Barn Doors and Fled Horses

By lex, on November 20th, 2011

In the view of the New York Times’ editorial board, the military in good economic times is an irredentist force with suspect loyalties to progressive orthodoxy. Which hates women. And gays. The military is for fighting wars, and there really oughtn’t to be wars, our intellectual betters believe. They’re very expensive, harmful to the ecology and senseless, violence never having settled anything. And the military draws funds away from Helping People.

Without a military, well: We couldn’t have wars. Bake sales for bombers, etc.

When hard times comes, the military adds to those crimes self-evident unaffordability. If cuts to government spending simply must me made because the plebs are agitating against their self-interest by whipping themselves into a frenzy about the size of the national debt (and flagellating right-thinking politicians who only want what’s best for you), the Department of Defense represents the lowest hanging fruit to be culled from the discretionary spending account. Mandatory accounts being sacrosanct, despite their mushrooming costs and we’ll just have to find a way to “grow our way” out of that, or raise taxes. Perhaps both.

Because it’s entirely possible that we could tax our way into economic growth, for some people.

Military personnel are expensive, but you can’t go around railing about people, not if you’ve got the correct mindset. You have to pity the common soldier, sailor, airman and Marine – if not his general officers – for not having done well enough in our insufficiently funded public school systems to avoid going to Iraq. It’s far easier to go after the weapons systems that our military victim classes are expected to operate in (eww) combat. Therefore practically every weapons system produced during the modern welfare state has been criticized at one time or another, from the M1 Abrams tank, to the FA-18 Hornet, to the F-22 Raptor. Don’t lets get started on Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, quickly labeled “Star Wars” by those in the press. Naming having a unique brand of primal power.

In that criticism the media will find allies within the Pentagon, allies keenly aware that DoD budgeting is a zero-sum game, and that for every program funded “above the line”, there are unfunded “requirements” with pet sponsors who got a goring in the budget scrum. They will also be aided by armies of perfectionists who insist that the weapon system isn’t perfect enough for the sums being expended, well-intentioned, informed critics who nevertheless seem ignorant of the fact that it’s the last five percent of capability which drives the greatest proportion of both risk and cost, and who have seemingly never heard of incremental improvements to existing systems.

Which brings us to this 1400+ word softly-softly jeremiad in the Times from national affairs journalist Elisabeth Bumiller:

As a joint Congressional committee appears paralyzed days from a deadline to agree on a plan to cut the nation’s deficit, the Pentagon remains vulnerable to forced reductions over the next decade that would slash its spending by $500 billion, on top of $450 billion in cuts already in the works — a total of more than 15 percent of its operating budget.

But as Mr. Panetta considers scaling back major weapons programs, the Osprey illustrates the challenges in downsizing the world’s most expensive military. The aircraft has survived after repeated safety problems during testing, years of delays, ballooning costs and tough questions about its utility.

Even Dick Cheney, when he was the defense secretary under the first President George Bush, could not kill it.

“Don’t bet against the Marines as budget warriors,” said Richard L. Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va.

In just the last few weeks, the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos, has talked up the Osprey at the Council on Foreign Relations and in written testimony to Congress, branding the aircraft “revolutionary” and the arguments of its critics ill informed. The contractors who built the aircraft have been running advertisements in defense industry and news publications in Washington, celebrating its 100,000 flight hours and lauding it as the “safest Marine rotorcraft” of the last 10 years. Reporters have been flown on Osprey media flights, including with Mr. Panetta to New York.

The real target is the F-35 program of course, and the bullseye at the center of that target is the Marine Corps’ STOVL F-35B variant. But bringing up the admittedly troubled MV-22 birth is a strange way to go about it: The Osprey tried to do something that had never really been done before, mate the vertical take-off performance of a troop lift helicopter with the endurance and dash capability of a turbo-prop fixed wing aircraft. The F-35B may be technically risky compared to the USAF and USN variants, but the component elements of a vertical take-off strike platform and a stealthy fighter have been done.

Perhaps it was a slow news day. Ms. Bumiller goes on to cite how difficult it is to derail a program once its in full-fielding, but this should not surprise the veteran journalist: There’s a tremendous ramp-up investment in research and development, testing and logistical support to field the first operational unit of a production line. That cost is amortized successively over each new item that leaves the factory floor. And the Marine Corps, having invested not just treasure but time and blood in the MV-22, is right to trumpet the new aircraft’s capability. Killing it now would be mere spite, and poor economy as well.

What defense acquisition critics often fail to note is the “lost time” factor involved in killing weapons systems. It takes time to develop high technology weapons systems, and time is money. The operational need that drove the research, design and manufacture of the system will probably not have gone away in the intervening period, and during development the existing force structure becomes increasingly obsolete and expensive to maintain. (The cancellation of the in-production F-22 Raptor, designed against Soviet-era threats is a potential example of a system that outlived its operational need. On the other hand, the development of the for-export Sukhoi PAK-FA might argue otherwise.)

As the Pentagon’s single largest weapons system in development, the F-35 series in general, and the F-35B in particular, are attractive candidates for vertical cuts for those who know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. It’s too late to kill the MV-22, and probably too late to kill the F-35. What else would we replace it with, and when?

See also, “Fighter gap.” *

** 06-07-18 Link gone; no replacement found – Ed. 

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

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