Much of the current debate surrounding recent defense budget decisions misses some important points.
One of the most controversial decisions was to end the F-22 fighter program at 187 aircraft — only four more aircraft than the Bush administration had recommended. Some pundits, defense intellectuals, and even government officials have contended that the F-22 is a Cold War weapon that is not needed for today’s world.
They also point out that the F-22 hasn’t been used in Iraq or Afghanistan. Presumably that proves their point, although it ignores the fact that many of the weapons in the nation’s arsenal — submarines, nuclear weapons, ICBMs, to name a few — also haven’t been used in these conflicts. Nevertheless, few people are rushing to declare these are obsolete weapons and advocate their elimination. Similar arguments can be made for other budget decisions as well.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he supports the need for a full spectrum capability for U.S. forces. He also notes that the United States is fighting two wars and needs to concentrate for now on winning those two. And that’s fair.
So the recent budget shakeup can be seen as resource decisions based on available funding and the priority demands of the current conflicts. Whether it’s the F-22, CSAR-X, Future Combat Systems, future bomber, or even the presidential helicopter, these program cancellations can be viewed as decisions where the risk of termination or delay is deemed acceptable, given all the other demands for U.S. forces.
All the criticism about Cold War weapons is way off the mark however. The next conflict the United States will face is unlikely to be like the one we now face, if history is any guide. And if the threat encountered includes a highly integrated air defense system — with next-generation surface-to-air missiles and advanced fighters — the F-22 will be a weapon of choice.
Another important question in all of this is the impact of these decisions on the industrial base. To state an obvious truth, the U.S. industrial base has to be able to meet the needs of the nation’s forces for world-class weapons systems. The U.S. advantage on the battlefield is based on three factors: The quality of its recruits, the quality of its systems, and the quality of its training. We don’t depend upon numbers to dominate. To underwrite this capability, the industrial base has to be able to deliver leading edge technology. Currently, no other nation approaches the United States in the high-end integration of components into advanced weapons systems.
To say U.S. weapons systems are complex is an understatement. One only has to look at the lines of software code in ground and air vehicles to get a small appreciation of the level of sophistication. Systems integration on naval vessels is a highly intricate task.
The science and engineering expertise needed to do all this takes time to build. The F-22 began as a concept in the late 70s, and has just now achieved stable, efficient manufacturing processes. Advanced systems take time to design, develop, test and refine. It is not like the rapid World War II ramp up in production for fairly basic systems that were used in that conflict.
Once a program is shuttered, the design team — both for systems and manufacturing — goes on to other tasks, and over time simply fades away. To restart or duplicate programs such as the F-22, advanced ground vehicles or ships is not possible in the short run. That is the reason for always having in production some version of a specific class of weapon.
As mentioned, once the design teams go away, the industry tends over time to "forget" how to build a certain system. The capability has to be recreated. We have seen this happen with key allies who went out of the business of certain kinds of systems, and now must depend upon the United States to supply this expertise. It may okay for them, but not for the United States. So it’s important to preserve and nurture design and manufacturing capability.
The question is how to do this. Most simply, we should not go totally out of production on major classes of weapons systems. Lacking that, the Defense Department would have to find a way to keep the capability current and active. One option might be to support prototype competitions for important capabilities. The prototypes might never enter production, but they would serve to continue technology development and maintain design team expertise. It is a subject well worth pursuing.
A discussion of why some programs are canceled should acknowledge that the issue is not that they are not needed, but rather that a decision has been made to accept the risk in certain areas in order to marshal resources for higher priority tasks. And the real impact on the industrial base is how to maintain capabilities in the production, manufacture and support of the best weapons systems for our fighting men and women.
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