What’s in a Name? Semantics and American Disarmament

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.

Chengdu J-20: China’s First Stealth Fighter

For months there had been rumblings on Chinese Internet forums: rumors of photos quickly suppressed by censors. Word was, China’s first stealth fighter prototype, the Chengdu J-20, was nearing its inaugural flight. On Christmas Day, photos finally surfaced online — and stayed there. It was official: Beijing now possesses an apparently flyable prototype fifth-generation fighter, making it only the third country after Russia and the United States to join the stealth club.

The J-20 appears to share design characteristics with earlier stealth types. It has the same angled chin as the Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35, plus those jets’ all moving tailplanes. Its twin engines are probably Russian-made 117S models. Like the Russian T-50, it’s big: an estimated 70 feet, compared to 66 for the T-50, just over 60 for the F-22 and the F-35’s 50. “The bigger that the aircraft is, the more likely it is that it is a bomber as much as, if not more than, a fighter,” Ares‘ Bill Sweetman noted.

Is the J-20 intended as a production program? If so, how soon might it enter service? There’s no way to know for sure, but Sweetman stressed that the J-20 might not spend as long in development as, say, the F-22 and F-35, both of which required 15 years from demonstrator first flight to service entry. “We don’t have a pattern for Chinese major programs,” Sweetman warned.

If it enters service, and enters service fast, the J-20 could help China flesh out its still largely outdated fleet of some 1,500 fighters, bringing Beijing closer to achieving air parity against its local coalition of rival countries: the US, Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea and India. Even with the J-20, China will be overall outnumbered and behind technologically — but much less so.

The J-20’s first flight should occur any day now.

This story first appeared on War is Boring, December 29, 2010.

European Navies Train for Coastal Warfare

In September, the navies of thirteen nations gathered at the port of Turku in Finland for Exercise Northern Coasts 2010, a two week training event meant to “improve the interoperability between participating units and countries with main emphasis on maritime operations in confined and shallow waters,” according to the Finnish military. The event was tailored for “smaller naval units, such as fast patrol boats, corvettes, small frigates and Mine Counter-Measure Vessels,” Warships International Fleet Review reported. Read more “European Navies Train for Coastal Warfare”

Kill the F-35

The Pentagon is expected to announce additional delays and cost increases for Lockheed Martin’s monopolistic F-35 stealth fighter. Launched in the 1990s as an “affordable,” widely used replacement for the F-16, F/A-18 and other aircraft, in recent years the F-35 has become exactly the opposite. Sales estimates of up to 4,000 jets — more than half of them for American forces — seem increasingly fantastical as governments look to cut defense costs. Increasing development delays only make it easier for customers to cancel or defer their planned orders. With the order book looking thinner and thinner, pricey development gets spread out over fewer jets. Instead of costing the same as or less than today’s $50 million F/A-18E/F, the average F-35 will be around twice as expensive, per airplane, until very late in a projected thirty year production run.

For that reason, it’s time to pull the plug. That’s right: kill the F-35. It’s the surest way to save the Pentagon’s fighter fleets from slowly wasting away.

Last summer, the Pentagon tried to deny, then ultimately admitted, that F-35 development had run into serious management and technical obstacles. They problems cascaded throughout the program. This spring, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced a major reorganization of the program, firing the general in charge, delaying full rate production by a year to 2015 and adding $3 billion to development. Now Bloomberg is reporting that the Pentagon will push back full production to 2016 and add an extra $5 billion for R&D. The news comes just weeks after the United Kingdom, previously the biggest projected F-35 customer after the US, reduced its anticipated buy to just fifty or so copies, down from 138.

Critics have a word for this cycle of increasing cost and decreasing orders. It’s called the “death spiral.” It’s how the US Air Force has ended up buying just 187 F-22 fighters, several years late and at a cost of more than $300 million per jet, instead of the 381 the air service said it needed. If we allow the F-35 to continue spiraling, it will gobble up essentially all available funding for tactical airplanes for the next thirty years, without delivering the number of jets we need to keep up our fleets. Plus, the F-35 program as designed directs most of the Pentagon’s fighter budget to just one big manufacturer, basically starving the others. That’s bad for the American defense industry.

Kill it

It’s time to kill the F-35 as a production program and redirect most of its roughly $300 billion future cost into other, more cost effective aircraft designs spread over a greater number of manufacturers. Taxpayers have already spent around $50 billion on the F-35, but that’s not a compelling reason to maintain the program in its current form. Rather, the F-35 should become strictly a prototyping and technology-development program, rather than a large-scale production program — much in the same way the Pentagon cut the Navy’s $5 billion per copy DDG-1000 “stealth” destroyer to just three hulls, meant mostly for experimentation. We’ve paid for a hundred F-35s. Let’s put them to good use refining concepts and technology. But we shouldn’t buy more of them

The timing is right. America still has four other, active manned fighter production lines, plus drone programs, that can deliver the same or more capability and more aircraft, all at lower overall cost, and faster. The impact on foreign allies will be minimal. The implications for weapons manufacturers can be mitigated by reinvesting the savings. My proposal to kill off the F-35 is not about cutting American defense spending or reducing the size or capability of American fighter fleets. Rather, ending the F-35 now would result in a stronger military and healthier industry.

The big question is, does Gates have the fortitude to dismantle the biggest weapons program in history? Despite Gates’ record as a boondoggle killer — he curtailed the DDG-1000 plus the Army’s $200 billion Future Combat Systems — it’s an open question whether he has the clout and foresight to do the same with the F-35. To be sure, the F-35 will be one of Gates’ final acquisitions challenges: he’s expected to step down in 2011. The F-35 decision could be his most lasting legacy, if he can muster the courage to kill it. Or, if he concedes to more delays and cost increases, the F-35 could prove to be Gates’ biggest regret.

The American air fleet need new fighters. The Navy and Marines have several hundred first-generation F/A-18s expected to age out in just a few years; most of the Air Force’s F-15Cs and F-16s will be worn out in a decade or so. To maintain the existing, overall fleet of some 3,000 tactical fighters, the Pentagon must buy at least a hundred fighters a year, starting now. And it must do so within existing budgets, as economic conditions make a topline increase highly unlikely.

There’s just one way to accomplish this. End the F-35 as a production program. The Pentagon should spend a few billion dollars over coming years experimenting with the F-35 airframes and systems, using the hundred jets we’ve already paid for. But plans to buy 2,400 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy and Marines must stop. That would free up at least $12 billion a year immediately, and more down the road. Gates should reinvest that money in new and existing aircraft. Specifically, he should:

  • Continue F-22 production at a rate of twenty per year, at a cost of around $4 billion annually. Add, say, two hundred planes to current fleet. I admit I supported Gates’ earlier plan to truncate the F-22 in favor of the F-35, but circumstances have changed. A roughly four hundred strong F-22 fleet could provide air defense and defense suppression capability for the Air Force, enabling bigger fleets of less advanced jets to bomb and patrol with relative impunity. Extended F-22 production would help keep Lockheed happy in lieu of F-35 production.
  • Replace F-15Cs with stealthier F-15 Silent Eagles, available from Boeing today. The Pentagon should negotiate to buy twenty per year for less than $2 billion, for a total of two hundred. Alongside two hundred existing F-15Es, the newer F-15SEs would be capable of air superiority and ground attack within airspace sanitized by the F-22.
  • Buy 400 F-16E/Fs from Lockheed for United States-based air patrols and, in wartime, “bomb truck” duties alongside older F-16s. The new F-16s can be had for just $50 million a copy. Forty per year for $2 billion would recapitalize the US Air National Guard before old-model F-16s age out. Between the F-22, F-15SE and F-16E/F, the Air Force would get eight hundred new fighters in ten years, for the same price as continuing the F-35. The risk is smaller; the return is faster on the same overall investment; we lose no capabilities. Plus, the Air Force fighter fleet would remain at its current size of around 2,000 jets.
  • For the Navy, sustain Boeing’s F/A-18E/F production at $2 billion per year for forty jets, while adding new technology and weapons. The sea service should also boost investment in Northrop Grumman’s X-47 armed drone, or the armed Sea Avenger from General Atomics as a less risky alternative. For that, figure $1 billion annually. That funding would help keep Northrop and General Atomics viable as warplane makers. In sum, the Navy gets enough planes on a sustained basis to avoid depopulating its carrier decks — and adds a new, long range capability in the form of an armed drone.
  • Direct the Marines to buy new F-18s: twenty per year should suffice, at a cost of around $1 billion. That would mean eventually surrendering fixed-wing operations from assault ships, currently performed by the AV-8B jump jet and originally slated for the vertical landing F-35B model. Ending jump jet ops does mean giving up a capability, but it’s a capability of marginal value. To replace jump jets on the assault ships, the Marines could add a few attack helicopters to the existing AH-1Z program, at marginal cost. Navy and Marine fighters flying from large carriers would cover beach landings.
  • On the fringes, allow F-35 testing to continue, strictly for tech and concept development. Findings could fold into next generation fighter programs starting in a decade or so. Around the same time, the Pentagon should start buying new bombers — something that might not be possible with the F-35 crowding the budget.
  • Encourage American allies to replace their planned F-35 fleets with Eurofighter Typhoons, Dassault Rafales, Saab Gripens, F-15s, F-16s, F-18s or light fighters from a range of manufacturers. As with the Marines, the only customers that will lose capabilities are those planning on using F-35Bs from assault ships. That includes the Italians, for sure, plus maybe Spain and South Korea. Again, this represents a capability of marginal value: certainly nothing to justify continued investment in an increasingly wasteful program.

This story first appeared on War is Boring, November 1, 2010.