Posted by lex, on September 21, 2009

We’ve spent so much time talking about buying General Motors, hurling billions at the banking industry and trillions at the economy while trying to determine how to pay for free health care that no one has asked how all of this is to be paid for. With the completion of the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review the time is rip for the Obama administration to scrutinize the DoD portfolio for savings. On account of all that wasteful national defense spending. The tenor of this article by RADM Terry Kraft leads me to believe that the aircraft carrier program may once again have its head in the noose.

The admiral makes all the customary points about the inherent flexibility and power of tactical naval aviation, as well as attempting to rebut the latest “survivability” argument in light of China’s promised DF-21 maritime area denial weapon:

When looking at carrier threats, much has been made of China’s DF-21/CSS-5 antiship ballistic missile. (Proceedings) went so far as to feature a picture of a carrier (and unlucky cruiser) blowing up on its May cover. While it is important to look closely at weapon innovations of other countries, it is just as important to not over react to what may or may not be on the horizon for China or any other nation. Last year it was the low-end swarm attack that concerned analysts, now the DF-21 has provided new ammunition for the old argument of aircraft carrier vulnerability. While the range of the DF-21 is under debate, what remains central to the success of a 1,500-km missile is targeting and locating data. The strident article from Dr. Erickson and Mr. Yang (using information primarily from Chinese field manuals) in the May Proceedings devoted exactly one sentence to the task of locating and targeting an aircraft carrier, stating that it would be a “key technical challenge.” In fact finding a ship at sea in the middle of thousands of square miles of ocean, even an aircraft carrier, is extremely difficult. The question remains as to whether potential adversaries have the level of persistent accuracy needed to stage antiship ballistic missile attacks. Should targets not cooperate by radiating military radars or communication gear, the challenge becomes nearly insurmountable given the current technical state of play…

The DF-21 discussion is useful, however, in that it highlights a key tenet of China’s possible military strategy in the Pacific: area denial. If the Chinese can push naval striking forces farther out to sea, those platforms become less effective. Long-range missiles, submarines, and even a future Chinese aircraft carrier will undoubtedly be part of that mix. At a time when things like the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and budget pressures are coming to a head, some of these “threats” seem to have taken on a life of their own.

This quadrennial discussion about the continued validity of the carrier striking force has been around at least since Gary Hart went a-cruising on the Monkey Business, and probably before that. But preemptively withdrawing from the maneuver space of the sea to a proposed weapons system even before it has been developed and deployed would be offering a potential adversary a stunning victory at the price of a few PowerPoint slides. But sometimes the more dangerous foe is already within the gates – Congress has sunk more ships in the last 50 years than any overseas enemy could do, and in this they all too often find allies within the Pentagon willing to play the old “divide and conquer” game among the services.

So that clamor you’re hearing under the admiral’s article is a clash of arms within the Pentagon, as the services squabble between themselves over the expectation of a diminished slice of the national pie. Admiral Kraft’s article is a call for Navy to man the parapets, and if his arguments seem time worn, it’s only that we seem to find ourselves in the same discussions every eight years or so. If it seems silly to have to make the same old arguments every time the bureaucracy changes, that’s only because bureaucracies tend to be full of very silly people. Too, as administrations change, priorities change. Carrier strike groups are expensive, and so would be a public health care option.

Meanwhile, Missouri Congressman Tod Akin asks the not unreasonable question – especially in light of the European BMD row-back – whether the QDR has been rigged to meet a budget number rather than a force requirement:

(Given) the lack of analysis and planning that came with the 2010 budget, many of us in Congress are concerned that the QDR will simply be a gigantic rubber-stamp for President Obama, rather than a thoughtful analysis of the present and future defense needs of our country. Our country needs an honest review of the national security situation, not just a pre-determined justification for Obama’s recent and possible future defense cuts.

As a holdover from the Bush administration, SecDef may get cut a little slack in Congress contrasted to an Obama nominee. He would be able to recommend cuts that might be sharply questioned otherwise. As the tussle begins over the POM-2012 Future Years Defense Plan, we’ll see how useful Mr. Gates has been to the president, and whether that will save him after the ax comes down more generally. Or whether, having done what he had been called upon to do, his work within The Building will be done.

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Filed under Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Military, Politics

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