New Wars Demand New Systems

Posted May 6, 2005 at 2:11pm

Twice in the past 64 years, Americans have woken to the startling realization that no ocean is wide enough to shield this continental nation from the turbulence of history. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 not only drew America into global wars, but also revolutionized the tools and conduct of such warfare. In the 1940s, planes with propellers were quickly replaced by high-speed jets, and nuclear weapons raised the stakes of war by an order of magnitude previously incomprehensible. Warfare before World War II and warfare after were fundamentally different, yet in important respects it much remained the same. Young Americans would continue to be brought to far-away places to win conflicts with their “boots on the ground.” So it is now. Big things are happening at the Pentagon, and while buzzwords like “transformation” and “modularity” generate lots of excitement, and even upheaval, the need for well-trained, and well-led, troops remains constant.

Recent events have demonstrated the need for American forces to be able to deploy quickly anywhere in the world. Our current enemy is a creature of caves and remote places, often far away from long, smooth runways and friendly bases. American power needs to be able to be projected fast and far in ways previously impossible. In contrast to the new threats we face, our current catalogue of airframes consists largely of 1970s designs less and less suited to the times. Fortunately, a new generation of platforms is coming online to address current requirements. Unfortunately, this development is long overdue, and there simply is not enough money to go around.

Among the more notable big-ticket items are the F-22, JSF, F-18 E/F and V-22. The list goes on and on and includes such budget casualties as the Comanche. And this phenomenon is by no means limited to airframes: Future Combat Systems represents the Army’s lurch into the 21st century, while the Navy has new classes of ships, such as the Littoral Combat Ship and DD(X), on the table. Due to past neglect of our aging inventory and our evolving circumstances, we now have to foot the bill for this converging backlog of important technologies.

As if the fact that all of these platforms are coming online at relatively the same time did not pose enough of a challenge, there is the additional fact that unit prices for these systems are also increasing dramatically. And each time we buy fewer units of a given system, prices spiral even higher. This reality represents a significant obstacle to the Defense Department’s modernization plans. As Congress and Defense move to address system costs, it will be important to keep in mind life-cycle costs. While the sticker price of developing and procuring system units gains the most attention, there are costs in maintaining a system over its entire service life that need to be bore in mind. Ultimately, the budget climate will force decisions between what we would like to have and what we have to have.

Another buzzword that has garnered significant currency is “jointness.” For 20 years the services have been moving increasingly toward integrated systems, training and operations. Interservice rivalry is fine for football games, but 21st-century warfare will demand a seamless military force in which materials, equipment and, above all, information can move between the right people. It makes sense for the Army and Marines to buy the same trucks when appropriate, and it also saves money. Our combatant commanders are joint commanders, and our acquisition strategy should be joint as well when possible. Similarly, it will be ever more imperative for American forces to be able to operate with those of our allies, though this will be especially challenging if some of our European friends continue to lag behind in their military expenditures.

As Congress moves to contain system costs, it should continue to encourage the involvement of small businesses in the development of defense technologies. The big prime contractors do incredibly important work for our country’s national security and should continue to have Congress’ support, but small businesses are making increasingly impressive contributions to our technology pool, often at lower cost. The Defense Department should continue its efforts to cultivate the small-business entrepreneurship that oftentimes leads to breakthrough innovation.

Some of America’s cutting-edge ingenuity is on display in Iraq and Afghanistan right now. Unmanned aerial vehicles have the potential to radically change the very nature of aerial warfare. Their development, while only in its infancy, is already paying dividends, and the sky, quite literally, is the limit. Flying higher than the sky is the central nervous system of our communications network: satellites. We in Washington spent a good part of last fall debating who should control intelligence assets such as satellites and how their information should be disseminated. In future conflicts, a platoon commander may get critical information directly from a satellite assigned specifically to his unit, cutting out the middle man. Combatant commanders may have directed energy hardware at their disposal: lasers and microwave weapons instead of bullets and bombs.

Our enemies, present and future, fully understand the futility of raising large land, air and naval forces with the capacity to match American might in open battle. If they cannot have ships and planes such as ours, they will work asymmetrically to neutralize our systems’ superiority. Cyber warfare will surely be a method of choice for American adversaries. If our information network could be tampered with or shut sown, American technological supremacy might be rendered moot with a keystroke. An electromagnetic pulse could destroy our networks and leave us without power, communications and even food. The great fear is that a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon could end up in the wrong hands, with cataclysmic results. Preventing this scenario is the central task of our time.

As we tailor weapon systems to serve us in the fight against global terror, we must also prepare ourselves to fight the next war. It may well be that our fight against small cells of ruthless thugs will be but a historical footnote, bookended by much larger conflicts. Once again, a power rises in Asia, with enormous resources at its disposal, both human and material. Again, we may face a superpower separated from us not only by a vast ocean, but by an even wider ideological divide that has proven a sure recipe for confrontation.

Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) is vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on tactical air and land forces.