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:: November 2006 Letter ::

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Dear Fellow Frequent Voters,

People like political change. They get the promise of a fresh start, a chance to try new approaches, and Lord knows, as The Who said, we Won’t Get Fooled Again. And here in DC, there’s lots of change ahoy, and absolutely no inkling of any kind that we’re getting fooled again. Most importantly, a controversial defense secretary who was accused of distorting intelligence for political reasons has been replaced…by a controversial figure who was once accused of distorting intelligence for political reasons.

Okay, change can be over-rated. But from a defense planning standpoint, it’s tough to dispute that firing Rumsfeld was a major plus. To categorize his biggest mistakes:

1. We can transform the military and fight a war. Sure, as long as you’re okay with a hollow force of ancient worn-out equipment, waiting to be replaced with lasers and photon torpedo-firing transformational battle management systems. Inadequate funding for existing force reset led to the Schoomaker revolt, when the Army chief refused to put his name on an inadequate budget request. This, along with a broader service revolt (and sheer political unpopularity) helped topple Rumsfeld.

But we’re still stuck with the worst hollow force the military has seen in decades. From a defense industry standpoint, a hollow force is a gift that keeps on giving—since force structures won’t shrink, DoD will need more cash either for maintenance of the existing worn out equipment, or for replacement equipment.

2. We need a lighter, mobile force…with nothing to lift it. With all the talk of special operations and smaller and lighter ground forces, Rumsfeld’s DoD starved strategic mobility, attempting to kill the C-17 and C-130J.

3. A lighter force is all we need. That light force would only work if you believed that nonsense about US forces being welcomed as liberators. Otherwise, you need a much larger force.

Rumsfeld’s dysfunction in a nutshell: DoD couldn’t plan for recapitalization. Budgeting for the equipment needed to rescue a ground-down hollow military force meant admitting that the military has a hollow force. This admission would have contradicted the administration’s “mission accomplished” message. Besides, the transformation buzzword ruled out any need for large force structures. This was a faith-based approach to force planning, and it precluded sound planning.

(Side note: Politically appointed ideologues are basically interchangeable. The flaws in their management and decision-making bring inevitable results. Noel Forgeard and Donald Rumsfeld could have taken each other’s jobs. The results at their respective organizations would have been exactly the same.)

Enter new guy. Past controversies aside, Robert Gates has a reputation as a first-rate analyst. He will likely take a more rigorous and less ideological approach to the issue of force planning. He will be aided by incoming SASC Chairman Senator Levin (D-MI), who has a strong track record of advocating faster replacement of existing systems.

Meanwhile the services are dealing with the funding crisis by keeping their expectations reasonable, coloring inside the budget lines, and not over-committing to unaffordable initiatives. At least that’s how they’re behaving on the Planet Reasonable, which is located 72 light years from Earth (and 78 light years from DoD). Here on Earth, they are bellying up to the Pentagon food court budget trough and shouting “supersize me.” Glancing at a few priority recapitalization programs, you can’t help but wonder if the services haven’t gotten a bit…er…greedy:

USMC. They’ve always led the way here—their longstanding goal has been to replace 450 F/A-18s and AV-8Bs with 609 much more capable and expensive F-35Bs and to replace their 230 CH-46s with 360 much more capable and expensive V-22s. Total force cost multiplier: at least 3X, probably more. Strangely, that multiplier looks reasonable compared with other services’ recap ideas.

Air Force. Tacair plans to replace F-15s and F-16s with F-22s and F-35s are relatively modest. But for a great example of supersizing, see this month’s CSAR-X decision. Let’s do the math: 112 HH-60Gs purchased for less than $1.5 billion in today’s money, replaced by 141 HH-47s for $12-15 billion. Force cost multiplier: 10X. That’s some kind of recap record.

Army. Before Joint Cargo Aircraft, there was Future Cargo Aircraft, a slightly un-modest effort to replace 35 Sherpas with 145 more capable planes. This would have given the Army its own fixed wing air transport force. The original FCA was likely stopped by the inability of Army officials to keep a straight face while explaining that their program was not, in fact, a turf war. Force cost multiplier: 6X or more. But JCA reduced it to 3X.

Conspicuously absent in the above is Naval Aviation. After the A-12 disaster, they decided to never do anything new again. Instead, they’ve procured F/A-18s and H-60s at a steady pace, not making waves, and not making themselves a budget target. The Super Hornet isn’t cutting edge, but NAVAIR knows exactly where its next meal is coming from. And that will save money to deal with the Shipbuilding Catastrophe From Hell.

Bloated service ambitions aside, the defense budget flood gates will now open a little wider. In fact, just after Rumsfeld left, the Air Force doubled its FY07 supplemental request to $33.4 billion. Post-Rumsfeld analysis of actual force reset needs, aided by a likely Iraq drawdown and bipartisan political tension over defense, will help the services get much of what they want.

This month: an update of the CH-47, with the CSAR numbers. Also, NH 90, A/T-50, Lynx, TBM 700, Jaguar, Citation, King Air, A.129, and MD-11. Have a great holiday party season.

Yours, ‘Til The Next Tidal Wave Of Change,

Richard Aboulafia

 

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