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 American 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, American 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 American 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 — 9- and 14,000 tons displacement, respectively.

But Lyons leaves out the Littoral Combat Ships, which have been criticized for being lightly armed but which, at 3,000 tons displacement, are anything but small. Marinette and Austal both build different versions of LCS. Counting them, the American defense industry has four warship yards.

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

This story first appeared at War is Boring, March 21, 2012.

One comment

  1. A good piece, and it makes some important points, but I think David (a great reporter, btw) glosses over some very real concerns while underplaying others.

    Concerns: While the SuperBug IS a modern fighter, our F-16 and F-15 fleets (and F/A-18 AB/CDs) increasingly are not. With F-35 procurement being delayed over and over again (and in smaller and smaller batches and increasing prices), our 4th gen fighters are getting older while being pushed harder. It would be a different issue altogether if our 4th gen fleets were comprised of the latest F-15s (like Singapore’s or the RoK’s) or Block 60+ viper, but that is very much not the case.

    Meanwhile, the F-35 is still largely a paper fighter that can do demonstrably less work (less range, less armament, questionable maneuverability) in exchange for stealth (though less than the Raptor) and connectivity. Maybe a good trade, but maybe not.

    Same goes for the naval question. LCS may find a great role, but no one yet knows what it is (as David’s sometimes employers at WIRED remind very well). But we do know what it’s absolutely not: a conventional surface combatant — many of which it will somehow be replacing.

    But of much bigger concern to me is the way we allow these procurement fiascos to go on and then, with an absolutely gargantuan budget, manage to have a depleting fighter force and national fleet. How does someone at Heritage or DoD really come across as credible saying that having the budget of half the world is not enough to maintain 313 ships or a modern fighter force.

    Obviously, either our spending priorities are horribly skewed (they are), our procurement systems are broken (that too), we’re overly reliant on unproven testbed platforms (uh-huh…), or all of the above (yup!).

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