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Why Less Bang for the Buck? Part 1

September 9, 2008

Robert Fox writing in the Guardian questions why the US and the UK spend so much on defense but get so little in return. For starters:

In their new Defence Industrial Quarterly, Jane’s shows that America and Britain are top two defence spenders – with an annual expenditure of $696.30bn (£391bn) and $79.27bn (£44.5bn) respectively. Given the sense of crisis now in the Pentagon and the MoD, the voters seem more than entitled to ask what kind of bang are we really getting for our bucks?

And he offers examples:

The main attraction for Brown and Browne is that the aircraft carrier project “guarantees” some 10,000 jobs in the yards and ancillary industries, many of them not far from their two Scottish constituencies. Buying the carriers means reducing the rest of the navy to almost anorexic proportions. It also means scrimping on much-needed helicopters for the frontline in Helmand, providing a radio and communications system fit for the task, and some much needed items for personal protection…

Curiously, the US is going through similar travails. With a defence budget of two-thirds of a trillion dollars, the Pentagon still believes it cannot sustain the present level of US military commitment to both Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a shortage of trained manpower – hence the long combat deployments of up to 15 months for some “teeth” combat units. One-third of the US army’s basic ground equipment, from Humvee jeeps to Bradley armoured fighting vehicles and Abrams M1A1 main battle tanks, now has to be written off in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan. The replacement, or “reset”, programme for the ground vehicles will be more than one-and-a-half times the entire British defence budget – at around $120bn.

You may not think this but I have a simple answer to why modern weapons are becoming less affordable and far fewer: they are approaching a historical and natural stage called “obsolescence” or as the writers George and Meredith Friedman would called it “senility”. This should come as no surprise to military strategists and historians, and is easily dealt with if caught in time.

Now the prevalence of smart weapons in modern war has induced the American Military to extreme and costly exertions to keep their traditional war machine relevant. Aircraft are stealthy to allow them to survive in airspace heavily defended by surface to air missile (SAM) batteries. Most surface warships now carry advanced anti-missile radar, including the Aegis system which permits carrier strike groups to resist cruise missiles and bombers. Modern battle tanks now go to war shielded by revolutionary types of armor such as advanced composites, explosive reactive armor, and slat or cage armor.

The new technology threat forces designers to add such costly and complicated defensive equipment which greatly magnifies the building period and increasingly inhibits battlefield mobility. They also are bought in ever declining numbers.

For example, only a total of 207 stealth aircraft, including the F-117, F-22, and B-2, have been built so far since the 1980s. Compare this to their non stealthy predecessors such as the F-15 and F-16 fighters, a grand total of 3600 serving in the USAF alone since the 1970s, with variants still in production!

Also, the US Navy has been building an “all-Aegis Fleet” since the late 1980s, a remarkably ambitious and costly program that has netted the fleet over 80 such battleships,  giving it some 10,000 missile launchers at sea. It has also given the Navy the smallest battlefeet in a century.

More tommorrow.

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