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Build as You Fight Pt 1

December 14, 2009

This highly sophisticated, heavily armored MRAP vehicle is a direct result of America's arms race with the Third World.


Afghanistan is not Iraq, to quote General Petraeus. This is true in mul­ti­ple ways, but no more so than in terms of oper­a­tions and logis­tics. The geog­ra­phy and ter­rain in Afghanistan require what the Marines call “dis­trib­uted oper­a­tions,” and with what the Corps calls “expe­di­tionary logis­tics.” And such logis­tics require air assets to con­nect deployed forces, and with those air assets come sig­nif­i­cant energy and bas­ing costs. For exam­ple, two mil­lion pounds of cargo were air dropped in the­ater. For September of 2009, the Air Force air-​​dropped nearly four mil­lion pounds with an esti­mated 20 mil­lion pounds to be air dropped for the cal­en­dar year.   

The cost per deployed sol­dier in Afghanistan will be mul­ti­ples higher than for the deployed sol­dier in Iraq. Dependent on which ana­lyst is doing the assess­ment, the num­ber ranges from two to four times higher.   

Robbin Laird at DoDBuzz.   

The Hand Dealt Us  

It appears that the poorer the country, the more expensive it now costs to fight the traditional American Way of War, with high tech industrial style weaponry. The US has been for some time in an arms race with Third World countries, in other words, giant and massively expensive weapons have been justified for their usefulness in numerous brush-fires wars since at least following World War 2. We point to specifically the following much loved platforms:   

  • Aircraft Carriers-Land Wars such as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, various terrorist supported regimes, and possibly Iran
  • Main Battle Tanks-The same wars, notably Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991.
  • F-22 Raptor stealth fighter-To be used against as yet unfielded, even uncertain Russian and Chinese 4th and 5th Generation aircraft which might get into the hands of rogue Third World powers, or the same powers shielded behind SAM missile batteries, notably Iran.

Meanwhile, terrorist groups can send a single suicide bomber into a Western rail or air terminal and change the fate of whole nations. In return America and her allies will spend trillions of dollars for a decade or more, while mobilizing its vast military, industrial, and scientific expertise to combat the same foe. The disproportion in expense and manpower to get near-equal results staggers the imagination!   

The argument goes we must also prepare for future threats, but has there ever been a time in history when a free nation was allowed a choice of threats? Only aggressor nations have that option. We either manage the hand fate has dealt to us or in the future these problems will multiply against us. The issues of terrorism, piracy, porous borders and failed states are mounting. We are not allowed to ignore them anymore, only to our peril, not to mention our moral obligations to the suffering poor.  

These days we go to war with one hand tied behind our backs, as the enemy most often encountered are those much poorer than ourselves, yet our budgets and planning are bound in weapons of another era. We must prioritize, and I say, give the funds to those who can use them, to the ones already in harms way. Let tomorrow take care of itself. It could be our ideas of how or who we might fight in the future could be wrong, but the terrorist foe is well known, here and now.  

China’s Frugal Defense 

Another example might be seen in how we answer near-peer threats, the kind we’d much rather contend with, such as China. In a recent article at the Washington Times, Admiral James Lyons called for using the $5 billion 1990s version of the DDG-1000 Zumwalt destroyer as a platform for the anti-ballistic missile shield. You may recall the program originally planned for 32 ships–then reduced to 7–and finally now at 3 vessels, for the fact she was over-priced and underarmed compared to the destroyer it was replacing, the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class.   

This is another high tech answer to a relatively low tech threat, meaning a missile which may cost $1 million more or less, versus a platform 500 times as costly! The counter-argument might be the platform is more versatile and can destroy many other such missiles, but lets see if it is the most cost effective solution to this problem. Currently the US plans to deploy 3 Zumwalts at $3 billion each (bulk price), as was stated. In the unlikelihood this would become the 32 vessels originally called for, geared for ABM defense, the cost comes to about $96 billion. Add to this the price of 50 SM-3 missiles for each vessel, at $10 million each, raising the cost per ship to $3.5 billion. Grand cost comes to $112 billion for a narrowly focused mission, against this single peer threat.  

During the time period it will take to finished the DDG-1000 program, perhaps half deployed by 2020, how many of the Chinese carrier killing missile might be built in the same time frame? The possibilities are limitless, but thousands doesn’t seem far-fetched. Add to this the number of MIRVs on the typical Chinese missile (3 on the CSS-9, upwards to 10 on future versions), the number of projectiles multiplies greatly against the DDG-1000 class.   

The 10,000 projectiles our handful of very costly destroyers might have to face isn’t the primary menace. While it is conceivable that the advanced stealth and armored warship might survive such a deluge of precision missiles, its primary foe, as with all surface vessels in narrow seas, would likely be one from another age, but still deadly potent. This would be a single torpedo from a slow, clanky Chinese conventional submarine, bought at a fraction of the price of the supership, and based on World War two German submarine sub technology on a lineage from the Russian Romeo class.   

Light fighters like the Brazilian Tucano (here in RAF colors) are indispensable in COIN conflicts.


Unwanted for Export  

This obsession with the high tech over high numbers has affected most modern US arms development, which are so “heavenly capable there are no earthly good”. Hoped for exports for the new littoral combat ship have been curtailed for now, since the vessel is too under-armed for the tastes of corvette-centric and battle-hardened navies like Israel, and its already steep price makes upgrading prohibitive. New aircraft programs like the F-22 Raptor can’t be sold to allies like Japan because doing so would violate state secrets. Likewise is the even more important F-35 Lightning II whose very existence depends on international cooperation, has faced the same roadblocks sharing sensitive equipment.   

If, however, we build as we fight, such as the low tech weapons for the kind of wars we most often conduct, against pirates, terrorists, insurgents, or deterring rising navies and militaries like China, we could increase our numbers in a bigger, more effective military force. Inexpensive but good weapons are more likely the first choice of our poorer allies, thus increasing the possibility of exports and giving much-needed employment to our struggling defense industries.   

Tomorrow, the low tech proxy war.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 17, 2009 5:55 am

    El, you’re correct. The B in Math comes back to haunt me.

  2. December 17, 2009 3:22 am

    50 SM-3 missiles at $10 millions each is 500 million, not 5 billion, bringing the cost of the destroyer to 3.5 billion, not 8.

    But even if the missiles were free of charge, the whole concept of procuring a dedicated platform to protect against a threat which is unlikely to materialized is absurd.

  3. m.ridgard permalink
    December 16, 2009 1:54 pm

    Excuse me,are you serious.
    ‘The Taliban was routed’ Are we talking about the same Taliban who are at the moment tying down a large army in Pakistan,who control a large part of Tribal land in that country and are causing some serious concern in the west as to the safety of Pakistans nuclear weapons.

    This same ‘routed’ enemy is taking on tens of thousands of allied troops in Afghanistan with the U.S. pouring more and more men/women into the conflict.
    Sound familiar?

    You obviously have me at a disadvantage and I would welcome any information on when ISAF troops were confronted by Taliban tanks,or attacked by Taliban Migs or Hinds.

    I hope you are not suggesting that I would welcome a Taliban victory by your last remark,god forbid.

    I am merely stating things as I see them,and one more thing and this you will probably think badly of me.

    We are Not in Afghanistan fighting for the rights of the women and children of that country,nice as that would be.

    We are there or so we are led to believe,to fight terrorism and prevent that benighted country from becoming a training ground for world wide terrorists.

    I think people in my country are begining to doubt anything our politicians say, just take for instance Tony Blair the Prime Minister of the U.K. who took us into the war with Iraq

    Interviewed on British TV on a couple of days ago, he stated that even if Saddam Hussein had not had weapons of mass destruction it would still have been right to ‘get rid’ of him.

    When the leader of one country says that about another country’s leader,then one has to ask where could that lead.

  4. Graham Strouse permalink
    December 16, 2009 11:20 am


    You make a good point. Israel is surrounded by nation-states that would largely prefer that Israel not exist at all but they’ve learned the hard way over the years that trying to obliterate Israel by conventional means, and even terrorism, tends not to end well for the aggressors. Russia, under Putin, has gotten in the habit of winning wars By Any Means Necessary. The USA, unfortunately, has a pretty crappy track record since WWII. We win the battles but with a few rare exceptions, we tend to lose the wars. America’s unwillingness to shed blood, our predictable tactics, our open media, poor leadership above the squad level & our reliance on gold-plated toys makes us multiply vulnerable. Enemies know we can can be bled out economically & psychologically & that our generalship is by & large political & not practical. I hate to say this but that’s what I see.

  5. Hudson permalink
    December 15, 2009 4:08 pm

    m. ridgard,

    As you know, the Taliban was the government and army of Afghanistan in 2001 when the U.S. invaded. The Taliban had some leftovers from the Russian army: tanks, artillery, MiGs and Hind helicopter gunships, I believe—many of the types of weapons you think would make the Taliban a more effective fighting force.

    The foreigners in the country then were the Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and other foreign fighters associated with al-Qaeda. They might more closely resemble the Afghans than the British, Russians or Americans, but they are foreigners as far as the Afghan people are concerned, and the Afghans don’t like them.

    As you know, the Taliban was routed by a combination of conventional and unconventional warfare: crushing U.S. airpower, substantial numbers of wily special ops forces, and the ruthless Northern Alliance, that executed hundreds, if not thousands, of Taliban POWs.

    The situation is now reversed, with the Taliban on the outside fighting to regain state power. It is possible they might win this war of attrition. If they do, the Afghan people, especially women, will once again be subjected to brutality and loss of freedoms. Hardly a cause for rejoicing, as I see things.

  6. m.ridgard permalink
    December 15, 2009 2:05 pm

    I am fully aware of the Taliban tactics and why they are a difficult adversary.
    You suggest if they were supplied with heavy weaponry they would have to fight like a conventional army and we could easily defeat them,war over.

    I don’t mean this to be a cheap shot but it has to be said in view of your breathtakingly overconfident remark, So you mean like in Vietnam !!

    What started off as a communist insurgency,which even then defeated a large French army soon grew into a formidable fighting force.

    From Viet Mhin through Viet Cong into the NVA who when equipped with even half decent armour,aircraft and Sams came out and fought you face to face to your great cost.

    Russia wasn’t constrained by any ROE’s nor was troubled by what the worlds media thought of any actions they carried out,and look what happened to them.

    The Afghans have been invaded time and time again over the years,and history tells us what happened to the invading armies.

    Your remark is naive in the extreme.

  7. Hudson permalink
    December 15, 2009 10:55 am


    If the Taliban were armed with APCs, LAVs and the heavy weapons you suggest, then they would need to come out in the open like a conventional army, where we could easily defeat them, war over.

    It’s the fact that the Taliban rely on hit and run tactics and the passive IEDs plus benefit from our restrictive ROE re air power when they are in close proximity to civilians, which is quite a bit these days, that make them a difficult adversary.

  8. m.ridgard permalink
    December 15, 2009 9:40 am

    Mike Burleson,
    You are a complete revelation,a backward looking American.
    You say ‘I talk about equipment like the strykers, the MRAP’s,UAV’s, the Super Hornets here.These were built of the shelf in time for the wars we are fighting now, these weapons are working’
    Of course they are working,you are fighting tribesmen who have no heavy weapon,no air assets,no armoured vehicles,no istar capability. These are people who’s main method of getting to the battlefield is a two stroke motorcycle at best and most of the time on foot.
    They are indisciplined and have little knowledge of what we would call military strategy,some are fighting because of religious beliefs,but others because it pays well.
    Our weapons work because the enemy don’t have the wherewithall to confront us in head on combat,so they rely on ambush and IED’s.
    Now take a scenario where some country unfriendly towards us,uses the same tactics as you have often suggested yourself and uses the Taliban as a proxy force against us.
    They supply the Taliban with APC’s,LAV’s and heavy weapons. Perhaps a quantity of man portable anti air missiles, a few hundred units of an equivilent to the Javelin anti armour missile,night vision goggles to enable them to engage our troops during darkness, the list goes on.
    So then we have to deploy more sophisticated and powerfull weapons to combat this new threat,only we don’t have any because we only planned on fighting lightly armed insurgents and we didn’t count on anyone using our own tactics such as arming them to fight us.
    Or perhaps our enemies wouldn’t use such an underhand trick as that,would they.

  9. Graham Strouse permalink
    December 15, 2009 4:41 am


    You ever get the sense that US military designers spent a lot of time watching G.I. Joe cartoons in the ’80s?

  10. Hudson permalink
    December 14, 2009 10:47 pm

    “I talk about equipment like the Strykers, the MRAPs, UAVs, the Super Hornet here. These were built off the shelf, in time for the wars we are fighting now. Where am I wrong, and where have I strayed from the truth? these weapons are working. They aren’t fantasy as has been called the Navy’s budget plans.”

    I think the thing to say here is that a nation, as Donald Rumsfeld famously put it, “goes to war with the army it has.” It uses its legacy systems like the M-1 tank, which performed extremely well in Gulf War I and and in phases 1 and 2 of GW II. In the insurgency phase of GW II, new weapons: the high volume of IED’s, caused problems for the Army and the Bush administration when soldiers complained of having to use scrap to add armor to their vehicles. The Army then produced the up-armored Humvee and new vehicles like the Buffalo MRAP ASAP. It could not anticipate these needs and should not be criticized for not doing so. This is one example of the Army adjusting fairly successfully to the need for innovation in the midst of a long war, that was not over when it was supposed to be over. How do we pay for these “adjustments?” We print more money, as we continue doing today. The wisdom of going to war in the first place is a separate issue.

  11. Joe permalink
    December 14, 2009 8:41 pm

    Mike said: Meaning, if the enemy knows you are serious about fighting, he will think twice before attacking.

    Therein lies the rub.

    If you are talking the better militaries in the world, conventional deterrence, to the degree it can be practiced, is more a question of other’s perception of your national & political will than it is simply an accounting of the weapons at your disposal.

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 14, 2009 3:43 pm

    M. Ridgard also said “Your research and development would be nil and your current lead in technology would stagnate and die.”

    We seem to be there now. Where are the platforms? Britain supercarriers may or may not be built. Her destroyers will eventually get missiles, but what if they are needed tomorrow? The F-22 Raptor took 25 years to enter service. The F-35 began development the middle of the last decade and won’t enter service until the middle of its second decade. We have needed a Burke destroyer replacements since the 1990s, but this class will keep going on we are told, as plans for the hyper-tech and ultra pricey DDG-1000 have been reduced to practically nil.

    We are dying of old age, and shrinking under the weight of our own budgets. In the US our funds are rivaling WW 2 numbers, but we are still shrinking.

    I talk about equipment like the Strykers, the MRAPs, UAVs, the Super Hornet here. These were built off the shelf, in time for the wars we are fighting now. Where am I wrong, and where have I strayed from the truth? these weapons are working. They aren’t fantasy as has been called the Navy’s budget plans.

    Several wars will have come and gone by the time our new wonder weapons enter service. Could it be we never actually needed them and probably never will?

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 14, 2009 2:06 pm

    Joe said “Building as you fight is not part of the same concept as deterrence.”

    The argument is you need nuke deterrence. Where does conventional deterrence play a part? Weapons should be constructed to fight, not to deter, though, when you do the former the latter goes without saying. Meaning, if the enemy knows you are serious about fighting, he will think twice before attacking. This is why I often say (more also tomorrow) that if these little states arm themselves to the teeth with low tech weapons, preparing for asymmetric warfare, it in itself would often make a larger bully nation think twice before attacking. The USA should get in on this new warfare, not resist it, and what we are considering concerning Taiwan is a start.

    There is no better deterrence than proving you are in it to win, but saying stuff like “the purpose of the Navy is not to fight”, then building platforms you can’t afford to lose, is weakness, not strength.

  14. mtm permalink
    December 14, 2009 1:34 pm

    Flawed analogy.

  15. Mrs. Davis permalink
    December 14, 2009 1:17 pm

    Why aren’t there any Arabs in the crew of the Starship Enterprise?

    Star Trek is set in the future.

  16. December 14, 2009 12:04 pm

    I kinda agree with M. Rigard and Mrs. Davis (would luv to know what the Star Trek affect is though).

    I think the main problem with the “American way of war” isn’t with the tip but the shaft of the spear. The logistics of fighting in these out of the way areas is the problem. Our rear areas are lavishly equipped and those fighting out of operating bases are living in squalor.

    The real problem might be the term “expeditionary”. Does it mean moving into an austere area with limited equipment or does it mean to create a US city in those same areas.

    The issue with weapons procurement isn’t necessarily an issue. MRAPs work. What is a cheaper alternative? Jet aircraft work. Would buying Super Tucano’s make sense? Maybe but Apache’s and Cobra’s seem to be shouldering the load nicely. Is it a play to get the Air Force more involved in the fight? Deploy more bombers that can loiter longer and leave the fighter aircraft to the allies and the Navy.

    Solutions are already in hand. There is no need to buy “new” stuff!

  17. Joe permalink
    December 14, 2009 11:57 am

    If, however, we build as we fight, such as the low tech weapons for the kind of wars we most often conduct, against pirates, terrorists, insurgents, or deterring rising navies and militaries like China…

    Building as you fight is not part of the same concept as deterrence.

    Would the Soviets have been deterred by knowing the U.S. could build ICBM’s or that the U.S. had built ICBM’s? Would the Warsaw Pact have been deterred knowing the NATO forces could build tanks and low-yield atomic/nuclear warheads to explode over advancing forces or that they had such weapons at the ready?

    Calling for overall reform and stricter management of dollars spent is wise. Validating that reform by grading its ability to fight those holed up in caves is entirely something different.

  18. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 14, 2009 11:49 am

    M. Ridgard said “why are you always linking these people in your argument against funding major weapons systems”

    The wars we are fighting today. The hand that was dealt us. Except perhaps for the nuclear deterrence, anything else is a distraction.

  19. Hudson permalink
    December 14, 2009 11:29 am

    Mrs. Davis, what is the “Star Trek effect”?

  20. Mrs. Davis permalink
    December 14, 2009 11:22 am

    The American Way of War is to arm for total war and use capital as a substitute for blood. We will continue to do this and use our total war systems with all enemies, with one hand tied behind our back when in limited war because we are a democracy with only a small majority supporting limited effort, and most of them holding their nose. But at some point we will become sufficiently provoked that we will have an overwhelming majority supporting the war and then we will untie our other hand. And the Star Trek effect will come into play.

  21. m.ridgard permalink
    December 14, 2009 9:20 am

    Whether or not you stop funding and building high end systems makes not one iota of difference to a terrorist,why are you always linking these people in your arguement against funding major weapons systems.
    Your reasoning that America and her allies are spending trillions of pounds to combat the suicide bomber does not hold water.
    Afghanistan supposedly started out as a war against terror and in particular Osama,
    somehow that seems to have been sidlined in our fight against the Taliban.
    Said Taliban were in charge of Afghanistan before 9/11, so if they were such a threat to western security why didn’t the West act to remove them.
    All we have achieved is to create an unholy alliance between them and Osama and now they are the main enemy, whilst he sits with his henchmen satisfied with what he has created,which is seeming more and more like another Vietnam
    Your opposition towards Expensive ships,aircraft and armour will strike a chord with the bean counters but even your forces are drasticaly weakened so how much more do you wish to cut back.
    Your airforce is in the position of having to retire hundreds of it’s legacy fighters and multi role aircraft with nothing on the horizon to take their place, F35 just about stumbling along.
    Your air tanker fleet is ancient and any replacement mired in constant bickering.
    I agree with you on systems like F22 and the DDG-1000, far too exotic and expensive but at least they have been cut back and you are building more Burkes, but it seems you want even smaller and less capable vessels and aircraft.
    So you seem to be suggesting and Airforce consisting of UAV’s and Coin aircraft, a Navy which will have mini carriers,corvetes and a decreasing number of nuclear boats to be replaced by conventional and an army of LAV’s and MRAPS.
    Your research and development would be nil and your current lead in technology would stagnate and die.
    So when this current fiasco ends and you are left with the equipment that you wanted for your ‘wars we most often conduct’ where pray tell does that leave you. How are you going to deter rising navy’s like China with what you then have in your inventory.
    They are a nation that has long been known for looking far into the future and I don’t see any inclination on their part to curtail the building of such things as you decry,carriers submarines and 4th and 5th generation aircraft. Far from it,they are forging ahead with all these programmes,so when they do start flexing their muscles where does that leave you.
    Or will they be gracious enough to give you time to rebuild your degraded armed forces which are only now capable of fighting terrorists and insurgents.


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