Thursday, April 21, 2005

A few more random comments, and then back to the blog . . .

In my last post, I mentioned, in passing, my misgivings about the military's transformation in general, and the Stryker brigades in particular. There were a couple of interesting comments that got made in response, and I wanted to take a few minutes and discuss them a bit (I'll get back to the war stories in a second, I promise.)

Uncle Jimbo points out that we have many other options to fight tanks other than going head to head with them. He mentions our air superiority, UAVs, and smart munitions - and there are other options he doesn't go into, on top of that.

Tim Thumb notes -and he's correct, although I think the reasons are more systemic than he suggests - that the US has only a fraction of the manufacturing base that it had during WWII, and would thus be incapable of mounting an industrial campaign as it did in the Second World War.

To Tim's point, I think that it's pretty clear that the United States is now a post-industrial economy, and if we are going to maintain a distinct military advantage, it will be based on superior technology, and superior integration of technology with the war-fighting process (not the same thing, by the way.) We couldn't, even if we wanted to, win a future war through superior production of roughly equivalent products or even vastly superior production of inferior products (say, the Sherman vs. the Tiger.)

One of the primary reasons we were able to win the Second World War was that the military recognized, in the 1930s, the importance of our industrial advantage and took steps to prepare to use it if necessary (for example, through the creation of the Army Industrial War College.) While nothing that unified and formal has been done today (that I'm aware of), Rumsfeld's vision about transformation is based on the potential of technology overcoming mass - and the services are working on it apace. Smart munitions are a terrific example of that - the bombing philosophy of WWII was based on mass - "round the clock" bombing, "bombing waves", and so on. Today, a handful of JDAMs launched from a single aircraft can accomplish, through precision, the same effect that an entire bomber wing from the Second World War might have had - and with much less collateral damage.

On the other hand, relying on technology instead of industrial superiority carries with it a distinct risk: the barriers to replicating a technological success are much smaller than they are to creating an industrial base. I think we see that in the relative speed with which intellectual outsourcing took place in the software industry versus the relatively slow pace of outsourcing of our industrial base. You can, in retrospect, track the history of industrial outsourcing over a forty year plus period - from the sixties until now - before it became a significant issue. In the software industry, it happened in a matter of a few years. It can be argued that part of that difference is because the model for outsourcing already existed, but I think what's more important is that technology requires a much smaller capital outlay, and enabling components can typically be bought off the shelf. The only other requirement for high technology is a smart, educated workforce. Smart people occur in roughly the same distribution worldwide, and technical education isn't that hard for a country to provide (either through building a system like India, or simply sending the best and brightest to the US for training, like China.)

Right now, the US has a distinct and probably insurmountable technological advantage in war-fighting over the rest of the world. My concern is that that advantage might not exist, or might not exist to the degree it does now, in 2020 or 2025, and we should be prepared for that. Our potential adversaries have seen the incredible advantage that our technology confers on our war-fighting capability, and you can be sure they're working to incorporate that advantage into their own equipment and doctrine. And, while developing technology might be hard, duplicating it becomes relatively simple. The US may classify a specific weapons system, but the underlying and enabling technologies are usually widely available and shared in technical journals, papers, and the Internet. In 1980, a cruise missile was an incredible technological undertaking - today, using off the shelf parts (an embedded computer, a GPS receiver, some servos, and some piping) you could build one cheaply and easily (although I'd advise against it, by the way. Putting a guidance system on a rocket is illegal in the US, unless you're the government, or they say it's OK.) We'll probably always be one or two generations ahead, but if we de-emphasize all the other elements of weapons design, I think it will eventually mean trouble - for example, creating a relatively lightly armoured, wheeled vehicle and thinking of it as a tank. It would be one thing for a Stryker brigade to go up against a heavy tank force based on the paradigm of an industrial army - as Uncle Jimbo points out, with out advantages in air power, sensors, smart munitions, and network-centric warfare, we'd clean their clocks. But it will be another thing for a Stryker force with access to, say, third generation "transformational" sensor and C4I technology to go up against a heavy tank force with first gen technology of the same sort.

For instance, let's say, as in Uncle Jimbo's example, we field smart munitions with pattern recognition technology capable of loitering over the battlefield and killing threat tanks as they maneuver to engage. That represents a huge advantage conferred by technology. But let's take it further - given the current state of the art, it's not impossible to imagine a threat buying an off-the-shelf doppler radar, combining it with a minigun mounted on a high speed motorized gimbal, and bolting the whole thing to the back deck of a tank. Instant, relatively cheap, Aegis system for the bad guy's tanks, and a huge technological advantage negated.

And while we lead the world in UAVs right now, I think that we have more to fear from them than we realize. Right now, we can pretty much be assured of establishing air supremacy within a few days of hostilities starting in pretty much any situation we might find ourselves in. In fact, the Army doesn't even have a doctrine for fighting a war without the ability to at least establish local air superiority. UAVs are cheap and relatively easy to build - in many cases, they're not much more than an oversized model airplane. "Smartness," in the sense of sensors and the ability to filter and act on sensor data, is a pretty straightforward computer science project these days, as well. A country like China may not be able to match us fighter for fighter, but how hard will it be for them to create UAV "swarms" that overwhelm our fighter and air defense capabilities?

And sometimes technological advantage can be negated through extremely low-tech means, as we've learned in training and in Kosovo.

I would agree with Uncle Jimbo that tanks aren't necessarily needed to fight tanks. On the other hand, I don't want to sound like a 1980s submariner after a few drinks talking about the obsolescence of the aircraft carrier. If you need heavy armor, especially in an urban environment where a lot of sensor capabilities may be degraded, you need heavy armor. In short, I think that technological transformation is an essential component of maintaining and enhancing our warfighting edge - but I don't think it's a good idea for us to end up with a force that is, weapon for weapon, inferior except for technological edge.


Blogger Uncle Jimbo said...

Jeez dude,

That is excellent analysis, I find nothing to disagree with and plenty I like muchly. You ever consider a job at one of the think tanks? I know folks at Rand Corp. and Institute for Defense Analysis that could use your help, seriously.

Jack Army and I got an email from someone asking about Col. Nick Rowe who was assassinated in the Philippines 16 years ago today. I posted about it because I was in country on my first deployment when it happened. I also have an update from my buddy Kev in Iraq who has had enough of the protestors.


Uncle J

Military Matters

5:53 PM  
Blogger gibson said...

Great post, I've enjoyed reading your blog for some time now. I just wanted to make a couple of points.

While I think Styker brigades are a necessary step, recent battles in Falluja and elsewhere have illuminated the importance of the Abrams in an urban environment. With technological advantages as the latest Abrams kit highlight, I think we can rest assured that the main battle tank is not losing its luster at DoD. In fact, if the new tech that coming out of Isreal (close anti-threat defensive systems) is any indication, Abrams may have a shelf life longer than most analyst ever expected.

As far as the relationship between our once dominate industrial capacity and our recent technical dominance. You may be underestimating our flexibility, economically. If, for the purposes of this discussion, we were to conduct operations against China in a WWIV type scenario I think it would be only a matter of time until we shifted resources to churn out our superior weapon systems on a mass scale. Just as Japan and Germany forced our hand into mass production I believe a China would start the same chain of events (eg - GM shutting down plants and converting them to Abrams facilities). That being said, its no surprise to me that Rumsfeld et al are shifting gears in order to combat threats posed by non-convential means. Because while our forces are capable of fighting effectively in urban and non-symmetrical environments we still have a long way to go.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Mental Meanderings said...

To further elucidate the point of how our economy has shifted, the Navy is currently trying to build a new generation of destroyers (the DDX). The original plan was to build 22 for about 1.5 billion each. Now they are hoping to build 5 at just over 4 billion each. We may be lucky just to see one at any cost. In the US today there are only two companies and six facilities that can build naval vessels. The work on these ships is evenly split between the companies (way to go Trent Lott and Joe Leiberman) which duplication is adding almost 300 million to the cost of each. If we had to outproduce another country numerically, we would be screwed.

8:47 PM  
Anonymous Harvey said...

To add to RJ's observation - it is not just surface ships. How many contractors are left to design and build military aircraft or submarines? I don't think we have the ability to restart M1 tank production if we wanted to. Similarly, if F16 production stops (or if F22 and or F35 never go into full production) those designs and construction abilities will be lost.

10:50 PM  
Anonymous Big D said...

The topic of transformation and tomorrow's military fascinates me, so I can't help joining in.

I am of rather mixed feelings regarding transformation. I'll state some prejudices/beliefs up front to save time.

* I believe that information is a force multiplier, and a highly effective one.
* I do *not* believe that information is an armor replacement, except to the degree to which you can use it to kill the enemy without being detected (which, in MOUT/UO, is not bloody often and not with any reliability).
* I do believe that technological innovations will completely change the battlefield several times in the next century (as they have the last two), and failing to make the right guess (or to guess at all) as to how things will change next is expensive.

I feel that the common assertion that the arguement is strictly heavy armor vs. light or no armor and data is incomplete and misleading. Here are a couple of references that I would recommend.
A tanker who, among other things, drove through Fallujah last fall. An excellent example of what heavy armor can do in UO.
A letter from a LTC in a Stryker brigade in Iraq.

So, can the Stryker (and later, FCS) replace the M-1? To me, the answer is, it depends.

The one big question that I am struggling to answer is just how surviveable the Stryker is. Can it soak RPGs? While the letter above seems to imply that it can, IMHO a lot more detail is needed to make that call. Did the RPGs mostly hit the slat armor? Did the Stryker survive RPG hits to its main armor? Just how much can it take? Answers to these questions will ultimately drive how confident I feel in the direction the Army is taking with the FCS.

I also hear a lot of yelling about tracks vs. wheels, but I keep seeing concept drawings and demonstrators with tracks-over-wheels, which would mostly negate the whole arguement.

For those who are unwilling to consider light mobile vehicles on the battlefield, let me point out something--mechanized formations in 20th century style operations are on their last legs. Nobody can hope to conduct offensive mechanized operations against us--we'd eat them alive as soon as we gained air superiority. It's only going to get worse. In 10 years, we'll probably be deploying our first laser cannons (not YAL-1s, I mean solid state lasers in AC-130s and F-35s). What does it do to mechanized operations when you can field a single aircraft that can kill a hundred soft-skinned vehicles (there goes their supply lines, HQ, artillery, etc.) in a sortie--and then tank for more ammo? Add in autonomous/semi-autonomous munitions (anybody remember LOCAAS?), kinetic energy missiles (even M-1s can't take those), and ever cheaper guided munitions in general, and the battlefield becomes very deadly for heavy mechanized forces and their logistics trains. Now look ahead 20 years, and consider what we will have to field when our enemies start deploying laser cannons and KEMs.

In the end, IMHO, the big question mark is the survivability of FCS, especially WRT HEAT warheads, from RPGs to triple-charge heavy ATGMs. If FCS can actually survive that, then I don't have as much concern about it having to survive tank shells--because frankly, it's unlikely to have the opportunity to face many during its career.

Hey, does anybody know what ever became of the Brits' electric armor? Was that just a psyop for Saddam, or is it real? And if it's real, why aren't we seeing its development expedited?

2:55 AM  

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