The military must end its quest for “exquisite” weapon systems that are too costly, take years to design and build, and don’t reach troops fast enough, or in quantities large enough, to address ever-changing threats.
The critic here isn’t a Washington think tank or a beltway consultant but Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the U.S. military’s second highest ranking officer.
Cartwright recalled the wry observation made by some critics of current weapon-buying practices that, by 2015, America’s armed forces will have one airplane and one ship operating in the Pacific, one airplane and one ship in the Atlantic and a single space vehicle orbiting the Earth.
“What they’re really saying, in my mind, is we have gone overboard with exquisite” ships and aircraft, Cartwright said, and “that we have got to get back to scale (and) platforms that are adaptable and flexible.”
Cartwright made his comments at a military professional symposium held Nov. 17 in Arlington, Va., by Military Officers Association of America.
The vice chairman, who is a fighter pilot himself, compared the capabilities of a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle to those of a piloted fighter aircraft, illustrating a better way to fight an illusive, dispersed enemy.
The UAV, he said, “costs about a third of what the fighter costs. It uses about a third of the fuel the fighter uses. Instead of being airborne for two hours, it’s airborne for 20 hours. It requires no tankers (to refuel). It can be flown from any part of the Earth and you don’t have to be in that part of the Earth.” UAVs, Cartwright continued, can track an enemy, kill an enemy with missiles, and record whatever it does or flies over.
“So if I need to know something later, if I need to go back and figure out how I got where I am, if I need to write a new algorithm about how to find something or fix something or kill something, I can go back and look at it. … Large maneuver units are interesting (in current conflicts) but we’re down to DNA and fingerprints in order to finish off the target,” Cartwright said.
He said making better choices in buying weapon platforms becomes more critical when growth in defense budgets slows, as Cartwright believes it soon will. A slowdown shouldn’t be allowed to impact force quality or U.S. capabilities to operate in multiple theaters simul-taneously. That means, he suggested, the pressure will be on the military, Congress and industry to make smarter, more efficient choices in weapons procurement.
“Building platforms that can have multiple purposes, that can modify very quickly with software, that consume minimal amounts of energy for extended periods of time … are critical,” the vice chairman said. Those goals aren’t met when the mindset is to build the very best weapon imaginable.
“A few years back we built the B-52 (bomber) in the quantity of hundreds. Then we built the B-1 in the quantity of 100. Then we built the B-2 in the quantity of 20,” Cartwright said. The Navy, which envisioned having 600 ships before the Soviet Union collapsed, struggles today to keep 300.
Regarding worldwide threats, Cartwright said he and other members of the Joint Chiefs believe “we are entering an era of persistent conflict,” stirred by the world’s rising populations seeking shares of “finite resources” such as water and energy.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org