman is afraid to challenge on military grounds. The military, however, while being the ultimate guarantor of our safety is also the servant of the people of this nation, not the other way around. Those people must accept that there will never be a right time to deny basic rights to their peers; it is that peer relationship, that we are all Americans under the Constitution, that easily trumps any social, racial, or biological subset we may belong to with the exceptions for cause that are codified under the law (denying felons the vote, preventing the mentally insane judged a hazard to others from owning firearms, and the narrow like).

If a man or woman is willing to protect, defend, and honor their fellow Americans then we are not, as those Americans, too, in a position to deny them. To do so is to redefine the meaning of America in a direction which we have travelled too far and too easily these past seven years. It is time to reclaim our identity, and to do that we must accept that identity is a broad one that embraces all with a birthright to it.

Posted in American History, Cultural Phenomena, History, Human Rights, Social Justice, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Now Where Did I Leave That Nerve Gas…?

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 10, 2009

It would be comical if it weren’t so terrifying– after a year of the Air Force misplacing, mis-shipping, and basically mishandling nuclear weapons to the point that generals are getting fired and entire command structures are being redone, the Deseret News (Salt Lake City) disclosed on Sunday that–oopsies!– the Army may or may not have had a slight accounting discrepancy with the amount of nerve gas it’s storing for destruction at the Deseret Chemical Depot in Utah.

Any sensible military would’ve put half of the USAF command structure in front of firing squads this year, but as it turns out that would violate OSHA or some such regulation. In America, instead, we’re forced to retire to lucrative positions with defense contractors the dopes who send nuclear detonators to Taiwan and watch planes under their command fly around the US with “We thought they were test dummies but– oopsies!– were actual strategic weapons” bolted to the wings of their aircraft.

The scary thing isn’t just that those events happened, it is the reason why they have happened– crappy training and discipline. The two great separators between the US military and all others have traditionally been level of training and sophistication of weaponry. The US spends more money training its enlisted and especially officers than any other military in the world. For that investment, we theoretically get a force that can be trusted to think for itself, to carry out complex orders using sophisticated systems, and generally not to trod upon its own penis with combat boots. Guess what we’ve been stepping on of late? Lax standards and under-trained staff officers have been the proximate cause of all of the Air Force’s strategic weapons blunders this year; reviews have found QA checklists unchecked, officers who have no clue what is in the procedural manuals for handling nuclear weapons that they’ve allegedly been drilled on, weapons handlers who can’t tell a detonator from helicopter batteries. We’ve spent years pumping money into the Russian military to secure their arsenal and agonizing over the possibility of them misplacing a few nukes; anybody taken a look at Minot AFB or, I don’t know, under the carpet at the O club at Barksdale?

Lapses in training as it pertains to nuclear materials are a huge fear we have with Pakistan; it is unthinkable that it should be occurring within the US force structure. One has to wonder if the suddenly crappy training being given to our nuclear weaponeers isn’t the result of the financial pressure being exerted on DOD by the ongoing wars. Clearly strategic nuclear weapons are not the priority that they were in the darkest days of the Reagan-Evil Empire era’ s it possible that the USAF is pulling training dollars and competency out of the strategic arsenal in favor of spending with direct application to this war? It seems a reasonable assumption, especially given the unconscionable screw-ups going on. One more little gift from Mr. Bush’s war that keeps on giving even after the mission is accomplished, I suppose.

Now we see that the Blue Boys aren’t the only ones who can’t be trusted with a WMD– the Army may or may not know how many tons of deadly nerve agents they have or have destroyed or have shipped to god knows where. The United States went out of the chemical warfare business in 1985 when the Congress voted to destroy all stockpiles of US chemical warfare agents. Nearly a quarter century later we’re still in the process of doing so as the things are damnably hard to safely dispose of, requiring highly specialized incinerators. We still have stockpiles of artillery shells, bombs, rockets, spray tanks, storage tanks, mines, and the like mainly sitting out in the Utah desert at Deseret, at a handful of other sites in the nation (eight, according to GlobalSecurity.org), and offshore on Johsnston Atoll in the South Pacific… at least as far as the Army knows. 

We now know that the Army doesn’t actually know for sure– oopsies!– just how much nerve agent it has destroyed at Deseret or indeed how much they ever had or were supposed to have. They are putting the blame on accounting problems and tell us that they are “reasonably sure” they’ve gotten everything destroyed that they were supposed tot destroy by this point and know how much is left. Are you reasonably assured by that? 

Here in DC a few years back we had a bit of first hand experience with this issue– it seems that during the World War One era chemical weapons research was conducted in what is now the Spring Hill neighborhood of the city and on what is now the campus of American University. Due to some accounting errors and forgetfulness, nobody realized that when Spring Hill and AU were built that there were not only buried storage pits of toxins under the sites but also the odd unexploded mustard gas shell or six hundred. Nobody realized this until, in December of 2000, someone noticed that kids were getting sick at an AU childcare facility. Soil samples revealed huge levels of arsenic, which led to some digging and then an odd metallic clink when a shovel hit an artillery shell–oopsies!– still full of gas, which led to half the neighborhood being dug up and a boatload of munitions and toxins cleared. At least we know that what’s going on at Deseret isn’t a new problem, I suppose.

We are the kings of sanctimony when it comes to responsible stewardship of WMDs, which we absolutely should be– the things are a wee bit dangerous. Lax disciplinary standards and poor training are antithetical to the lowest infantryman in our system; that they seem to have become prevalent amongst the highest security areas of our military structure is unacceptable.

To have this emerge now, of all times, with Dick Cheney still predicting nuclear and chemical attacks against out cities… well, it does make you wonder just how sloppy we’ve been, doesn’t it?

Posted in Nuclear Weapons, terrorism, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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