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National Defense > Blog > Posts > U.S. Military Headed the Way of Detroit?
U.S. Military Headed the Way of Detroit?
The Pentagon is not designing any futuristic fighter jets. Teens’ videogame consoles have more computing power than the military’s most advanced precision-guided munitions. Much of the software used on military computers looks like a 1970s Atari disk operating system.

This technology malaise is worsening, not getting better, a panel of experts said Dec. 6.

Nowhere is the concern about technological decline more pronounced than in air warfare and tactical aviation. The U.S. Air Force, the world’s most technologically advanced for the past half-century, is at risk of becoming a transportation service that also flies drones, warns retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Dunn, president of the Air Force Association.

The Defense Department is so consumed by current wars that it is neglecting planning for the future and making investments to ensure the United States can keep up with technologically advanced adversaries, Dunn said at a Capitol Hill conference hosted by the Reserve Officers Association and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously accused Air Force leaders of suffering from “next-war-itis,” or the obsession with preparing for large-scale conventional wars against peer competitors that are not likely to happen. Dunn pushed back on that idea. “I would accuse the Defense Department of having “this war-itis,” he said. “There is little focus on the future.” Under pressure from Gates, the Air Force has shifted dollars that would have been used to acquire fighter jets to remotely piloted surveillance aircraft that are needed in today’s wars. To air-power advocates such as Dunn, that is irresponsible. “People assume remotely piloted aircraft are going to be used in other environments” in future conflicts, he said. Those aircraft, however, are too low-tech and vulnerable to enemy air defenses to be considered a credible future military capability, Dunn said. “I want our generals to be thinking about the next war.”

The Pentagon’s lack of a credible modernization plan not only is jeopardizing U.S. dominance but also undermining the nation’s industrial base, Dunn charged. He still begrudges Gates’ decision to end production of the F-22 fighter jet. The Air Force gave up on the only “stealth” airplane it has in production that would be capable of flying in “denied” areas where enemies would deploy advanced radar and surface-to-air missiles, Dunn said. What Dunn finds even more reckless is that the Air Force traded in a “real” aircraft for a “paper” fighter that is still in development, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. “We canceled F-22 at the bottom edge of the learning curve. The reason? We have this paper airplane, the F-35, which is going to be a lot cheaper,” Dunn lamented. The paper airplane wins because it will be “cheaper, better, smarter,” he said.

Dunn insisted that he is not bashing the F-35 but trying to make a point about the long-term implications of some of the Pentagon’s budget decisions.

The Air Force’s 2011 budget funds 149 aircraft. But a closer look at the breakdown of the spending plan reveals that the Air Force is not necessarily using those funds to modernize the fleet, Dunn said. Out of the 149 aircraft, 52 are drones, nine of which are throwaways that are used for target practice. Of the remaining 88 aircraft, 12 are trainers for Air Force Academy cadets, and 15 are light mobility airplanes. That leaves just 61 aircraft that will be replacing aging fighters, said Dunn. The Air Force last year retired 250 from the active fleet. The Defense Department cannot produce enough F-35s in the near term to replace out-of-service aircraft, he said.

With this attrition policy, the Pentagon projects “vulnerability,” said Dunn. Defense officials and military analysts have pointed out that the U.S. military has thousands more jet fighters than China, Russia or any other emerging power. Dunn said that thinking distorts the reality that both China and Russia are building next-generation fighters and, while the United States may not fight against those two countries, “We’re going to fight their stuff because they’re going to sell it” around the world.

Another sign that U.S. military technology is sliding behind is that it has failed to update the “brains” of most weapon systems, namely the computer chips. Senior Pentagon officials often fail to grasp that they are in charge of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of weapon systems that are technologically obsolete, said Patrick Wilson, director of government affairs at the Semiconductor Industry Association. “A 13-year old playing videogames on a Sony PS 3 has the most advanced chip technology available,” he said. Those chips are not found in any fighter jets, drones or smart munitions, he said.

The U.S. semiconductor industry, with nearly $150 billion in annual sales, spends 20 percent of its revenues on research and development, Wilson said. Yet, the Defense Department doesn’t benefit from that investment. Only 1 percent of the industry’s sales are for military systems. The defense acquisition process is so cumbersome that many high-tech firms shun government sales, Wilson said. “Our procurement system is so bureaucratic … it’s ridiculous,” said Wilson, who is a military reservist and recently was deployed in Iraq. At the military base where he was stationed, “Our software systems look like Atari,” Wilson said. The technology gap between the military and the commercial sector is “huge and getting worse.”

The loss of technological supremacy is not restricted to defense, and is becoming  an issue for the United States as a whole, said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, an industry think tank. “Remember when cities like Newark, Youngstown and Detroit” were thriving U.S. metropolis on the cutting edge of manufacturing and technology? Thompson asked. Look at them now.


Re: U.S. Military Headed the Way of Detroit?

This is 1939 and 1949 all over again. The conditions are ripe for us to lose the opening moments of a future fight. The biggest problem we have is the current Sec. DoD. While he has provided a level of sanity under this current administration, he has failed to address the long term. China is on the roll, both economically and militarily. One only has to look at their de facto support for North Korea's recent, unprovoked shelling of South Korea to know that China's future intentions towards us are not good. At the risk of being included in the tin foil hat crowd, was it really definitively proved that the contrail off of Los Angeles was not a rocket launch? I can't imagine a better stimulus package than one that spends billions with American industries to give us a margin of safety with tech modern implements of battle
Terry at 12/10/2010 11:57 AM

Re: U.S. Military Headed the Way of Detroit?

Dunn's comments are right on! We are sacraficing our future air dominance and, in turn, placing our country at greater risk.  Anyone thinking that there are no national threats to our nation are terribly short-sighted.  While we are "throwing stimulus dollars" around, the effort is meaningless if we don't secure our nation first.
Marvin L Tooman at 12/12/2010 11:41 AM

Re: U.S. Military Headed the Way of Detroit?

I agree with the comments of this article and would like to add that this modernization short fall is not restricted solely to the Air Force.  The Army is experiencing the same short falls if not more.  If you look through our recent history, the last combat platform that was designed and built from scratch was the Bradley Fighting Vehicle which was first fielded in 1981.  Many people like to point out the Stryker and MRAP vehicles as recent examples of “good” acquisitions…but these vehicles were not designed and built from the ground up.  The Army’s recent vehicle platforms were all based on Commercial Off the Shelf (COTs) technologies and/or platforms that were already in production that could be easily modified to meet the requirements.
     Is this a bad practice?  Of course not, but when you try to compare the timeline to design and develop a COTs based system vs. the new Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) program, it is not a fair comparison.  The requirements for a new combat platform, when nothing similar exists, take time and resources.  While I agree that the recently cancelled Future Combat Systems (FCS) program did not produce the promised results in the given timeframe, we cannot expect to ever advance our technological superiority if we do not invest in research and development.  Other countries are doing this (look at the recent pictures of the new Chinese “stealth” fighter in progress) and we cannot be afraid to invest in our future. 
     So how do you get past the “in fashion” desire to cut military spending when popular support for current operations begin to decline?  I suggest one method is to task the department of Defense research and development centers with budgets and timeframes to develop certain technologies that can be incorporated into future programs of record.  The current environment makes the research centers “latch” onto current programs in hopes that they will incorporate their new technologies into their programs.  By being controlled by “higher” DoD acquisition elements, it will ensure funding is continued and those technologies that can benefit multiple platforms are not “pigeon holed” into a single program.
Ian Humphrey at 1/9/2011 1:31 PM

Re: U.S. Military Headed the Way of Detroit?

Gates is expressing the will of his master, President Obama.  OB and the democrats do not believe the US power is a good thing.  Unlike the opposition, these folks are committed to what they believe and are determined to so impact the environment that the pat taken cannot be undone.

Gates is able to do this because nobody in the Military is willing to say no.  After all career comes first and the military has convinced itself that things like ideals and nation are dangerous abstractions that cannot be referenced.

So the bottom line gentleman is that like many great powers before us, as a society we have lost our will to compete.  All these other things are mere symptoms.
danf at 1/10/2011 6:50 PM

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