Wednesday, August 15, 2007

I ain't never heard of no "diminishing returns"...

So Robert Farley rightly mocks Robert Kaplan for getting all man-crush over the B2 Spirit bomber -- an impressive piece of machinery, if you can afford the $2 billion a pop to buy one. Which none of the poorest 30 countries of the world could not, even if they paid their entire annual GDP to get one.

The B2 is almost the perfect example of the post-WWII dynamic of our weapons getting rapidly more expensive, without a proportional increase in capability. That's not to say the B2 isn't capable, it's just that it isn't as capable as it is expensive. This is especially true when you think about the actual work it's doing, which is destroying targets in Afghanistan.

As I said, the B2 costs about US $2 billion (estimates, of course, vary.) Is there any possible target in Afghanistan that the B2 could hit that would be worth even 1% of it's value? (US $20 million?) How about 1/10 of 1%? Clearly, the B2 isn't going to get shot down by the non-existent Taliban air defenses, but every time they wheel the Spirit out of it's hangar and it takes off it's incurring maintenance and operating expenses. God forbid the thing hit a bird on takeoff! Almost by definition, using the B2 in any capacity whatsoever against the Taliban costs the US more in absolute terms than it costs the enemy. In financial terms, it's a self-inflicted wound.

This isn't surprising -- the B2 was originally designed to hit targets in a large, Asian industrial power, the USSR. The dollar-to-ruble tradeoff was supposed to be a lot more favourable, though the B2 would have also been delivering nuclear weapons at that point. The Soviets had the poor taste to disintegrate of their own accord without allowing the USAF the good time of blowing their shit up, but hope still burns -- which brings us back to Kaplan, who's also a big fan of writing pieces like "How We Would Fight China" for the Atlantic.

So it's not just sloppy puppy love for hardware that gets Kaplan's pixels flowing. The point of this gear is to be used, after all.


Anonymous said...

Is it meaningful to compare cost-to-good-guys versus cost-to-bad-guys in absolute dollar terms, though? The question is whether it costs the other guy more willingness to continue the war than it does you; I think percentage of total national financial assets would be a better proxy for that. Of course, a B-2 is so damned expensive that it still might come up short there.

john said...

Clearly, we're so much richer than the Taliban that we can afford to throw money away. That's part of the point -- we're throwing money away using the B2 for something a B52 could do just as well.

I think you're probably right -- % of national assets/GDP would probably be a better measure, but the fact that the B2 nets out as a negative asset is worth keeping in mind.