Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

The Pentagon’s Days of Future Past – Original

Posted by M. C. on April 27, 2019

None other than Robert McNamara alerted us 25 years ago that high-tech military forces and equipment are tragically limited in so-called small wars against motivated adversaries. But, the Pentagon refuses to accept this lesson.

Polish cavalry didn’t really charge tanks as the Germans rolled into their country in 1939. But they did have an outmoded military. Last War-ism played a part: Polish cavalry (along with effective code breaking) fended off the numerically superior Soviets in 1920. But the Poles weren’t the only ones who had not kept up with the times.

On December 7, 1941, the U.S. had 19 battleships and eight aircraft carriers. Eight battleships were damaged that day, two permanently. By the Battle of Midway six months later it was becoming clear that carriers were the future of the surface fleet. Yet, eight new battleships were commissioned after Pearl Harbor, showing the enduring strength of the 19th century idea. The remaining battleships played useful roles, but by war’s end the battleship’s day in the sun was over. Several were used as targets during the Bikini Atoll atomic tests in 1946. Virtually all of the rest had been sold for scrap or donated as local museums by the end of the 1940s. However, four decommissioned soon after WWII but not cut-up for scrap famously reemerged for a time in the 1980s and early-1990s, and calls for their return still happen from time to time.

The Pentagon’s reverence for the stealth is a more recent example of over-investing in a fleeting technological advantage is. Stealth, or low observability, was discovered by a Russian scientist in the early-1960s. It took decades of research and development to put into practice, but military value of stealth was short-lived…

Cracks in the façade of stealth appeared in 1999 when a clever Serbian antiaircraft commander used an ancient Soviet radar set and some good detective work to shoot down a F-117. The Pentagon’s panic over Turkey’s plan to buy the Russian S-400 antiaircraft system suggests that the F-35, which Turkey also is scheduled to buy, is already vulnerable.

Aircraft detection techniques are evolving, further undermining the old ideas of stealth design. As anyone who has seen the remarkable improvements in prenatal ultrasound technology knows, improved signal processing makes a difference. The indistinct, two-dimensional pictures of 20th century ultrasound tech have since been refined into 3D images that clearly show facial features.

Ongoing research suggests that stealth optimization for selected wavelengths will not be effective for long. Signal processing experts are working on making sense of the reflected radio waves from commercial sources such as television, radio, and cellular broadcast towers. These electronic signals blanket much of the globe and cover a broad range of the radio frequency spectrum. Perhaps signal processing experts will soon find a way to reliably detect aircraft from these common signals.

Since stealth design is an optimization of physical shape, surface materials, and electronic and thermal signature management, by definition this means the design has been tailored to work best in a specific technical performance range. Thus, optimization does not provide a general or robust capability and physics limits the range and degree of what may be optimized into limited stealthiness…

The Pentagon became accustomed to being good at “precision” airstrikes since the end of the Cold War. Importantly, and narrowly, this capability only exists in wars with technologically unsophisticated forces during favorable weather from safe (for US forces) distances. US aircraft carriers and the operational airfields in and near various warzones have been almost completely free from effective counterattack. The multitudes of armed drones, attack aircraft, aerial refueling tankers, and logistics aircraft generally operate at altitudes safe from surface-to-air threat. The military’s reliance on the high-speed, high-bandwidth global internet backbone and a variety of satcom channels for virtually instantaneous digital communications has to date not suffered from substantive impediment.

Even though the US has become entangled with a variety of strategically formidable adversaries in recent years, the US military operates as the New England Patriots would playing against a sandlot team in strictly technological terms. The Pentagon is grateful for this current technological advantage. Soldiers on the ground have faced serious and effective counterforce. Yet drone footage, aerial weapons support, and communications have rarely been unavailable for technical reasons…

Recently, a widely-announced study by the RAND Corp. suggested that the US gets “its ass handed to it” in simulated battles with China and Russia. What, then, to do? Get “lots of long-range offensive missiles.” RAND helpfully came up with a tab of $8B per service per year to solve the problem. This cost estimate is, of course, very wrong because it always is.

But the real point is “more.” The drum beat for more kinetic capability and capacity resounds. The services have gone back in time to request the types of sensor-shooter digital connectivity envisioned in the Network Centric Warfare and Future Combat System concepts.

The head of Indo-Pacific Command recently notified the Senate that he needed a bigger budget to pay for “immediate and necessary resources.” According to one of the authors of the National Defense Strategy, “’Nothing is more important’ than getting the commander at IndoPacom what he needs.

The Air Force is directing some research and development funding to the usual places: “smart” weapons, sensor and communications networks, and aids to human-decision making, all of which have been in work for decades. The Army is looking at long range missiles to go after ships, harkening back to their 19th century coastal fortification mission. The Marines want to update their amphibious vehicles in the tradition of 19th century landing party and 20th century amphibious assaults. Something for everyone…

A few years ago, the Red Team Journal created a superb graphic of the US approach to national security challenges. It’s a simple Venn diagram made from just three circles. The outer circle is “money,” a smaller circle inside is “tech” and then an even smaller circle inside “money” and partly overlapping “tech” is “strategy.” This diagram “captures our inclination to throw money and technology at the problem” – the US firstly wants to builds gadgets and only in a minor way think through what we do and why.

The Pentagon is “a hierarchy fixated on technology [and] is unequipped to confront a world of disruptive challenges” because it is focused on the past, not the future, and mainly on the money. The US military is an old-fashioned military holding onto WWII-era ideas about the value of kinetic force.

Be seeing you



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