Air Force Strategist Fears U.S. Will Lose Technological Edge Over Future Enemies

By Sandra I. Erwin
The officer selected to help the Air Force plan its future is known as a fierce advocate of air power who also worries that inside-the-Beltway politics and red tape are slowing down the modernization of U.S. weapon systems.
Maj. Gen. Steven L. Kwast, chief of requirements at Air Combat Command, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., has been named director of the Air Force Quadrennial Defense Review.
Kwast will be taking over the QDR office in mid-January, just as the building begins to gear up for tough budget battles, and for the Pentagon’s next quadrennial review, a congressionally mandated report that will be due in February 2014.
For the Air Force, the upcoming QDR takes on added importance because it will be first one since 9/11 that begins to plan for a post-Iraq and Afghanistan future. Air and naval warfare, which have taken a back seat during the past decade, are expected to move up the totem pole. The Obama administration’s strategic guidance unveiled in January 2012 set the tone by calling for a gradual drawdown of ground forces and for shifting resources from fighting insurgencies to increasing military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
As he goes about articulating a vision for the future Air Force, Kwast is likely to raise tough questions and challenge the conventional wisdom, officials told National Defense.
During aconference last month hosted by the Air Armaments Center near Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Kwast delivered a keynote speech that offers several clues on how he will shape the QDR debate.
The Air Force has to begin to focus on long-term challenges, Kwast said. The business of the Defense Department has for too long been consumed by day-to-day crisis management — the budget, the election — at the expense of thinking about “big problems,” Kwast told an audience of Air Force officers and military contractors.
Fighting insurgencies on the ground for a decade has drained resources from high-tech warfare, he suggested. “We are off balance in the entire joint interagency portfolio,” said Kwast.
Although the U.S. military remains the world’s most technologically advanced, the lead could soon evaporate unless the Defense Department shakes up its procurement system, he said. “We have been on a gravy train of military capability over the past 60 years. And we are seeing signs of its death.”
Without mentioning any country by name, Kwast hinted that he worries that the U.S. military will be vulnerable to increasingly sophisticated weapons that cost much less than U.S. systems. “The enemy is stealing away our competitive advantage,” Kwast said. In the Defense Department, “it takes too much money and time to provide solutions.”
The Pentagon spends loads of money on expensive hardware, such as stealth weapons, that drain the bank account and might not be the best way to counter future foes, he said. “Find me creative, innovative things.”
After a decade of counterinsurgencies, he said, “We have ignored probably a more significant threat: Not an adversary in the strict sense, but a threat of not investing in being a participant in the conversation. Someone else will, who may not share our values.”
Waiting for “clarity on the budget” should not be an excuse for failing to think about these long-term problems, Kwast said.
Case in point is the Pentagon’s crippling procurement system. “We spend $10 billion to field something, it takes us 10 to 20 years to do it. The enemy steals it away from us for $10 million, and fields it in 10 weeks,” said Kwast. “We all grew up in a Cold War paradigm of outspending, out producing an adversary. … If we aren't careful we can find ourselves where we can't afford the basics.”
It is conceivable that a savvy enemy could deny the U.S. military the use of navigation and communications satellites in space, or could incapacitate it via cyber attacks, he said. If that were to happen, “Our job is to tell the president: ‘It’s not a problem.’”
Countries that are acquiring inexpensive GPS jammers and training hackers to disrupt U.S. computer networks are “stealing away our comparative advantage faster and faster,” said Kwast. “As I watch us spend so much money on stealth, weapons that are extremely expensive [and] sophisticated and … where every miracle has to happen for the whole thing to work, I see fragility and centers of gravity where the enemy can pull the plug pretty darn easily.”
The U.S. military has to make smarter use of its resources, he said. “We are spending more and more money going down the same theological path when we might need to look at something cheaper,” he said. “We need [to take] a little risk, we need a little creativity, a little relief from the policy shackles we've been living with, and we might find some creative ways to think about the bigger problem.”
U.S. enemies’ use of crude bombs — known as improvised explosive devices — in war zones should serve as a cautionary tale, said Kwast. “We need to be asymmetric to the future as the COIN [counterinsurgency] fight was for us when we first stepped in the arena and got our [expletive] kicked by IEDs and an enemy that was amorphous.”
Unless the Pentagon can figure out how to outsmart future enemies, he warned, “We will end up in the trash heap of history as one of those civilizations that did not see the signs of their demise and kept squirreling away solutions that worked before but don't seem to be giving the same results.”
Kwast partly blamed the problem on a military culture that does not reward risk-taking. “Not to be pejorative, but we tend to not grow very creative general officers,” he said. “We have to make sure we win, so we are careful, cautious and risk averse.”
It would take bold leadership to tell the Pentagon to stop wasting money on weapons that might not be needed, but unless some financial discipline is imposed, the U.S. military will be defeated by its own actions, he said.
Kwast said he would like to see closer teamwork within the Air force and with the private sector to help promote innovation. “There are silos within the Air Force, “ he said. “When there's enough money, we don't talk to each other. … You get different stories from different parts of the Air Force.”
The good news, he added, “Change is coming. We're on the road towards that.”
Photo Credit: Air Force

Topics: Aviation, Tactical Aircraft, Business Trends, Doing Business with the Government, Defense Department, DOD Leadership, War Planning

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.