Small Wars

This Week at War: The Jet That Ate the Pentagon

The F-35 is cutting into the Defense Department's most important priorities.

Policymakers get 11th-hour second thoughts on the Joint Strike Fighter

The troubled and long-delayed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program came under renewed scrutiny this week. The Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and many foreign partners plan to buy thousands of the fighter-attack jets over the next two decades to replace a variety of aging aircraft, but the development schedule of the stealthy fighter has slipped five years to 2018 and the projected cost to the Pentagon for 2,457 aircraft has ballooned to $385 billion, making it by far the most expensive weapons program in history.

The Government Accountability Office reported that although Pentagon management of the program is improving, developers have only completely verified 4 percent of the F-35's capabilities. The program received another blow this week when the Senate Armed Services Committee learned that the Pentagon will likely have to spend $1 trillion over the next 50 years to operate and maintain the fleet of F-35s. Evidently reeling from sticker shock, Sen. John McCain demanded that "we at least begin considering alternatives." But is it too late to prevent the F-35 program from devouring the Pentagon's future procurement budgets?

Air Force officials themselves may now doubt the wisdom of the size of the commitment to the F-35. According to a recent Aviation Week story, Air Force Undersecretary Erin Conaton placed new emphasis on the importance of the Air Force's next-generation long-range bomber. With procurement funds sure to be tight in the decade ahead, Conaton hinted that the Air Force may have to raid the F-35's future budgets in order to help pay for the new bomber.

The rapidly changing strategic situation in Asia and the western Pacific should compel policymakers to reexamine the size of the commitment to the F-35. Yet another critical report on the F-35 from the Pentagon's acquisition office dated Dec. 31, 2010, revealed that the Air Force version of the attack jet would have a combat mission radius of 584 miles, just short of the original stated requirement of 590 miles, and significantly less than a recent expectation by program officials that the jet would be able to strike targets 690 miles away without midair refueling.

A combat radius of 584 miles leaves planners with few options when contemplating operations over the vast distances in the Asia-Pacific region. As I discussed in a recent column, China's growing inventories of ballistic and cruise missiles are already capable, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, of striking the U.S. Air Force's main bases in the region. These missiles are also putting the Navy's aircraft carriers increasingly at risk, which could compel the Navy to move the vessels out of the F-35's strike range.

The solution is combat aircraft with much longer ranges, which would operate from distant bases less vulnerable to missile attack. This would explain Conaton's increased emphasis on the new long-range bomber and the Navy's interest in a long-range combat drone that would launch from its aircraft carriers and some of its amphibious ships.

There are still significant roles for the F-35 and many of its leading-edge stealth and electronic capabilities. The F-35 can defend against enemy aircraft, can collect and distribute intelligence from over a battlefield, and can attack heavily defended targets within its range. In any case, the program is "too big to fail," or at least "too big to kill," and it is far too late in the day to now consider alternatives. But it seems increasingly likely that the Air Force and Navy will eventually truncate their planned purchases and redirect those savings into new long-range platforms. Doing so would cause the unit cost of the F-35 to spike even higher which would likely lead many foreign partners to drop out. But that regrettable consequence may be necessary if the Air Force and Navy are to have the money to buy capabilities that will actually be useful in the vast stretches of the Pacific.

Defense cuts will mean more risk. Is the Marine Corps the Pentagon's best hedge?

At remarks delivered at a recent dinner sponsored by the Center for a New American Security, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos asserted that the Marine Corps will be one of the country's principal risk management tools in the decade ahead. Inevitable cuts to the Pentagon's budgets will require policymakers to take greater security risks, but Amos argued that the Marine Corps's unique attributes will provide a useful hedge against some of the added risks policymakers will have to assume. Amos argues that the Marine Corps's broad portfolio of capabilities and organizational culture make it particularly well-suited to respond to unknown risks. Is the Marine Corps a good hedge against strategic risk? And what can Amos and his colleagues do to improve the Corps as a risk management tool?

In an earlier column, I discussed the Marine Corps's plan for its post-Afghanistan future. That plan calls for cuts to many of the its conventional frontline combat capacities and increased investments in some specialized and irregular capabilities. Marine Corps planners are betting that they won't get bogged down in another large, open-ended campaign such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither will they have to fight another big tank battle as they did against Saddam Hussein in 1991. With the new force structure, the planners are optimizing the Corps for rapid-crisis response, dust-ups with murky but dangerous "hybrid" non-state actors, and for assisting and partnering with allied military forces around the world.

Hedging and risk management are all about preparing for surprises. Although a seemingly oxymoronic concept, leaders can promote attributes that enhance an organization's ability to rapidly adapt to surprises. Surprises are by definition unknowable. But organizations can prepare for surprise by improving their ability to adapt.

Amos asserts that the Marine Corps has a balanced portfolio of wide-ranging capabilities, which its planners can tailor to meet a variety of contingencies. The Marines train in many climates and terrain, also preparing them for numerous possibilities. And Amos explained how the Corps plans to become lighter and more mobile after Afghanistan, improving its response time during crises.

These are all helpful attributes for rapid adaptation. But the most powerful attributes of adaptation are intangible and are found within an organization's culture and human capital. For example, organizations that are "confidently paranoid" respect the threats posed by their competitors while retaining the confidence to devise effective solutions. Adaptable organizations decentralize decision-making and expect subordinates to take responsibility for solving problems with little guidance from above, even when this results in "learning mistakes" and inefficiencies. Adaptable organizations reward subordinates for creativity and resist punishing those whose ideas failed or wasted resources. Adaptable organizations tolerate "organizational entrepreneurs" and the messy organization charts that can result.

Perhaps most notably, adaptable organizations require seemingly wasteful redundancy, healthy budgets for education and rotational assignments, and experimentation, much of which will go awry. Preparing for surprise requires a willingness to accept failed approaches, recruiting and then letting go people who aren't suitable, and what will appear to be much wasted overhead.

The Marine Corps takes pride in the development of its junior leaders and in the amount of responsibility it places on them. But how much the Marine Corps has tolerated the inevitable learning mistakes, inefficiencies, and messiness required for effective adaptation has varied over time. Building an adaptable organizational culture for the Marine Corps may not be cheap. But it may be cheap if it avoids a future military disaster.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Image

Small Wars

This Week at War: The Milosevic Option

Why NATO may soon break out the Kosovo playbook in Libya.

NATO wants to get ‘more aggressive' against Qaddafi. But how exactly?

Over the past two week, the rebels fighting Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi have achieved some modest gains. Rebels in the western city of Misrata have apparently halted Qaddafi's artillery bombardment of the city center. More cracks may have developed inside the leader's inner circle. But some NATO military leaders, concerned that the overall military stalemate remains in place, are looking for ways to be "more aggressive" with the air power at their disposal. The task for NATO policymakers is to figure how to bomb Qaddafi and his forces more aggressively without taking more risks with the civilian population NATO explicitly pledged to protect.

According to the BBC, the rebel militia in Misrata has pushed back government forces a few kilometers in several directions. The bombardment of the port area and downtown has ceased as the modest rebel advance was enough to push pro-Qaddafi artillery and rocket launchers out of range. NATO airstrikes against eight Qaddafi warships -- some of which had mined Misrata's port -- will also provide some relief to the population. As welcome as these developments are for the residents of the city, this local tactical success does not seem to have affected the larger strategic stalemate throughout Libya. The eastern frontline south of Benghazi remains roughly unchanged and Qaddafi's forces remain in control of Tripoli and most of the western half of the country.

With rebel ground formations static and incapable of offensive maneuver, the NATO air campaign appears increasingly focused on attacks against government command-and-control and leadership targets. Foremost among these are repeated nighttime strikes against Qaddafi's sprawling compound in Tripoli. It is hard to imagine the military utility of these return visits to Qaddafi's compound -- Qaddafi himself long since decamped to residential areas or other obvious "no go" areas for NATO bombing. Subordinate commanders who might have once used the compound also must have long since established alternate command sites.

NATO's bombardment strategy is now likely more focused on applying political and psychological coercion against the regime rather than inflicting battlefield damage against military forces. Repeated attacks against the compound are designed to erode Qaddafi's prestige. NATO strikes on the compound and other possible leadership locations may also be aimed at frightening Qaddafi's inner circle. This intimidation, combined with legal carrots and sticks now offered by the International Criminal Court, are intended to induce more defections from those around Qaddafi. This strategy may have notched a success; Libya's oil minister has gone missing and may have defected.

But it may not be working fast enough for some NATO leaders. Gen. David Richards, Britain's top military commander, called for expanding the list of acceptable targets. Richards wants to add "infrastructure" targets to NATO's lists. Traditionally, attacks on classic infrastructure targets such as bridges, roads, power plants, and telecommunication systems are designed to isolate an adversary's ground forces, making them more vulnerable to defeat on the battlefield. But attacks on such targets are simultaneously devastating to the civilian population, which is why they have been avoided thus far in the Libyan campaign.

Richards may be hoping to reprise the strategy used effectively against Slobodan Milosevic during the 1999 Kosovo air campaign. As I discussed in an earlier column, NATO faced a similar stalemate during its bombing campaign against Serbia. It then expanded its attacks against Milosevic's lieutenants and the economic assets inside Serbia valued by those lieutenants. This change in tactics created enough pressure inside the ruling inner circle to force Milosevic to succumb. Richards' definition of "infrastructure" may have these regime leadership assets in mind.

Libya's rebels and NATO should be mildly encouraged by the perceptible erosion suffered by Qaddafi over the past two weeks. But it hasn't been enough to break the stalemate. NATO may now be willing to double down on the coercive air campaign it is aiming at Qaddafi. Whether it can do that without increasing the suffering of the broader population is another question.

How to get policymakers to understand tradeoffs -- and then remember them later

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn went to the Intrepid Museum in New York City on May 11 to discuss how he and his colleagues are preparing for the coming lean years at the Pentagon. Lynn described what he and his staff have learned from the five previous episodes of defense drawdowns that have occurred since World War II. Lynn declared the previous drawdowns failures that left future policymakers unprepared for the security challenges they eventually faced. Lynn and his colleagues hope to do better this time.

Echoing comments Defense Secretary Robert Gates made this week, Lynn made clear that President Barack Obama's call for an additional $400 billion in security cuts over the next decade will create risks for future policymakers by limiting the military options available to them. In order to meet Obama's defense cut number, policymakers today will have to choose between acquiring certain future capabilities (such as new systems designed to address emerging threats) or having the capacities  (enough soldiers and equipment) needed to accomplish some security objectives around the world. Lynn, Gates, and, presumably, Leon Panetta -- Gates successor -- hope to make sure that Obama and other top officials understand these trade-offs and consequences.

In his speech, Lynn discussed the importance of maintaining a substantial research and development program during the drawdown. He noted how policymakers during the 1970s drawdown maintained research into stealth technology, an investment that continues to pay off today. For the future, Lynn wants to continue research bets on long range strike systems, unmanned aircraft, and cyber capabilities.  The purchase of these capabilities will presumably come out of the hide of forgone capacities - such as fewer ground combat brigades or legacy warships and aircraft.

It is here that top policymakers will have to make agonizing choices that risk possibly dramatic future consequences. Peer competitors like China will soon possess military research and technical capabilities that will nearly match those of the United States. Given the rapid advance of technology, it will be far too risky to forgo the development of leading capabilities such as those listed by Lynn. The long lead times required for fielding leading-edge systems will likely make it impossible to fill in a vulnerable technology gap during an emerging crisis.

But the price of paying for capability insurance may mean that top policymakers may not have the soldiers, warships, and airplanes to respond to politically urgent developments. For example, Harvard professor Sarah Sewall and retired general Anthony Zinni recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post urging the Pentagon and military commanders to prepare plans for stopping mass atrocities anywhere in the world. Their piece appeared just a few weeks after Obama, European leaders, and others intervened in Libya for exactly this purpose. Beyond Libya, the world affords many more opportunities for similar humanitarian interventions by military forces. But a very real consequence of the tighter budget cap on the Pentagon may be to cause Obama or a future president to have to explain why he can only watch while some humanitarian disaster takes place because military capacities have already been committed elsewhere. Indeed, a lack of available military capacity in the Western powers leading the campaign against Qaddafi partly explains why the coalition is unable to resolve the Libyan conflict.

Sewall and Zinni explained that one reason for preparing such military plans is to inform policymakers of the implications of intervention before they make any commitments. Lynn, Gates, and Panetta have a similar goal in mind for the new defense review. What remains to be seen is whether down the road the policymakers who ordered defense savings will remember the constraints they previously created.