Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Getting it Wrong

When Max Boot joined the line-up of op-ed columnists for the Los Angeles Times, I cheered. At last, the Times was adding an informed, well-reasoned conservative voice to its editorial page, a much-needed counter-balance to such left-wing bomb throwers as William Arkin and the now-departed Robert Scheer. A former editor and writer for The Wall Street Journal, Boot is currently a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a recognized expert on military and security affairs. In contrast to Arkin (a Greenpeace activist turned military "analyst"), Boot seemed like a perfect fit.

I still have great respect for Max Boot, but his latest effort for the Times ("The Wrong Weapons for the Long War) is a disappointment for a "serious" writer on national security matters. I kept looking for clues that Arkin or Shceer hijacked the column, or perhaps Mr. Boot is exchanging too many e-mails with Joel Stein. Whatever the reason, Boot's column is a second-rate effort that is filled with inaccuracies and false comparisions.

In his op-ed, Boot contrasts the recently-released Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the Defense Department's latest strategy update with the DOD budget for FY 2007. The QDR notes that irregular warfare has become the type of conflict that the U.S. is most likely to encounter, and calls for expanding and strengthening the capabilities of special operations, psychological warfare, and civil affairs units.

But as he examines the Pentagon budget, Boot finds that projected funding fails to match QDR rhetoric. According to Boot, too much of the budget is devoted to conventional weapons programs from the Cold War, including the F-22 fighter, the F-25 Joint Strike Fighter, and the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

Unfortunately, there are major problems with Boot's premise that (ultimately) undermine his argument. First of all, contrasting a multi-year QDR to a one-year budget snap-shot is an apples-and-oranges comparison at best. A budget covering a single fiscal year doesn't account for additional funding increases in coming budget cycles; while this year's spending plan announces a 30% increase in the number of special ops units, it takes time to create additional teams and battalions, so much of the funding increase in those areas will come in future budgets, not FY'07. I'll go out on a limb and predict that the "published" budget for special ops in FY'11/12 will show geometric growth from current levels, as spending catches up with the strategy outlined in the QDR and this year's budget document.

And what about those "Cold War" weapons systems that Boot rails against? In his words, "we already have total dominance in the air," so there's no real need for the F-22, JSF, or new naval aircraft. Money flowing to those programs would be better spent on "boots on the ground."

Wrong again. America's continued dominance of the skies is hardly assured. As demonstrated by recent exercises with the Indian Air Force, the latest generation of Russian-built SU-27/30 fighters are a match for U.S. F-15s and F-16s. Assuring air superiority in the decades to come means pressing ahead with programs like the F-22 and JSF that raise the technological bar, even if the bills are coming due now.

True, Osama bin Laden doesn't have much of an Air Force, but other adversaries (notably China) are rapidly expanding their aerospace forces. We may spend much of the next decade fighting terrorists, but (as the QDR also notes), we can't rule out a major regional conflict, either. And, at some point, a future QDR is likely to identify China as our #1 threat. As the war against Islamofacists winds down, the U.S. may be facing a PRC military that is technologically advanced, and determined to press its agenda in East Asia and elsewhere. Against that type of threat, building your military forces around 30-40-year-old legacy aircraft and naval systems is simply a non-starter. Having more troops on the ground is great, but their benefit becomes irrelevant if you can't control and air and sea lanes needed to get them to the fight.

Here's something else to think about: Boot's comments about the F-22 and JSF are something of a budgetary red herring, due to the status of each program. The F-22, in development for more than 20 years, is now entering operational service. Consequently, costs for the Raptor will be high for the next 5-7 years, as the Air Force pays for new jets, new maintenance facilities, and training for pilots and ground crews. The JSF, now entering the final phase of development, will also be an expensive program for the next decade, for similar reasons. After that, costs begin to level off, as the program moves into a sustainment phase.

One more thing: did I mention that the F-22, JSF and Super Hornet have precision strike capabilities that are much improved over current aircraft? That's a quality that is very useful to our troops on the ground, even in the Long War against terrorism. And, because the newer jets will be easier to maintain, that means higher sortie rates, and more support for troops in harm's way. Even Max Boot should be able to understand that.


Papa Ray said...


I'm new here, but would like to comment on the take of his article and your rebuttal (sort of).

If you and him or anyone else can understand how the dollars will flow (and even an approximation of how much) in the future to the various projects, well, I just think it's impossible.

Just the new sub is a good example, the costs bear no resemblance to what they started out as or even in the following couple of years.

Yes, more needs to be spent on teaching our guys and gals to speak arabic and farsi (sp). But every language expert I have read says that it they are some of the hardest to learn and are not a six month course.

Whatever, he did have a good idea about starting our own FFL. Some of our best troops now were not citizens when they enlisted.

No point to my ramblings except to say, we had better pony up not just on the money but the urgency of the matter of our "transformation" of the military, because things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get even a tiny bit better.

Papa Ray
West Texas

Joe Katzman said...


The F-35 will be about as expensive as the F/A-18 Super Hornet at around $50-60 million per. High end F-16s are in the low 40s, at the high end of the lightweight fighter spectrum which begin at about $20M. F-15 Strike Eagles are part of the higher end, are around $80-90 million. The Raptor's "Flyaway" cost is around $130M per. On the other hand, it absolutely smokes multiple F-15s at rates around 5-8:1 and is expected to do likewise with SU-30 family planes because it has stealth and they don't.

I suspect the reason it's surviving is that the US military looks to the Pacific and sees a long-range, stealthy fighter with supercruise (sustained speed over Mach 1) as absolutely critical in many scenarios there due to its improved time over target, ability to destroy air defense missiles and do deep strikes, and ability to dominate the air once it comes on station. The circumstances in that theater make the F-22's characteristics very important. Which may explain why they're considering selling them to Japan.

The question around the F-35 isn't its expense, but whether it's a compromise that's wild overkill in most scenarios and not enough in high-end conflicts due to its lack of range, no supercruise, etc.

Force structure arguments are difficult when you're the US military, because there are so many things to prepare for and so many pieces to the military puzzle. But they're necessary.

And there certainly is a problem with the procurement culture at the Pentagon, it has been creating problems for a long time, and it continuesto do so. "Big ticket bias" and "gadgetitis" are part of that, not to mention a bias toward fighters among the Air Force.

All of that could make for an excellent discussion, and there are real issues around the high end spending driving out more focus on low-end, less expensive programs that fulfil key functions. But that isn't the discussion Max Boot undertook, and because he didn't, I'm disappointed too.