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Basic US Military Problem: Most Expensive Does Not Equal Best

In numerous areas US weapon systems just don't measure up, despite being the most expensive solution available

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Boosting military spending was one of President Trump’s major campaign pledges. The fiscal 2018 defense spending bill introduced by a joint House-Senate conference committee allows $692 billion, including $626 billion in base budget spending and $66 billion more for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund.

There are other security related expenses of other agencies, which exceed $170 billion. They include the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the State Department, the Homeland Security, the FBI, and Cybersecurity in the Department of Justice.

<figcaption>LCS and the F-35 are just two of the duds</figcaption>
LCS and the F-35 are just two of the duds

Defense spending accounts for almost 16 percent of all federal spending and roughly half of discretionary spending. The United States spends more on national defense than the next eight biggest national defense budgets in the world combined, including China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan.

The discussions on the need for hikes in military spending are a popular issue. It’s widely believed that the United States is the most formidable military power the world has ever seen. No doubt, America’s military might is great but the armed forces are not faultless. The build-up plans hit many snags on the way. There are weak points serious enough to put into doubt the effectiveness of the current defense programs and combat readiness of the military, be it a nuclear or a conventional war.

Some experts say a US first strike would knock out most of the capability of a Russian counter second strike, with a limited number of nuclear missiles launched by Russia in retaliation blocked by ballistic missile defense. It’s not worth going into details.

Even if ground-based missiles in silos and strategic nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) moored at bases are knocked out, Russia’s SSBNs and strategic bombers on patrol will retaliate, inflicting unacceptable damage. The risk is always there and it’s unthinkable. Nobody in their right mind would try it.

Indeed, there is some threat posed by sea- and air-based long-range cruise missiles and B-2 stealth bombers. But “some” is unacceptable for a first strike. If the enemy retains the capability to inflict unacceptable damage in a retaliatory strike, a limited capability to strike him first is useless. Besides, the speed of the delivery means is relatively slow and timely detection is impossible to avoid.

Much ballyhoo is raised about the Prompt Global Strike (PGS) concept – the ability to deliver a precision-guided conventional weapon airstrike anywhere in the world within one hour. No such weapon is on the horizon despite all the efforts applied so far. With much smaller defense spending, Russia is leading the race. "Boost glide" hypersonic weapon technology presupposes the use of ballistic missiles or bombers, which will be detected. The PGS delivered by glide vehicles will be warned about to provoke a nuclear retaliation. The US will actually commit a suicide by striking Russia with conventional weapons to trigger a nuclear response.

The first conventional prompt strike missile for the United States Navy was tested on Oct.30. The US Navy started to explore a submarine-launched intermediate-range ballistic missile (SLIRBM) to fulfill the PGS Mission around 2003. It makes it the first trial in 13 years! And the delivery means was a ballistic missile. It is confirmed by the words by Cmdr. Patrick Evans, the Pentagon spokesperson, who said, “The test collected data on hypersonic boost-glide technologies and test-range performance for long-range atmospheric flight.” So, the technology is boost flight.

The move away from ballistic missile-based weapon and toward hypersonic capabilities along a cruise trajectory from the very start to avoid an adversary mistaking a conventional ballistic missile for a nuclear one is still a pipe dream. There is nothing tested so far. The PGS concept is not what could make Russia kneel. Striking groups of terrorists with very expensive and sophisticated weapons is crazy; they have no assets worth wasting such cutting-edge expensive weapons. What about the principle of cost-effectiveness? Anyway, with much effort applied, the PGS program offers little to be proud of, at least for now.

Congress has appropriated roughly $190 billion for the ballistic missile defense (BMD) programs between fiscal years 1985 and 2017. For nearly two decades, the US has sought to acquire the capability to protect it against limited long-range missile strikes. Some achievements have been evidently exaggerated. Some very limited capability against unsophisticated missiles is in place but it has no relation to countering Russia’s or China’s arsenal. Actually, nothing has come to fruition to talk about real BMD capability seriously.

YAL-1 airborne laser is an example of a costly effort going down the drain. The $5-billion airborne laser is in the boneyard.

MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected) is another example of boondoggle. The nearly $50 billion investment in MRAPs appears to make no sense. The heavily-protected vehicles were no more effective at reducing casualties than the medium armored vehicles being three times as expensive. Many MRAP vehicles have been given to partner forces or sold for scrap.

Stryker is the backbone of the Army. After so many years in service, it still lacks firepower and protection. 90 Strykers were lost in Afghanistan, where the enemy had no armor vehicles, aviation, artillery or effective anti-tank weapons. The vehicle has thin skin. A Stryker is useless against a tank. It is not designed to maneuver against other combat vehicles and is doomed to be outgunned by the enemy. It has no air defense protection. What it is good for is an unanswered question.

The US Army is poorly protected from air threats. THAAD is good only for missile defense, not air defense. Patriot PAC-3 is destined to counter tactical ballistic and cruise missiles. It has very limited capability against aircraft. Aircraft-capable PAC-1 and PAC-2 are either upgraded to the PAC-3 variant or sold abroad. There is nothing left but short-range shoulder-fired portable Stingers, with a range of 8 km and a maximum altitude of 4 km. This is a very serious drawback to make the troops extremely vulnerable to airstrikes.

The Navy’s littoral combat ship (LCS) is a class of relatively small surface vessels intended for operations in the littoral zone (close to shore). It was destined to function as an agile, stealthy surface combatant capable of defeating anti-access and asymmetric threats in the littorals.

Last month, Austal and Lockheed Martin shipbuilders were awarded more than $1.1 billion combined to build two littoral combat ships. The development and construction of this vessel class is plagued by cost overruns. LCSs have been plagued by numerous problems, including structure cracks, computer system failures, generator meltdowns, burst pipes, propulsions problems, and potentially disastrous communication errors. And to boot, naval officials are skeptical that they will do well in combat.

Last year, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain criticized the program, saying that as much as $12.4 billion has been wasted by the US Department of Defense for 26 littoral combat ships with no practical combat capability. According to the Pentagon's director of Operational Test and Evaluation, J. Michael Gilmore, neither of the two LCS variants now being built by competing contractors is expected to be survivable in combat, a fact that undermines the whole concept of operations for the ship class.

It is unlikely that the LCS would ultimately be able to meet the Navy's air defense requirements. The ship is equipped to perform one primary mission at any given time. The poorly-armed and sensor-deprived LCS sacrifices a great deal for its high speed, including range and, arguably, damage resistance. It’s not clear why the Navy should need this ship. European corvettes and frigates are less costly and more capable.

F-35 is to become the backbone of US Air Force and Navy. It's supposed to replace and improve upon several current – and aging – missions. Launched in 2001, the program is the most error ridden project in the history of the United States military. Nearly a decade behind schedule, and has failed to meet many of its original design requirements.

President Trump lambasted the program in February. The unit cost per airplane, above $100 million, is roughly twice what was promised early on. Marketed as a cost-effective, powerful multi-role fighter airplane to guarantee air supremacy, it's turned out to be none of those things. The planes currently aren't able to fly in bad weather or at night, and none have been used in combat.

With so much money and time spent, it’s too late to cancel the program or insert significant changes into it. The Pentagon has declared the F-35 “too big to fail.” According to CNBC, “The F-35 has come to symbolize all that's wrong with American defense spending: uncontrolled bloat, unaccountable manufacturers (in this case, Lockheed Martin), and an internal Pentagon culture that cannot adequately track taxpayer dollars.”

Mandy Smithberger of the Straus Military Reform Project believes that “A lot of the waste is coming from mismanagement and concurrency in major acquisition programs like the F-35 and the LCS.” The aircraft carrier Gerald Ford cost $13 billion to produce. It is two years behind schedule and — according to the Pentagon’s top weapon tester — can’t fight. It has trouble with air traffic control, moving munitions, ship defense and launching and landing aircraft.

Government Accountability Office report  noted that the combination of cost problems, engineering obstacles, and untested technology systems was alarming and should be addressed by Congress. Some experts have also pointed out that in an age of long-range and heavy-yield precision missiles, aircraft carriers are becoming obsolete (but still incredibly expensive) strategic assets. 

Waste in the Pentagon has soared to new heights. The 2016 report by the Defense Department’s Inspector General found the Army made $2.8 trillion worth of wrongful adjustments to accounting entries in one quarter alone in 2015, and $6.5 trillion for the year. The service lacked receipts and invoices to support those numbers or simply made them up.

 According to War is Boring, “US Special Operations Command spent millions on tiny drones it knew didn’t work, the Department of Veterans Affairs misspent $6 billion using purchase cards meant for small transactions and the Army is desperately trying to hire someone to install, repair and inspect playground equipment at Pentagon schools across Europe”.

Add to it the scandals over purported $100 hammers, $300 toilet seats, and $16 muffins. The spending of $50,000 to investigate the bomb-detecting capabilities of African elephants is everyone’s favorite Pentagon waste story.

Despite being the leader in military spending, the US military has very serious shortcomings. It is mired in problems. Military planning deficiencies greatly reduce combat capabilities. Cost-effectiveness is a big problem. Being the most expensive does not automatically make the US military the best.

Source: Journal of Strategic Culture

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