Returning to the taxpayer's investment, I can't help but wonder whether that treasure is buying the biggest bang for the buck. Think about it. An F-22 Raptor costs $187 million dollars. The program will total some $67.5 billion when all is said and done—all to procure 339 aircraft. When they are fully operational, no other fighter in the world will be able to touch it. Incredible. Then again, there aren't any aircraft that can currently defeat the plane the Raptor is replacing. So just what is the Raptor going to take on—or even deter—in the next ten years? I suppose we want to be ready if the Martians show up in the future. Boy, are they in for a surprise.
Some may consider singling out the Raptor unfair. That program is just one example of a current trend in our armed forces. We seem to keep buying gear that is, well, there is no other word for it, Fantastic! The V-22, the DD(X), CVN-21, Future Combat System (FCS), and the Missile Defense System make up the short list. All as good as it gets and all surely giving the Martian High Command ample reason for second thoughts about invading Earth anytime soon.
There was a time when the United States had a threat-based system of defense. You figured out just who (on Earth) could threaten our values, freedom, and way of life, and we shaped a military to defend those things. There were times when we fell behind the power curve—WWI and WWII come to mind as shining examples of being caught off guard—but in more recent times the threat-based system eventually defeated the Soviet Union and gave us one heck of a combined arms exercise in Kuwait.
Now we have a capabilities-based system and, after six years, I still don't know what that means—even after spending part of that time in the Pentagon! And while we call it capabilities-based, I'm not sure there is a readily understandable explanation of just what process determines just what capabilities are required. Even without a superpower bogeyman, it seems that the current assessment is that bigger—and more capable—is better. That also has translated into higher costs that seem to grow at a geometric rate. A recent report in Defense News revealed that estimated costs of the top 85 U.S. weapons programs had increased 4.4% or $65 billion between June and September of this year .
Much is also said and written today about transformation . That's another bumper sticker that hasn't quite been translated into layman's terms and has, therefore, been the excuse for more and more "capabilities." State with a straight face that a program is transformational and you have a good chance of justifying the Buck Rogers costs associated with the (plug in your favorite system here). And while we have made great strides in developing better gear, we keep throwing money on the transformation altar. I have come to believe that the transformational moment in our recent military capabilities came in the 1980s, when all the services, in an effort to shake the post-Vietnam malaise, decided to focus on people . By recruiting the smart and the fit, setting performance standards that we stuck to, giving the troops good gear, and spending money on education, training, and thus creating a truly professional military, we ended up with a force that proved second to none in our nation's history.
Now, some 20 years down the road, we have defaulted once again to buying stuff. It's not that we have forgotten our men and women, but we have made a number of decisions that have restricted resources to a point that it has become easier to reduce end strength than to clearly define our hardware needs (not wants, but needs) and to do without the added bell or whistle. What we are finding is that it isn't that easy to add troops. We might make it sound easy when talking about it, but when the choice is between more boots on the ground or rocket boots, the latter seems to bedazzle everyone.
So we focus on widgets, and man do they cost. The DD(X) is an interesting deal. The original price tag for a 70-ship program was about $100 billion. More recently, the Boston Globe estimated that the cost of a single ship had soared to over $3 billion. The ship has been referred to in some circles as a floating experiment. There are numerous new technologies going into this ship, from the hull form, the propulsion system, weapons and combat systems, and so on. In fact the DD(X) will have far more technologies embedded in it for the first time than any other ship class in the history of the U.S. Navy. And this ship will first augment and then replace Arleigh Burke destroyers, a proven class of ship without peer in any rival navy, with many of these ships still having over 40 years of service life remaining.
Command and control systems are also a big favorite. Still not sure if the combatant commander should be able to observe through the eyes of the squad leader, but we're working on it. Information sharing on demand is a wonderful goal, but have we done much to define just who needs what, in what time frame, and to what degree of certainty? Information is just white noise unless it answers specific questions posed by the commander, and it seems that we have been spending a lot of money for greater and greater bandwidth while our platoon leaders have more simple needs, like secure radios to talk across the city. And every squad leader needs communication with his team leaders. Ironically, we've made good progress there-nice, cheap radios that do the job without access to the World Wide Web or a teleconferencing capability—ust voice communications.
This leads back to the F-22 Raptor. Originally the program called for 750 aircraft at a cost of $67 billion. The Air Force now says the same amount can buy about half that number, 339 planes, and the Government Accountability Office recently reported to Congress that continued cost overruns might whittle the final buy to 224 planes. Even at $187 million apiece, this might be a good deal to the taxpayer if it were more than just a fighter !
I may not be sure just what capabilities-based means, but I do know that the Marine I mentioned earlier, or a soldier—and about 158,000 of their brothers and sisters throughout the armed forces in Iraq—aren't thinking about how fancy the planes or the ships are, but about a tough insurgency where "supersonic cruise" doesn't mean much. That Marine, and his comrades, conducted the march up to Baghdad the old way, a mile at a time, where tanks, artillery, and grit, supported by air and sea power, proved the measure of success. Right now he would like simple things, like being able to go to sleep confident that he will wake up in the morning or traveling in a convoy knowing that he will make it to chow that evening.
General Michael Hagee, Commandant of the Marine Corps, has made it a continuing effort during his tour as the nation's top Leatherneck to emphasize "brilliance in the basics," the blocking and tackling of war. Numerous training improvements have had a significant impact on the readiness of individuals and units heading to Iraq and Afghanistan. Recently, General Hagee challenged industry to help our soldiers and Marines by focusing a bit less on the glamour end of the Defense Department's money pit and making a greater effort to do something practical for our troops, such as lightening their basic load—meaning the stuff they carry on their backs—improving small unit communications, and ensuring we have light, effective protective gear. I think adequately funding such efforts would be a superb example of support that matters to thousands of Marines and soldiers who sometimes feel more like pack mules than warriors.
I may be missing the big picture, but why are we so concerned about the Martians? There has been no reliable intel that they are getting restless, has there? Every one of the little probes we send out there is able to finish its mission without preemption. I'm sure someone is going to mention China or even North Korea. Great! Foes to plan against. Except, when you think of it, if we are designing aircraft and ships to counter those two potential enemies, then we are just about fine with what we have—for now.
If the F-15s are too old, then why not just build new ones? The USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51), lead ship in its destroyer class, has 40 years of service life remaining. There is still no armored vehicle that can defeat the Abrams tank. These are proven, war-winning weapons. Update the innards, add a frozen custard machine, and get on with it. I'd bet that with the old Essex -class carrier design and the old A-1 Skyraider airframe, plus new radios, GPS, JDAMs, and small diameters bombs, we could get about three quarters of the way we need to go for the next 20 years. Add an old 747 or two with a whole lot of precision-guided stand-off weapons and we are still a hegemonic power. In the meantime, we can take some of these high cost systems, slow the rush to production, define precisely what we need them to do, make sure they work, and save billions of dollars. I hear tax breaks are popular.
I know that much of what I'm suggesting is heretical in most circles. We owe our military the best we can possibly provide, but the best doesn't necessarily mean the most outrageous. They need good, proven gear, equipment that can face and survive the rigors of combat, built in sufficient numbers that provide for the training establishment and ensure we are able to reconstitute the force after combat.
In other words, if we need 200 widgets, but can only afford 100 of the really good, high-tech kind, sacrifice the added sophistication and buy the 200 we need. We might not get cappuccino, but in my experience hot and black is okay on a cold, dark, and rainy night when the only ground you control is the ground you're standing on.
Colonel Brilakis is the commanding officer of the Weapons Training Battalion, Quantico, Virginia and serves as the vice chairman of the Naval Institute's Editorial Board. He has been a USNI member since 1984.