Thursday, April 20, 2006

Flying into Battle

There's an interesting (if misguided) piece in today's Washington Times, written by FNC military analyst (and retired Army Major General Bob Scales). General Scales' thesis is that our defense R&D priorities have been misplaced for a number of years, with the Air Force and the Navy receiving too much money for systems we ostensibly don't need. While I have the utmost respect General Scales, his arguments simply don't hold up.

Scales wonders how many casualties could have been averted if we had developed aero-mechanized maneuver doctrine, first postulated by an Army brigadier general, Huba Wass de Czega. General de Czega envisioned an Army equipped with aerial fighting vehicles that could fly into combat and fight from the air--think of them as airborne armored personnel carriers or infantry fighting vehicles. Army studies suggest that such units could rapidly defeat enemy forces, with minimal casualties.

But Scales suggests that development of such technologies have been sidetracked in favor of airpower and related "shock and awe" technologies, used in both Iraq and the Balkans. If you follow Scales's logic, such weapons have produced impressive results, but they are largely useless in the War on Terrorism. Moreover, such weapons are too expensive--siphoning off precious R&D dollars that might have been used in pursuit of aero-mechanized craft for the Army.

It's a familiar argument, and one that sounds rational--at least on paper. Combining the mobility of airpower with the firepower of ground units has long been a dream of military theorists--and it remains just that--a dream. Not too many decades ago, a relatively new contraption called the helicopter was supposed to perform similar functions, and it has, to a certain degree. Today, the Army owns thousands of combat helicopters to perform such functions as troop transport, medevac, surveillance and fire support. True, you really can't fight from a helicopter, but that's just as well. As we discovered in Vietnam and Somalia, helicopters can be extremely vulnerable to ground fire. The same would hold true for those aero-mechanized craft that Scales envisions. Allowing an entire infantry squad to engage the enemy from the air would be revolutionary, but knocking the craft from the sky would require only one terrorist with a shoulder-fired missile or anti-armor weapon.

Scales's complaint about "all those dollars for airpower" is a little bit shopworn to boot. True, a new F-22 costs over $100 million per copy. But fast-forward a few years, to a potential conflict over the Taiwan Strait, or against a re-armed Iran with nuclear weapons. What's the best way to guarantee air supremacy--and pave the way for ensuing ground operations. We can stick with our legacy fighters (F-15s and F-16s), but most of those airframes are already 20 years old, and the new generation of foreign fighters can more than match them in terms of technology, maneuverabilty and weaponry. As we found out during recent exercises with the Indian Air Force, a Russian-built SU-30 Flanker, in the hands of a competent pilot, is indeed a formidable threat. And that threat will only increase in the decades to come.

Instead of hoping we can sustain our technological and tactical edge, why not guarantee it by investing in the F-22, the Joint Strike Fighter and various unmanned platforms. If we don't troops fighting future opponents may find themselves without the air protection they've come to rely on. Ask any honest Army or Marine commander: ground operations are a lot easier if you're not worried about being attacked from above.

The "wasting money on airpower crowd" also ignores a couple of salient facts. First of all, there is no assurance that our military forces will not engage in a major regional conflict (MRC) in the future--the type of war that will require aerial supremacy and precision strike. Many future conflicts will resemble current operations in Iraq, but we have to plan, equip and prepare for other contingencies as well. The F-22 may look like a bad idea now, but defending Taiwan, Japan or South Korea against hostile attack--or carrying the fight through dense air defense systems--it may resemble a military bargain.

One final note: the failure to develop aero-mechanized warfare is more a reflection of Army culture, and not an example of Air Force or Navy dominance. In the 1970s and 80s, the Air Force gambled a sizeable chunk of its R&D budget on stealth, with no assurance that it would pay off. The Navy also gambled on the Nimitz-class carriers, the Aegis weapons system and stealthy submarines. Meanwhile, the Army remained over cautious, developing systems that were less adaptive and flexible. Making matters worse, Army leadership went along with force cuts that reduced the number of "boots on the ground." Four active duty divisions were cut during the Clinton years, but there was barely a peep from the Army brass.

The Army's failure to investigate and develop aero-mechanized warfare is not an Air Force or a Navy problem. The real issue lies in an Army culture that is resistant to transformation, incurring the wrath of the current SecDef, and (in some regards) marginally prepared for the challenges of insurgent warfare. As Cassius said to Brutus, "the fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves."


Seneca the Younger said...

Wow. An Army flag officer saying the Navy and Air Force get too much research money.

Who woulda thunk it?

HaloJonesFan said...

You'd think he'd call for more money into lasers, so that nobody could fly.

Seriously. Within ten years, the manned combat aircraft is going to vanish from the world. Emplaced lasers will shoot down anything that appears above the horizon.

johnh said...

great post. I agree with your analysis but I worry that the cost of the F22 is so high that we will be unable to fund a sufficent number of them to survive a MRC.

No, I don't have a better suggestion but I worry that we are developing a military with a high-tech "glass-jaw". By this I mean a military that can hand-out punishment but cannot take much punishment. For example, if we have too few F22s then each lost F22 costs us dearly in terms of percentage of air power. Remember Pearl Harbor: at today's airframe production rates the war will be over before a large loss could be replaced.

Scott said...

No surprise that an Army guy would say this. As we always used to say (especially in front of our Air Liaison Officer), "If it flies, it dies."