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.
F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, January 20, 2012. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas.
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The result was that outdated North Vietnamese MiGs were able to shoot down these Phantoms in dogfights, which the Pentagon had planned not to have.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.
KC-46A Pegasus aerial refueling tanker. Image courtesy of Boeing.
Though every weapons program is an exercise in tradeoffs among cost, capability and complexity, certain realities must be accounted for. Why does Washington continue to expect warfare to play out only as America wants it to?
The reasons are complex but understandable if you follow Washington’s defense machinations. Though the Pentagon may talk about disruption and innovation, the corollary to game-changing technological breakthroughs is chaos and uncertainty, two things the defense realm today is not comfortable with.
It will likely take a generational shift. Just ask a music-industry executive how the business has changed since iTunes. Or how it is changing again with personal music-streaming sites like Spotify and Pandora.
U.S. defense planning must always take into account the risks of the worst day happening — not merely crossed-fingers hoping for the best.
Workers on the moving line and forward fuselage assembly areas for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Lockheed Martin Corp’s factory in Fort Worth, Texas, October 13, 2011. REUTERS/Lockheed Martin/Randy A. Crites/Handout.
Take the example of that simulated dogfight. The Pentagon said the failed test was not realistic because the F-35 did not have its full suite of sensors installed. Nor were its stealthy surfaces in perfect shape. But that is no defense, literally — and actually these claimed flaws might be the right test.
No technology or spin can change the certainty that there will be uncertainty in war. A jet’s components may not work as planned under the high-tempo, extreme battle conditions of a major-power conflict. Or American pilots might have only a fraction of their usual electronic wizardry, due to jamming and hacking by enemy forces. Sensitive stealthy aircraft will get roughed up flying through debris and operating from austere or damaged airfields.
This problem is not just caused by the idealized vision of warfare that Washington too often associates with new technology. It is also due to the very idea that new technologies can solve all problems for all people.
Think of this as the Pontiac Aztek problem of war. The Aztek, which debuted in 2001, was a car that tried to be everything — a sports car, a minivan and an SUV. Instead, it ended up overengineered, overpriced and overpromised.
Pontiac unveiled the production version of the Aztek, a cross between a minivan, a sedan and a sport utility, at the North American International Auto Show at Detroit’s Cobo Center, January 10, 2000. REUTERS/Archive.
There is an array of Pentagon programs today with similar characteristics. Supporters originally claimed they would be good at all types of war, but they have turned out to be unequal to any. The danger is that inventory stuck on a dealer lot is not a matter of life and death, no matter what you think of car salesmen.
As the latest National Military Strategy stated, if American forces ever did have to fight against another great power’s military — as opposed to the lesser trained and equipped Taliban and Islamic States of the world, which have been challenging enough — “the consequences would be immense.”
These consequences are not merely the high stakes, but the possibility of extraordinary loss and perhaps failure. This puts even more weight on the shoulders of those developing the next generation of U.S. weapons systems. Preserving status-quo programs and status-quo thinking risks not just budget dollars, but also military losses of a kind well beyond the travails in today’s relatively small wars.
To give a historic parallel, it’s the difference between the British problems in places like Afghanistan in the last century versus the empire’s major stakes and losses of World War One.
Without change, Washington is headed toward a near future where adversaries like China will be able to fight on equal terms — or even achieve military superiority. The challenge for the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry is to rewrite the narrative. They must stop throwing good money after bad, and not let congressional politics dictate where a weapon is built because U.S. success or failure in a future war hinges on an ability to start fresh when needed.
In addition to investing in a new generation of unmanned aerial, ground and naval systems, the Pentagon must continue to push the development of potentially game-changing weapons. The naval electromagnetic railgun, able to fire a conventional projectile 100 miles, is one good example. As are new laser systems that are capable of offensive and defensive fire. Long-range air-to-air missiles and strike systems will be crucial against an adversary like China, which is likely to match U.S. forces in quality as well as quantity sooner than many anticipate.
As the United States pushes forward, Washington has to recognize that a new race is afoot. China is now testing not just three different long-range drone-strike programs but a massive new drone, the Soar Eagle, potentially able to ferret out stealthy aircraft that the Pentagon is investing in.
The issue, though, is not just one of pursuing new innovations in weaponry. Expecting modern warfare to play out the way the Pentagon plans is a risk that has to be addressed head-on. The Pentagon must plan for the worst day of war, not the best.
What current and future weapons programs need is a renewed analytical review to see if they can meet a standard of wartime resilience and peacetime affordability — a mix that Washington manages poorly right now.
Those two qualities are essential. Particularly as the Pentagon explores how it might develop the next-generation of military technology that will include unmanned systems in the air, on the ground and at sea. These drones can be smaller and even disposable without a human pilot. This can also open up new potential uses that would complicate planning for an enemy. But they will only be truly game-changing if they are affordable enough to be bought in sufficient number to make a difference. And are designed to be reliable on the worst day the Pentagon can plan for.
It is not just the risks of great power competition that are growing, but the stakes for getting Washington’s approach to planning right. In peacetime, a “fingers crossed” approach is designed to avoid bad headlines and blown budgets. In wartime, it risks the kind of failure that the United States cannot afford.
P.W. Singer and August Cole are the authors of "Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War." Singer, who specializes in 21st century warfare, is a senior fellow and strategist at the New America Foundation. Cole is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.