Obama & Gates vs the US military-industrial complex
Battle of Porkbarrel Hill begins
Analysis The US Defence Secretary has signalled a serious attempt on his part and that of President Obama to reform the world's largest military machine. If the two men get their way - and that's a big if - the Pentagon will become much less a capital-intensive tech porkbarrel and much more an organisation of properly-backed combat troops.
Secretary Gates' speech yesterday - full transcript available here - sets out the plans. The axe falls on a long list of expensive hi-tech projects, many of which will be familiar to Reg readers. Among the victims are the US Army's networked ground force vehicles, which originally started out as something not far off a robot tank legion; the partly-British presidential helicopters; the orbital multikill ICBM-busters; and the fantastically expensive Raptor ultrasuperfighter, whose numbers remain capped at 187.
That said, it's far from a clean sweep in the military crazytech sector. Fans of the nuke-nobbling raygun jumbo jet, the Airborne Laser (ABL) will be relieved to note that the current prototype will continue into flight tests - but there won't be any money for more laser 747s unless those tests go unexpectedly well.
Nor is the news all bad at the controversial Missile Defence Agency. While plans for more land-based midcourse interceptors in Alaska are shelved, there's cash for more SM-3 naval interceptors - of the sort which nailed a malfunctioning US spy sat over the Pacific last summer - and ships to fire them from.
The US battle fleet, as Mr Gates notes, has a "healthy margin of dominance at sea". As a result, all big blue-water ship programmes are pushed back and plans for a future electrically-driven destroyer are replaced by increasing the production run of existing Arleigh Burke jobs. However, the new Littoral Combat Ship, handy for inshore work of the sort common in modern warfare, gets the nod.
Across the board, there are cuts in expensive, very-high-tech things which would only be useful for fighting unlikely wars against first-rate opposition, and preservation or increases for more basic stuff which is handy for day-to-day business. The only exception to this rule is that the C-17 heavy airlifter is to cease production this year, perhaps a curious move given that airlift is always overworked in modern military operations.
Equip the man, don't man the equipment
So what does Gates plan to do with all the money he saves on gold-plated, hi-tech programmes which channel billions into the capital-intensive US arms sector?
Mostly, he's going to spend it on people - primarily on people in uniform - and buy them more of the things which they need for the wars they're fighting now and will probably be fighting for some time.
There's an $11bn increase to the core budget to hire more soldiers and marines, and another two billion for medical research, family support and help for the wounded. Gates says that a lot of this latter was formerly outside the main budget, paid for by supplementary funds given for particular wars. He argues that has to stop, as wars may end but wounded and traumatised veterans don't disappear afterwards.
Even though there are going to be a lot more troops, Gates has also ordered a halt on the increasing number of combat brigades in the US Army. This, he says, will put an end to the damaging "stop-loss" syndrome. This refers to soldiers being held in the army against their will past the end of their hitch, so as to keep units manned up for deployment into combat.
Then the fighting troops are going to get a substantial amount more of what they actually ask for, as opposed to things which might be handy in a hot Cold War.
There's half a billion for training more helicopter crews and mechanics. According to Gates, there's a serious shortage of helicopter hours rather than of helicopters as such, and more trained people will get a lot more of the existing whirlybirds into the air above Afghanistan more of the time.
Similarly, there's a new $2bn core budget for armed Predator robospyplanes, moving them in from the supplemental budget and boosting capability by 60 per cent. There's also more cash for the highly successful "manned unmanned" variations on that theme.
Finally on the vexed question of air combat, Gates has plumped squarely for the middle-of-the-road option, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. He says that the Obama administration will buy hundreds of these in the next few years, and aims for a fleet of more than 2,400 in time.
F-35: Some risk of dead flyboys, not much of defeated ones.
The F-35 is widely hated in the military aerospace world, as much because it threatens to put most competing fighter designs out of business as for any other reason. However, its critics also fairly credibly suggest that pilots in F-35s might suffer casualties if opposed by late-model or possible future Russian air defences or combat jets.
That's extremely unlikely to happen, however: and one does note that the entire Russian combat jet fleet numbers fewer than 1,800 planes - most of which are either obsolete, unserviceable, flown by rubbish pilots or all of the above. A US fleet of 2,400 F-35s + 187 Raptors should be able to defeat this kind of enemy with a bit of effort, or smaller and more plausible opponents with ease. If the American fighter jockeys should take some losses doing so, well, the ground troops lose people all the time - not just in highly unlikely Tom Clancy scenarios.
So Gates' budget proposal is an almost unbelievably sensible one - almost a wish list for the USA's fighting service people.
It's tremendously bad news for the US military-industrial complex, however, and unfortunately it isn't Mr Gates who writes the final budget. Rather, the ultimate decisions are made by congresspeople and senators in Washington, many of them with the interests of the arms manufacturers very much at heart.
The backlash, in fact, has already begun. Here's a little YouTube contribution from Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, who considers that "President Obama is disarming America":
Inhofe is especially miffed at cuts to the networked-robot-legion Future Combat Systems plan, in particular the new NLOS-C howitzer - a classic Cold War self-propelled artillery piece, good for tackling Soviet tank armies under hostile skies in the Fulda Gap but pretty much irrelevant otherwise.
Unfortunately, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Inhofe gets nearly as much of a say in the Pentagon budget as Gates does. ®