U.S. Military Headed the Way of Detroit?
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. Toair-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.