Too clever by half

Posted by lex, on May 12, 2008

 

TPM Barnett is – as I have pointed out before– a very clever analyst. He makes a good living thinking big thoughts and providing them to important others with insight, panache and humor: Had he taken to sales rather than geopolitical and military strategy, he could have retired by now to his own private island, had the whim struck him. He can maneuver an audience degree by almost imperceptible degree down a logical chain leading to some pretty unfamiliar intellectual territory. To listen to his schpiel live, for example, is to find oneself agreeing with Barnett about the need to ”manage” a rising China rather than help balance it, as has been our traditional policy in the Far East.

While never explaining quite how such a thing might be accomplished, the morality of doing so considering China’s human rights record – a thing that Barnett, as a “realist,” feels no obligation to consider – or what interest China itself has in having its rise managed by anyone else.

I don’t believe that Barnett is advocating  holding China’s robe while it shakes loose a reef or two from the Mainsail of Destiny, but when he heaps obloquy on the DoD acquisition strategy there’s room to wonder at his motivations. I summarized him here:

“We love our China. We love it just like it is…” the potential emergence of a peer competitor helps us frame our military acquisition strategy and defend our large capital budget expenditures.

The only plausible reason for acquiring F-22 Raptors, F-35 Lightnings and FA-18 Super Hornets in Barnett’s view is to have them at hand in case China forgoes diplomacy and attempts to seize Taiwan by force, a course of action that might well trigger a US response and lead to general war between the rising hegemon and the declining hyper-power. Which, per Barnett, must not be allowed to happen. Archduke Franz Ferdinand lives on Taiwan, he jokes, evoking the vision of Old Europe in flames over the 1914 assassination of the Austro-Hungarian royal in Sarajevo.

In broad terms of course, he’s quite right. The devil, as always, is in the details. Those in favor of research, development and acquisition of such world-beating weapons systems as the F-22 for use against a peer or near-peer competitor believe, as many have before them, that peace is best assured from a position of strength and that a lack of capability in a Hobbesian international order is provocative.  Barnett clearly disagrees, which is why I am forced to look at his latest article on aircraft acquisition with a somewhat jaundiced eye:

Helicopter losses are the No. 1 cause of U.S. casualties in high-altitude, mountainous Afghanistan and the third leading cause in Iraq. Yet Pentagon R&D spending on tactical aircraft dwarfs the amount spent on rotor craft. In recent years, the total budgeted R&D for helicopters was $2 billion to $3 billion, roughly half of what the Defense Department spends on just one new tactical aircraft and one-quarter of its R&D on missile defense.

Doesn’t that sound out of whack? Spending so much on low-probability future scenarios and so little on today’s real-world operations?

His recommendation is that we spend a great deal more on small war aircraft like helicopters, and less on fixed wing fighters and attack aircraft. But Barnett is certainly smart enough to know two things: First, that fixed-wing dominance enables rotary wing employment while being operationally sufficient in and of itself – the reverse is rarely true – and second, that the physics of rotary wing operations virtually ensures that helicopters will be exposed to a much greater variety and density of threats than their high flying confrères.

Nowhere will this be more true than in an asymmetric campaign with a 360-degree threat sector. Reaction times to surface-to-air missile threats are brutally short when you’re flying low, bullets cannot be deceived or decoyed in any case, and high altitude flight in a rotary wing design by its very nature tests the margins of aircraft performance. Certainly we could up-armor our helicopters, but that isn’t a research and development issue so much as it is a trade-off between self-protection and mission accomplishment: Every pound of armor means one less pound of something else – endurance, range, ordnance, useful load.

Because of our dominance of the full volume of the aerial battlefield, no US ground forces have been subject to aerial attack since 1953 – a fact with enormous strategic and tactical consequences. That’s worth keeping in mind, alongside two other eternal truths: The best way to ensure peace is to prepare for war, and the surest way to lose the next war is to fight the last one.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, International Affairs, Politics and Culture

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