Tuesday, June 27, 2006

He Who Dies With the Most Expensive Toys

..still dies. Yup. Some aphorisms still hold true.

Consider the fate of the US military. By far, the American defense industry is able to furnish its soldiers with some of the most advanced and destructive weaponry and equipment known to man. It often goes without saying that this is all absurdly expensive, but it should be said: This is absurdly expensive. As in, $500 billion this year for defense expenditures. That's half of Canada's entire economy, devoted entirely to war. (As far as I know, no country has actually sustained 50% of GDP in defense spending for long, certainly not in the post-WWII era. Israel tried, and nearly went bankrupt.)

Ah, but what use does this actually provide for the soldiers "on the ground"? Well, there are two interesting links at Defensetech that illustrate the problems inherent with US military spending. The first is that old standby, production delays. The US Marine Corps is apparently having some trouble with its airplanes (nothing game-stopping, so far) because they stopped buying F-18s and Harriers back in the early 1990s, in anticipation that by the time the existing stock were ready to retire, the Joint Strike Fighter would be ready to take over. Aside from production delays (due in part to Congressional meddling) there's also been the little problem of the Iraq War, which has shaved quite a few years off of planes that weren't spry to begin with.

That said, even when the JSF arrives the USMC may want to stick with the older planes: Another post at DT notes that the US Army is increasingly relying on older equipment, or stripping unnecessary frills from their new equipment, to make it more appropriate for the rigors of combat in Iraq.
U.S. Army aviators in Iraq and Afghanistan have begun removing the Longbow radars from their AH-64D Apache helicopters. Which is funny, since the radar is pretty much the point of the $10-billion Longbow upgrade.

The radar weighs 1,500 pounds and makes the Apache sluggish in hot and high-altitude environments -- really the only places the Army fights anymore. Aviators are cool with flying without their radars since the things were designed for taking out Soviet tanks....

...the Marine Corps aviators of All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 332... had told me their old $40-million F/A-18D Hornets equipped with sensor pods are better-suited to counter-insurgency combat than $130-million F-22A Raptors, which don't even have hardpoints for pods.
Which brings me back to a point I've made previously: As much as we talk about how upstart countries like China still don't possess the strength to go toe-to-toe (or mano a mano, as Bush would say) with the US, the truth is anyone making any definitive statement as to how, say, the air war over the Formosa Straits would go is talking out of his ass. Beyond a certain point, we simply don't know what equipment is going to be valuable in combat in the future.

Moreover, we don't really have any concrete way to compare the relative value of military spending (the usual metric of rough comparisons): Who spends more on their military, the US or China? The US obviously. But as the above examples show, the US doesn't necessarily get as much from its money - especially its newer, shinier weapons - as it would if it focused on older, more tested weaponry. China - which has largely built a military out of modern, but well-tested weaponry (the late-Soviet Migs and Sukhois, for example) may actually have an upper hand and not even know it. I'm not saying this is definitely the case by any means - that's my point: Combat is the final arbiter.

Finally, the fact that US personnel are becoming more fond of older equipment and weaponry should really, really be the final nail in the coffin of the whole "Revolution in Military Affairs" hype. I hope nobody takes that shit seriously anymore.

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