The Great Weapons Debate The Pentagon wants to deploy a host of exotic new weapons systems. Critics say too much of this costly hardware is designed to fight the wrong war.
BY NOAH SHACHTMAN Photographs by Dan Winters Published in the April, 2006 issue.
The attack would come quickly, and it would be awful. Cruising far offshore, the U.S. Navy's DD(X) destroyer launches 20 artillery shells in less than a minute. As the satellite-guided weapons fall back to Earth at 830 mph, computer algorithms alter their flight paths so that the 250-pound projectiles all strike the same patch of ground at the same time, reducing everything in the vicinity to rubble and dust. If more firepower is needed, the destroyer can unleash another 580 artillery rounds, as well as 80 Tomahawk missiles. And when the attack is over, the ship simply vanishes. On a radar screen, the DD(X)'s stealthy hull makes the 14,000-ton vessel look like just another fishing boat, casting its nets into the sea.
F-35 JOINT STRIKE FIGHTER PROFILE: stealth attack jet KEY FEATURE: Integrated sensors spot enemy radar first COST: $256 billion over 30 years DEPLOYMENT: 2012 ANTI-TERROR RATIONALE: Replace aging strike and close air support fleet BIG WAR RATIONALE: Flatten air defenses
Just one thing is missing from this scenario: an enemy. "The DD(X) is the most revolutionary surface warship in decades," says John Pike, director of defense think tank GlobalSecurity.org. "But I have yet to have anybody explain to me--point to a place on the map-and say what they propose to do with it."
The country's main military goal is clear. "Our nation is engaged in a global war on terror that affects the safety and security of every American," President George W. Bush told an audience of Idaho National Guardsmen last August. "We're using all elements of our national power to achieve our objectives." Winning could take decades. Bush compares this fight with the half-century struggle against Soviet communism. The Pentagon, in its newly issued master strategic plan, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), has a new name for the campaign: the Long War. Iraq and Afghanistan are just the opening theaters.
So one would think the Pentagon's $70 billion annual weapons systems budget would focus on winning the war on terror. But a look at the arsenal the Pentagon is building tells a different story. Take the DD(X). According to critics, targeting terrorists with the destroyer, which hits the seas in 2012, is like crushing ants with an 18-wheeler. So why is it in the budget?
In fact, inside the defense establishment, the Long War has competition. In many minds, the real threat is a rising China. But containing China requires different weapons than breaking up Al Qaeda--weapons that were designed for Cold War-style fights. So nearly $10 billion a year goes to ballistic missile interceptors originally designed to stop Soviet missiles; $9 billion to next-generation fighter jets meant to take on MiGs; $3.3 billion to new tanks and fighting vehicles; $1 billion for the Trident II nuclear missile upgrade; and $2 billion for a new strategic bomber.
This QDR doesn't ignore the Long Warriors: They get more commandos and more robotic vehicles. But the China camp is ascendant: Most of the endorsed hardware seems only tangentially related to stopping the terrorist threats that Bush has called a "mortal danger to all humanity." That's not surprising. The bigger the weapons system, the more advocates it has and the harder it is to cancel.
But with hardware so expensive-just seven DD(X)s could cost as much as $4.7 billion each-the Long War and the China crowds have to share the same equipment. Critics say that undermines the country's ability to keep fighting the Long War. "At a time when our Army and Marines bear by far the heaviest load of our nation's security burdens," writes military columnist Ralph Peters in the New York Post, "the [Pentagon] proposes reducing the number of soldiers to ... [buy] high-tech toys that have no missions."
DOMINATING ALL SEAS Building almost any piece of military hardware is a gamble--an educated guess as to what war will look like years from now. The Navy's ship-builders have to take some of the biggest risks, make the hardest calls. Top-line ships can take a decade or more to design, and some of them wind up sailing for nearly a half-century. The Navy's traditional mission--wrestling with other fleets over the open, "blue water" ocean-ended with the U.S.S.R. Today, American ships have to be ready to fight in the littorals, or coastal waters. But no one seems to agree on which littorals. Or what those ships will do while they're there. Maybe they'll quash guerrilla havens as part of the war on terror. Maybe they'll see action in major conflicts off the coasts of China or Iran.
For Capt. James Syring, who supervises the development of the DD(X), the idea is to build a multimission destroyer that can handle just about any operation. The DD(X)'s dual-band radar system will be 15 times better than current sensors at picking out the kind of small boat that attacked the USS Cole. Electric propulsion lets the DD(X) run quietly, so it won't get picked up by China's growing fleet of submarines. "This is a ship built for littoral, air, surface and subsurface dominance," Syring tells me in his conference room, a tiny wing of a refurbished, red-brick battleship-gun-barrel factory along the Anacostia River. "It'll handle the blue water, too."
Despite all of the destroyer's whiz-bang gear, it's a simple ramp off the stern that Rear Adm. Charles Hamilton-Syring's boss and one of the Navy officers responsible for ship acquisition-first mentions when he brings up the DD(X). The ramp is designed so that Navy SEALs can slip into the water on clandestine missions and then call in precision strikes from the DD(X)'s big guns, taking out a single safe house at a time. "We're thinking the Mogadishu scenario," Syring says. "The DD(X) is designed to put a ring of fire around that Black Hawk."
LITTORAL COMBAT SHIP PROFILE: Fast, adaptable shoreline fighter KEY FEATURES: Plug-and-play modules for handling sub hunting, mine clearing and sea fighting COST: $22 billion over 12 years DEPLOYMENT: 2007 ANTI-TERROR RATIONALE: Chase down seaborne guerrillas BIG WAR RATIONALE: Spot China's diesel-electric subs
DD(X) DESTROYER PROFILE: 14,000-ton, radar-deflecting ship KEY FEATURES: Stealthy hull, satellite-guided long-range cannon COST: $34 billion over 17 years DEPLOYMENT: 2013 ANTI-TERROR RATIONALE: Deploy SEAL teams, target insurgents from up to 100 miles offshore BIG WAR RATIONALE: Cover Marines storming the beach
Talk like that might ordinarily encourage Thomas P.M. Barnett, a Pentagon consultant who has become an influential Long War evangelist. But the idea of the DD(X) as a guerrilla fighter makes him fume. Ships a third smaller and 500 times cheaper can drop off SEALs. And those big guns? With a maximum artillery range of 100 miles, the DD(X) couldn't target an insurgent stronghold in Baghdad. "There are other ways to do this," Barnett says. "Why not just launch an airplane?"
Barnett sees the destroyer as a Cold War throwback. Today's enemies defend themselves with speed, not armor. There are no Warsaw Pact-style headquarters to flatten. "So what's the point," Barnett asks, "of packing everything into big, concentrated assets-assets that provide a single point of failure-in a world where warfare seems to be going in the exact opposite direction?"
Terrorists may be the big threat today. But in the 15 years it takes to design and build a destroyer, the Long War could be over. "If we specifically focused on the GWOT," Hamilton notes, using the military's acronym for global war on terror, "a near-peer competitor could raise its nationalistic head." The QDR says that China has "the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States." A Navy briefing shows how far the DD(X) can go in the Yellow Sea: the littoral off China's eastern coast.
THE MODULAR MODEL Walk across the corridor from Syring's DD(X) conference room, and a different worldview emerges. In his office, Capt. Don Babcock supervises planning for a new set of naval vessels. They don't have the giant guns of a geopolitical deterrent. But if the Navy wants a fleet for the war on terror, then Babcock's Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) seem like an awfully attractive option.
They are fast-at 45 knots or more, perhaps 50 percent quicker than the DD(X)-so they can chase down terrorists in small boats. They're stealthy for effective reconnaissance. Waterline bay doors will do the SEAL-dispatching job just fine. And, at about $400 million each, fully loaded-about a tenth of the new destroyer's price-the LCS is affordable enough for the Navy to send dozens of them skipping around the seas. It's a distributed, fast-moving response to a distributed, fast-moving foe. Within a decade or so, the military wants 55 of the 3000-ton ships--what will then be about a sixth of the Navy's total fleet.
Unlike the DD(X), the LCS isn't being built for 1000 different operations against 100 different enemies. Instead, each LCS will concentrate on a specific coastal mission: antisub warfare, mine clearance or ship-to-ship fights. Every LCS comes with a core crew of 40 and a weapons suite that includes a 57mm gun and missile interceptors. The boat is then customized with "mission modules"-40-ft. cargo containers, crammed with sonar arrays for sub-hunting, unmanned helicopters for surface warfare or robotic swimmers for minesweeping. The modules can be swapped out in less than a day. Then a second crew of about 35 comes on board to run the new machines. If the DD(X) is a 14,000-ton Swiss Army knife, then the LCS is a 3000-ton power drill-with interchangeable bits. "We're making a huge course change in the way we do business," Babcock says.
The folks at the top apparently like the shift. The new QDR doubles the number of LCSs to be built in the next few years. Question marks remain: The LCS's basic shape is fuzzy, with the Navy deciding between a speedboat-on-steroids and a 419-ft. trimaran. But the idea of future-proofing a ship for uncertain times is solid. If more terror gangs go seaborne, the ships get more guns, or a brig. If China's diesel-electric subs threaten, then the LCSs are outfitted to take the fight below the surface.
OWNING THE AIR From 15,000 ft., the coastline beneath me looks a lot like China's. Up ahead, an anti-air missile battery is getting closer by the second. No biggie: The new radar arrays in my Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) let me spot them long before they can see me. In my helmet-mounted display, a triangle around the battery turns from green to red. I squeeze the "pickle button" and drop two 2000-pound bombs on the target. Down below, the battery dissolves into a pile of pixels. "Never knew what hit 'em," says Bob Rubino, who heads up Lockheed Martin's Navy JSF program, and runs this cockpit simulator a few miles from the Pentagon.
Right now F/A-16s and other U.S. fighters have unlimited freedom of the skies, and they will for years to come. But Defense Department planners worry that missiles like the ones I just took out may become a familiar component of Beijing's arsenal. If China chains together enough advanced radars and ground-to-air missiles, it might be able to compromise American air supremacy. So the Pentagon is, in effect, buying an insurance policy: $256 billion to produce 2443 Joint Strike Fighters.
In many ways, the JSF is almost the exact opposite approach of the LCS strategy: Instead of customizing hardware to meet the threat, the Pentagon hopes this one class of fighter meets tactical aviators' needs for decades, including Long War missions. But using the fighter to bomb guerrilla hideouts makes sense only if the cost per plane stays down and the number of planes stays high. Too bad the price of the vertical-takeoff JSF has doubled, to nearly $60 million apiece, while the number of planes has dropped by 12 percent. The Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative arm, called the JSF's original business plan "unexecutable."
If sending a $60 million single-engine JSF to take out Chinese radar seems excessive, using a $250 million dual-engine jet to disrupt the signals of improvised roadside explosives seems downright ridiculous-especially when Humvee-mounted jammers that cost $10,000 already do the job. Yet, this capability is one of the justifications that Lockheed officials now use for the fleet of F-22 Raptors they're building for the Air Force at a cost of $4 billion a year. Designed to tangle with Soviet MiGs, the jet has been searching for a mission for 15 years. Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Tom Wilkerson, a former F/A-18 pilot, thinks the Raptor and the JSF are "overkill of the highest magnitude. Our fighter pilots already kick anybody's ass. And nobody is building anything that can keep up."
The new planes' supporters argue that aircraft like the F/A-16 have been in service since the 1970s, and that polyester-era jets can't handle 21st-century threats. But Wilkerson notes that F/A-16s have been upgraded. "Why build something from scratch," he asks, "when the current generation of fighters, with all the added electronics, are so good?"
F-22 RAPTOR PROFILE: next-generation air ace KEY FEATURES: ultra-agile, supercruise speed of Mach 1.5 COST: $61.3 billion over 23 years DEPLOYMENT: 2006 anti-terror rationale: supersonic IED jammer BIG WAR RATIONALE: Duel with latest chinese-piloted MiGs
TRIDENT II PROFILE: Upgrade and Retrofit of Nuclear cornerstone; may go conventional KEY FEATURE: bigger, better-performing ICBMs, de-nuked to hit buried bunkers COST: $36.9 billion over 30-plus years DEPLOYMENT: 1990 ANTI-TERROR RATIONALE: first-strike capability with conventional warhead within an hour BIG WAR RATIONALE: nuclear deterrence
THE ULTIMATE WEAPON Long War battlefields are keeping soldiers and Marines plenty busy. Their missions are becoming increasingly pricey, too. Handheld drones, improved body armor and next-generation night vision scopes have made their way to front-line troops, sending equipment costs per man up from $2000 during the Vietnam War to $25,000 today. The Army's only major weapons program-the sprawling, $3.3 billion-per-year Future Combat Systems (FCS)-continues the trend, with plenty of items to help Long Warriors: robotic "mules" to lug gear, sensors that can be left in place for days and wireless battlefield networks that enable troops to see what those machines find.
But the most expensive elements of FCS are upgrades for today's fleet of heavy vehicles--tanks, howitzers and combat carriers that normally aren't used to fight insurgents. Sure, they can participate in Long War operations: Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles roll around Iraq today. But it's not what they were designed to do. In the meantime, a project to produce a next-generation Humvee is stuck in first gear, a new suite of radios is missing in action, and a new, sensor-laden combat uniform is years behind schedule. FCS's costs have ballooned, from $93 billion to $161 billion for the 20-year program. Most of the cost overruns are in the weapons systems that are least applicable to the war on terror.
WINNING THE LAST WAR Immediately after 9/11, there seemed to be few, if any, consequences for delaying decisions on what kind of military to build. Congress wasn't about to skimp on defense. But money is getting tight. And tomorrow's massive weapons programs may be undermining today's war on terror.
Stopping insurgencies and chasing extremists take manpower; the QDR acknowledges that, adding 14,000 Special Forces over the next five years. But, at the same time, it reduces the planned size of the Army by 30,000 troops, in part to preserve FCS. The Air Force will let go 40,000 so it can hold on to its new jets. The DD(X), which uses half the sailors of today's destroyers, is part of a long-term Navy plan to cut its workforce by 12,000.
All of which strikes Barnett, the Pentagon consultant, as odd, when the president and the defense secretary keep talking about reorienting the military to handle the global war on terror. "We're making this long-range hedge versus the possibility of what, exactly?" Barnett asks. "Losing Taiwan? Well, justify that against losing 1000 men per year."
But the American people expect a "full-spectrum" military, Army acquisition chief Lt. Gen. Joseph Yakovac tells me--one that quickly, decisively wins wars of every kind, everywhere. "Our soldier, he's got to dominate that urban battle space and this Cold War-style, tank-on-tank fight," he says. Until a political decision is made that one threat is the absolute top priority, Yakovac will have to keep buying systems for every scenario. Thousands of lives and tens of billions of dollars could go to waste. "We've got to reorient to this new world we're in," Barnett says. "And we're doing it--operationally and doctrinally. But when it comes to acquisition--buying big weapons systems--too many people are trying to revive yesterday's war."
FUTURE COMBAT SYSTEMS PROFILE: Massive Army overhaul KEY FEATURE: wireless network linking infantry, artillery, medics, robots COST: $161.4 billion over 20 years DEPLOYMENT: 2010 ANTI-TERROR RATIONALE: More robots to spot insurgents, better communications between units BIG WAR RATIONALE: Bigger guns, faster tanks to outmaneuver and wipe out armiest
New weapons in the Army's Future Combat Systems include the backpack-size Class I Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (top), a reconnaissance and target-finding drone with an hour-long hang time. The two-person Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon (center) can hit targets up to 18.6 miles away with its 155mm howitzer. The mobile, Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System (bottom) packs 15 missiles.
Spc. Eric Witmer, 101st Airborne, in full battle gear. PHOTOGRAPH BY BENJAMIN LOWY/CORBIS
Invest In Our Troops
BY BING WEST
PM contributor Bing West is a longtime advocate of the American soldier and Marine, and a sometime critic of Pentagon priorities. We asked him for his view of the military's current spending plans.
The American way of war has been to advance frontally by air, sea and ground, challenging the enemy to fight a decisive battle. In 2003, the U.S. military rolled swiftly from Kuwait to Baghdad. Yet three years later-the time it took to defeat the combined armies of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo-enfeebled Iraq is still being undermined by a vicious insurgency.
Why? Our enemies have learned to refuse decisive battle and hide in urban populations. As a result, many soldiers and Marines are going back to Iraq for a third tour. In the next war, ground forces will be stretched to the limit. The defense budget, therefore, needs to emphasize weapons and technology that provide "force multipliers" for our troops.
It won't be easy. The budget is prepared by committees representing the services and civilian agencies. The result: Big-ticket items prevail, championed by political power-lobbyists, corporate sponsors and subcontractors in all 50 states.
What ground forces need most are not giant weapons systems, but small, relatively inexpensive items. Here is essential hardware that should be part of the Pentagon's acquisition process.
AIR SUPPORT: The single greatest fix prior to the next war lies in empowering ground forces to employ precision air attack faster over a dispersed battlefield. We've got plenty of planes. But every ground unit moving independently should have the equipment and the training to call in air.
PERSONAL ARMOR: Twenty-five pounds of armor, on top of all the other gear a soldier carries, means that in a dismounted firefight the rifleman lugs at least 60 extra pounds. The Pentagon needs to place a higher priority on reducing the weight of body armor.
DETECTION THROUGH CONCRETE: In Fallujah in November 2004, there were hundreds of fights inside concrete houses because the Marines had no means of scanning before entry. Given the enormous increase in engagements in urban areas, this gap in surveillance must be closed.
A NEW HUMMER: The shape of this workhorse renders it vulnerable to ever-improving explosive devices, even when up-armored. A Pentagon task force is designing a successor to handle the critical task of moving troops and supplies at and near the front lines. The cost will be big-but nothing compared to the cost of developing, say, the F-22 Raptor. And a new Hummer will have a far greater impact in saving the lives of American troops.
About Bing West: a former assistant secretary of defense, west is the author of No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah.