What’s in a Name? Semantics and American Disarmament

Despite concerns that America is unilaterally disarming, the domestic weapons industry is not in terminal decline.

It’s a cliche of American defense reporting that the US weapons industry is in terminal decline. Reading the biggest trade publications, you’d think Washington is voluntarily disarming.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Even after recent cuts, US defense spending accounts for nearly half the world’s total and the American arms industry is thriving.

As ridiculous as it might seem, part of the problem is semantics. It appears the defense industry is producing fewer and fewer weapons in part because we’re using fewer and fewer words to describe them. Aerospace consultant Rebecca Grant warned (PDF) that the United States will soon have only one “fifth generation” jet fighter production line. Similarly, retired Navy admiral James Lyon wrote that only two American shipyards are producing “surface combatant” warships.

Grant and Lyons are both right, for a given definition of “fighter” and “warship.” But if we pry apart the terminology, it’s clear both pundits are wrong.

The one modern fighter Grant is referring to is the F-35, built by Lockheed Martin. But the F-35 is actually three very different warplanes sharing a common engine and avionics: the F-35A is a lightweight Air Force version; the Marine Corps’ F-35B has systems for taking off and landing vertically and as a result is much heavier; the Navy’s F-35C has a different wing and other gear for flying from aircraft carriers.

Adding in Lockheed’s F-16 and the Boeing made F-15 and F/A-18E/F, which Grant excludes because the government doesn’t describe them as “fifth generation” — despite all three being thoroughly modern — the US defense industry is actually producing no fewer than six different fighters.

If we count medium-size armed drones — and some flag officers said we should — the number of fighter class warplanes in production grows to at least eight. (For the record, the drones in question are the Gray Eagle and Reaper, both built by General Atomics; several other fighter style drones are in development.)

Lyons cites just two shipyards building surface combatants. Assuming by “surface combatants” he means armed warships that aren’t aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships or Coast Guard patrol vessels, he must be referring to Bath Iron Works and Ingalls, together building the DDG-51 and DDG-1000 destroyer classes — nine and fourteen thousand tons displacement, respectively.

But Lyons leaves out the Littoral Combat Ships, which have been criticized for being lightly armed but which, at three thousand tons displacement, are anything but small. Marinette and Austal both build different versions of LCS. Counting them, the US defense industry has four warship yards.

We are not disarming. The weapons industry is not in terminal decline. Everybody relax.

This article originally appeared at War is Boring, March 21, 2012.