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A Defense Posture We Can Afford

Strategy should drive procurement.

Jun 4, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 36 • By STUART KOEHL
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But naval shipbuilding programs are in disarray. The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and DDG-1000 (a new class of destroyer) are over budget and behind schedule, and are not well matched to the Chinese threat. It would be wiser to continue production of the current DDG-51 class of guided-missile destroyer, while investing in service life extensions for Ticonderoga-class AEGIS cruisers. Plans to reduce the number of aircraft carriers are particularly shortsighted in light of China’s plans to create its own carrier battle groups. In addition, carrier-based aircraft are rapidly aging, while the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter will not enter service (in very small numbers) until 2015.

China has also invested heavily in fourth and fifth generation fighter aircraft, which are equal or superior to all existing U.S. aircraft except the F-22 Raptor, production of which ended with 187 built. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, intended to replace most of our existing Navy and Air Force fighters, is behind schedule and over budget. Initially intended as a low-cost complement to the F-22, the JSF now costs as much or more than the F-22, but is less capable. It might be prudent to reopen F-22 production and develop both a carrier and strike variant to replace the F/A-18 and F-15E; technology from the F-35 could be integrated into new Raptors.

Now consider low-intensity conflict. Air and naval forces can play only a supporting role here; the main requirement is lots of high-quality light infantry. A small portion of the Air Force and Navy budgets could be devoted to fairly simple unmanned aircraft such as the Predator and light frigates and patrol craft, which are more suitable for counterinsurgency or counter-piracy missions and cost a fraction of manned fighters or the LCS. The burden of low-intensity conflict will thus fall on the Army, but the Army is not properly configured for what will be its primary mission. To rectify the situation, the following steps should be taken.

First, transfer most armored/mechanized units to the reserve components, retaining only enough to hedge against limited armored threats in Korea and the Middle East. Reconfigure the active forces as light and medium infantry units, which generate far more infantrymen than heavy units, allowing the Army to field more light infantry within its personnel limits. Light forces also have a smaller logistic footprint, which will allow the conversion of support personnel to infantrymen. Moreover, converting the reserves into a heavy force will make them a true “strategic reserve,” mobilized only for emergencies of limited duration, and not as a substitute for active forces in long-term operations.

Second, reorient Army procurement to meet its mission. Low-intensity conflict does not need much in the way of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, or artillery. The M1 Abrams, the M2/3 Bradley, and the M109 are sufficient to meet foreseeable threats, and with upgrades can continue to serve for decades. That means the Army has no pressing need for its Ground Combat Vehicle program or new artillery. It does need the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle as a replacement for the Humvee, as well as a guided mortar projectile, tactical unmanned aerial vehicles, and better radios—but all of these are relatively cheap.

To further enhance the Army’s combat power, we should reverse the recent policy of the Obama administration, and maximize the use of contractors for noncombat functions. Every job that does not require a man in uniform pulling a trigger can be performed by a fully competent civilian. The manpower released from administrative chores can be converted into infantry. 

Finally, a word on strategic nuclear forces and missile defense. To date, China has not attempted to match the United States in long-range nuclear missiles, because the cost of matching the U.S. arsenal is prohibitive. If the number of U.S. nuclear warheads drops substantially, though, China could be tempted to seek nuclear parity. Maintaining nuclear forces at current levels would prevent this, as would the development of a more robust national missile defense system. Deployment of effective theater missile defenses in Japan, South Korea, and aboard U.S. naval vessels would serve to protect our forces from surprise attack, as well as preclude China from decoupling our Asian allies. Again, though, both nuclear forces and missile defense are relatively cheap.

Stuart Koehl is a research fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Transatlantic Relations and an independent defense analyst who has worked for the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and the aerospace-defense industry.

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