Skip to content

Build as You Fight Pt 2

December 15, 2009

“Irregular” attacks carried out by tribes, clans, or other nonstate actors are as old as warfare itself; they long predate the development of modern armed forces and the nation-state. The religious fanaticism that animates so many of today’s terrorists and guerrillas is equally ancient. But technological advances have made such attacks far more potent than in the past. The progeny of the Second Industrial Revolution–assault rifles, machine guns, mortars, rocket launchers, land mines, explosives–long ago spread to the remotest corners of the globe. Fighters who a century ago might have made do with swords and muskets now have access to cheap and reliable weapons, such as the AK-47, capable of spewing 100 bullets a minute.More advanced technologies from handheld missiles, to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, give even a small group of insurgents the ability to mete out far more destruction than entire armies could a century ago. And thanks to modern transportation and communications infrastructure–insurgents have the capability to carry out their attacks from virtually anywhere in the world.     

Max Boot writing in War Made New     

Out-Sourcing Defense  

It is my contention that the weapons we build today are less relevant for the type of major conventional conflicts we say they are geared for, than the Third World COIN battles we most often fight. This inconvenient truth becomes especially so as the the difference between conventional and unconventional becomes skewed in this new century.      

Decades old tech like this CH-47 Chinook helicopter is still in high demand.

Nor should today’s wars against poorly armed but highly motivated insurgents and pirates be viewed as anachronisms, temporary distractions from the Big Wars we spend exorbitant funding and research planning for, but instead the increasing norm. We have evidence for this assertion, as most of the potential peer threats we might face in an unlikely conventional fight, who build tanks, fighters, and large warships are at risk themselves from asymmetric tactics.      

For a while now, the tiny island democracy of Taiwan has been pleading for new submarines for defense against continued mainland threats on their liberty. If America was again building small conventional submarines for herself and export, we could substitute stealthy and very survivable warships to keep the Chinese occupied at little cost to ourselves, without risking budget-breaking DDG-1000 destroyers in the narrow straits.    As blogger Springbored says “It won’t totally infuriate the Chinese. (It’ll just make ’em angry.)” The market for light vehicles, planes, UAVs, and other arms is equally enormous and would especially benefit ex-Warsaw Pact and former Soviet dominated countries like Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and Georgia. Concerning the latter nation, also Chechnya, Russia recently conducted two massive military campaigns at great disproportion in military hardware and manpower, resulting in great loss of life and equipment. America could feed this over-spending in conventional arms by the near-bankrupt Russians, by selling her fearful-neighbors defensive light arms geared for asymmetric warfare.    Springbored’s assertion toward China goes to Russia as well, especially less angry if we’d deploy a strategic weapon like the land-based ABM.  

Priorities Over Wants  

According to the Financial Times, the issue of prioritizing weapons for the wars we fight today over high tech future conflicts is already being decided in Britain:  

Gordon Brown is to approve about £1.5bn of cuts to “low priority” defence projects over the next three years as part of a reform package that will shift resources to Afghanistan and ease the crippling defence budget shortfall.
Final details are still under negotiation but the measures will include cuts to the existing Harrier and Tornado fighter jet fleet, an early drawdown of Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft and thousands of staff cuts across the armed forces and Whitehall.
The sacrifices will be offset by moves to boost spending on critical frontline equipment for the Afghan campaign. The prime minister, who visited troops in Afghanistan at the weekend, will fast track an order for at least 20 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters and purchase new surveillance systems to counter roadside bombs, additional fighting vehicles, and one more C-17 transport aircraft.  

Defence insiders insisted the additional kit would have been unaffordable without cuts elsewhere.  

Light tanks like Sweden's CV90 have piqued the interests of many nations such as Canada.

The British Prime Minister will likely get much criticism for this decision, but he is only making logical choices, well overdue in fact, that previous leaders have had to make in time of war. During the last World War, battleship programs were greatly curtailed in favor of aircraft carriers and small ships. During the Battle of Britain, bomber production was curtailed for a while in favor of fighters, naturally. During the Vietnam War, the USN cut back on its massive nuclear warship programs, in favor of small river patrol boats, monitors, even hydrofoils for operating in the Delta.  

Light SAMs, light armor, mobile anti-tank weapons should be our focus instead of supercarriers, superfighters, and decades-long weapons programs that offer enormous capability at the expense of numbers of arms. Such weapons are prohibitive to purchase by our allies, forcing us to fight harder than we have to. Neither are they easily replaceable, meaning such weapons will remain in service far longer than the norm, as we see with the bulk the US Air Force’s jet fighter fleet. When they are replaced it is usually far less than hoped for, as we see with the DDG-1000 (3) class or the F-22 Raptor (180).      

Enabling Allies  

Here then would be a couple of scenarios in which future wars were fought by our proxy allies, using low tech weaponry produced here.      

  • Against China, we arm and equip her neighbors as we always have in the past, such as S. Korea, Japan, Singapore, and especially Taiwan, as our first line of defense in the Pacific. On Guam we would forward base light forces less vulnerable to missile and air strike from the mainland. Specifically these would consist of conventional submarines, missile corvettes, and the occasional missile destroyer for BMD defense, the latter also a guard against N. Korea. Hawaiian and East Coast forces would consist of the nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, and amphibious forces which are surge-ready and well out of harms way from ASBMs.
  • The bulk of our naval forces would remain in the Middle East, but the proxy strategy would also be in place, with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan against Iran. African Union states would provide the bulk of the land deterrence against terrorism spreading into Africa, backed by our air and seapower, plus Special Forces and Marines on the ground.
  • In Europe, forget about expanding NATO into the indefensible Eastern Europe, but create a low-key understanding that we would provide them with all the arms as well as training necessary for self-defense as described above. Unless the EU can create significant land forces to back us in defending these former Soviet-sphere countries, I don’t see the USA deploying significant troops themselves in a conflict, though naval action might be possible.

It becomes increasingly clear, with all the talk in the upcoming QDR of massive cuts in conventional weapons, especially naval ships, the America War of War consisting of high tech industrial arms versus the low tech tactics of terrorists and insurgents, is far from adequate in this new century. By creating a low tech arms industry while gearing them for export, you have a more affordable and sensible procurement process geared for the wars we are fighting today, not those of the past, or even the obscure unknown future.      

In so doing we are using the terrorists’ tactics against them. If our allies are armed with the same conventional equipment which we have found wanting in the COIN conflicts of the Middle East, then our friends are subject to the same vulnerabilities that the rebels have learned to take advantage of. But fighting them on more equal ground, they must now contend with their own tactics, now used by a better trained foe like the democracies who have much, much more to fight for, their freedom!

20 Comments leave one →
  1. m.ridgard permalink
    December 16, 2009 2:24 pm

    Hey Mike,
    Looks like your idea of arming proxy nations to fight your wars is gaining in popularity,I have just read that Russia and Vietnam have signed an agreement for Russia to build six kilo class submarines for Vietnam.
    Now what with Russia having another look at developing it’s old naval base in Tartus,Syria and another new base just down the coast.

    Not withstanding it’s ever increasing involvement in Venezuela, and China’s colonising of Africa how does your theory pan out now.

  2. m.ridgard permalink
    December 16, 2009 1:19 pm

    As someone who served my country for much the same length of time I think your comment is rather unfair.
    This is a discussion board and presumably welcomes peoples opinions and ideas,I myself make no claims to be an ‘expert’ but I do have strong opinions on the way my country’s defence is run.
    You do not necessarily need ‘inside information’ to make a valid point,we are not in a position to make decisions.
    I’m sure that most posters on here either have experience of the armed forces or a deep seated interest and desire to see that our armed forces get the best we can offer,in equipment and treatment.
    Your opinion is I am sure as welcome as anyones,and with your service you should be offering it,not deriding others for theirs.
    Constructive arguement can only be beneficial,sometimes it gets a little heated but hey people have strong views and as long as it is not abusive and relevant to the discussion go for it.

  3. December 16, 2009 11:27 am

    “CAS support is pretty important in COIN operations.”

    Yes. I didn’t make myself clear. It seems at the moment those on the ground (that is Brits) go from 40mm grenade to Javelin (£60k a go!) to CAS; there is also growing I wonder if there is room at the bottom for something that carries more of a punch. Javelin is expensive and though accurate lacks flexibility. I have been wondering whether CAS is sometimes called in then when there is a little other option. Hammer to crack a walnut if you will. I am not an expert just concerned. There are people I know running around them there hills.

  4. Graham Strouse permalink
    December 16, 2009 11:04 am


    CAS support is pretty important in COIN operations. I do agree that choppers aren’t generally well-equipped for the job–“Black Hawk Down” anyone. The most valuable–and most heavily used–CAS units in Afghanistan have been the AC-130H & AC-130U. Spectre and Spooky have been so heavily used, in fact, that they’re more or less literally flying the wings off of them. CAS is important, but helos are just a little too low and slow.

    I’m not sure how much the A-10s are getting worked but along with the Spectre/Spooky gunships, the ‘hogs strike me as an obvious candidate for CAS in COIN operations.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 16, 2009 10:34 am

    Glenn, thanks for posting and thanks especially for your service. I think your criticism is misplaced however since we aren’t speaking against the average sailor, those band of brothers at sea you have the honor and privilege of belonging to. This is all about the leadership, especially the civilian leadership which has for decades given us ships that are harder to build and fewer in number, forcing the sailors you are speaking for to work harder than ever before, staying away from home and hearth far greater than during your own years in service. Might I point out during the Korean and Vietnam years the USN deployed at least 1000 ships on average with many more in reserve. Today we have less than 300, almot no reserves, and expectations are we will shrink further.

    We are simply repeating what serving or retired officers have maintained for years, just not the majority. As we say, this blog is an unashamed plagiarizer of other people’s ideas! Even the Navy says its wants a bigger fleet, we just offer them alternatives.

    Please research on how much extra sea-duty is now forced on the average sailor in the post Cold War era, where arguably the threats are worse. Instead of just a handful of peer competitors, you have Russia, China, N Korea, Iran, the Pirates, defending the homeland, not to mention our ongoing defense treaties with scores of nations. Our sailors are now asked to do so much more with so much less. It is unnecessary when we can build more and better ships.

    After 9/11 they asked us to support the troops. This is the only way we know how. The troops say “give us the tools we need, then leave the fighting to us”. This also is our aspiration.

  6. December 16, 2009 7:07 am

    The hardest thing for me to do as a 20 year veteran is to read comments by people who have
    never served and have become self proclaimed experts on our military. Even as a veteran
    I do not have all the inside data to proclaim that I can make valid decisions about how the
    UK or US should equip our Navy. But it is still the best, and I believe it will remain so! Can one
    by reading books about ships and Navies really talk intelligently about service and how it
    functions. The problem with our military now is leaders who have no knowledge of the needs
    of our military, and sit behind desks with computers and claim they know how to fight and win
    a war. Examples of this are Korea, and Vietnam.

  7. Joe permalink
    December 15, 2009 6:05 pm

    We have nuclear deterrence, we don’t need conventional deterrence too.

    I don’t see how you can state that conventional deterrence isn’t something you’d want and/or believe that it doesn’t exist. B. Smitty said it well when saying we need C.D. but also the ability to fight and win conventional conflicts.

    What would you call two LHA-6 carriers with about 40-45 F-35B’s, a qty of corvettes, two or three each of the Burkes and AIP subs and an arsenal ship sitting off an enemy’s coast? Among other answers, I’d say deterrence to a hypothetical enemy and a force to attack with if they get the Final Jeopardy question wrong.

  8. December 15, 2009 4:00 pm

    “I have said it before and will say it again, Gordon Brown will go down in history as the nemesis of the Royal Navy, succeeding where fleets from Denmark, Holland, Spain, France, Italy, Germany and Japan all failed in the past, he has accomplished what the Armada, Napoleon and Hitler failed to do !”

    We need the Argentines to get adventurous. Saved us last time!!!!

  9. December 15, 2009 3:19 pm

    M.Ridgard said: “The RN has got away pretty lightly at the moment losing just one survey ship and one minehunter, they have to wait until next years strategic defence review before the inevitable axe falls on them,and they know it.”

    Except of course the RN has already been gutted – mortgaged for the sake of carriers for which we can now not afford to buy aircraft for.

    I have said it before and will say it again, Gordon Brown will go down in history as the nemesis of the Royal Navy, succeeding where fleets from Denmark, Holland, Spain, France, Italy, Germany and Japan all failed in the past, he has accomplished what the Armada, Napoleon and Hitler failed to do !

  10. B.Smitty permalink
    December 15, 2009 2:33 pm

    Mike said, “We have nuclear deterrence, we don’t need conventional deterrence too.

    Nuclear deterrence has deterred nuclear war (so far). It hasn’t deterred conventional war. We need both types of deterrence, along with the ability to fight and win conventional conflicts.

    If anything, the rapid proliferation of light armored vehicles and upgrade kits shows that it’s far easier for a conventional army to “go light” than the other way around. There’s no way we could turn out a new MBT or IFV in numbers in the same time frame. Bolting armor kits to existing, unarmored vehicles is far easier and cheaper.

    Mike said, “We might mothball the MRAP, but the LAV is here to stay. This type of warfare is no longer the exception but the rule.

    The Army recognized the need for so-called “medium weight” forces as far back as Operation Allied Force (if not before). The FCS and Stryker programs were direct results.

    IMHO, COIN is neither the exception nor the rule. It is one part of the spectrum of conflicts for which we must prepare.

  11. m.ridgard permalink
    December 15, 2009 2:28 pm

    This is just another example of the current labour government dismantling the U.K. forces by deceit and lies.

    To fund these chinooks and one C17,and a somewhat ambiguous remark about doubling our ‘predator’ numbers, We are closing down one large RAF base removing the ‘Joint Force Harriers’ (which spent years in Afghanistan doing sterling work) to another base and then retiring them early.
    Retiring a squadron of Tornado GR4’s, Retiring our Nimrod R1’s and our Nimrod MR2’s,delaying the in service date of the Nimrod MR4 (now reduced from twenty to 9 aircraft) retiring our Merlin MkI’s and the older Lynx to be replaced by Merlin MK2 and Wildcat (whenever we get them,if we ever get them).

    The RN has got away pretty lightly at the moment losing just one survey ship and one minehunter, they have to wait until next years strategic defence review before the inevitable axe falls on them,and they know it.

    Even the Army, who are meant to profit from these cuts are losing 2,500 men/women from posts that are not deemed to be critical for the war in Afghanistan

    It’s not called death by a thousand cuts,for nothing.

  12. December 15, 2009 1:55 pm

    “So early retirement of Harrier and Tornado (both of which have done excellent duty providing close air support in Afghanistan) in order to buy 20 additional Chinooks is not the “right thing to do. British defence policy is a joke – do not use it as a good example of anything ! :-(”

    I am not convinced by helicopters. If they are earmarked to move a fireforce then thats good news. But they will in reality used as expensive trucks.

    I am not convinced that CAS is always the best option. I think some form of recoilless rifle in the support company would do wonders. It would save the aircraft and pilots for the important stuff.

  13. December 15, 2009 1:05 pm


    pay as you go may work for mobiles, actually it doesn’t because the moment you start to need to use your phone for work it gets to expensive, and you change to a contract.

    the same is the case with buying big things like ships, even small 1000ton ships can not just be summoned at the click of your fingers…this is not harry potter. Most ships will be in service for 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years. A ship built to fight coin/stabalisation, which you are obssessed with and I am doubtful will be that prevelent after afghanistan as I doubt governments will have the stomach for it; in which case fleets will need to be refocused again on prevention/intervention – so then a nation would have to spend millions again rebuilding ships.

    in the end the best a navy can do is recomend to its government is a balance of HI/LO vessels with the right capability curve for what that country wants out of its navy…power projection

    yours sincerely


  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 15, 2009 12:58 pm

    Smitty asked “So, judging by recent history, aren’t we at least as likely to fight in major conventional combat operations in the future?”

    Depending on your definition of “conventional”, this is the type of warfare we are fighting now. the problem i have is building legacy platforms which we say we need to deter war. We have nuclear deterrence, we don’t need conventional deterrence too.

    Your point about “light armored vehicles easily make up the bulk of the armored vehicles”, is well taken. I would see us get away from the mindset that what we are doing today is something unusual, or temporary (also making true your point we’ve been here for 18 years).We might mothball the MRAP, but the LAV is here to stay. This type of warfare is no longer the exception but the rule.

    Distiller, here’s another concerning Guam thats new:

    Jed, good point about your government. Still, we are glad you guys are still with us here at the showdown! Mullah Omar should be worried right now.

  15. Distiller permalink
    December 15, 2009 12:24 pm

    Talking about Guam …

    Full steam ahead with a nuclear capable berthing at the outer Apra harbor!

  16. B.Smitty permalink
    December 15, 2009 11:25 am

    Over 27,000 HMMWV armor kits have been produced. Over 17,000 armor kits for heavier trucks (e.g. FMTV, HEMTT, HET, PLS) are either produced or in production.

    So light armored vehicles easily make up the bulk of the armored vehicles in our inventory.

  17. B.Smitty permalink
    December 15, 2009 9:21 am


    On the Navy side, I thought Guam already only bases a few SSNs and support vessels. (It does have a significant USAF presence)

    Why do we want to focus on “Light SAMs, light armor, mobile anti-tank weapons” again? Why do we need to focus on “light SAMs”?

    BTW, we already are buying huge numbers of light armored vehicles (10,000+ MRAPS, thousands of armored HMMWVs, 2,000+ Strykers) . And we already have large stocks of mobile anti-tank weapons (e.g. TOW, Javelin, AT4). ) So I’m not really sure what more you want done there.

    This whole “wars we are fighting now” meme bothers me Mike. Didn’t we just recently fight in major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan this decade? ODS was only 18 years ago. OAF was fought more-or-less conventionally from the air. That’s four MCOs since 1991. We have only fought two major insurgencies in that time.

    So, judging by recent history, aren’t we at least as likely to fight in major conventional combat operations in the future?

  18. December 15, 2009 9:08 am

    Mike, please please please do not make excuses for Gordon Brown and his government in the name of choosing the right kit to fight the right war. Unlike the U.S. Govt. which put up the money required to fight on two fronts simultaneously, the UK government has never made the appropriate “supplementary” funding available. Certainly money has been made available for “Urgent Operational Requirements” – many of which have fielded what turned out to be the wrong kit. However Brown and his government have continued to support and fight two wars while taking actually reducing the overall defence budget, and as someone recently noted on ThinkDefence, the UK is still the 6th richest country in the world. So early retirement of Harrier and Tornado (both of which have done excellent duty providing close air support in Afghanistan) in order to buy 20 additional Chinooks is not the “right thing to do. British defence policy is a joke – do not use it as a good example of anything ! :-(


  1. Counting the Costs of Modern War « New Wars
  2. Carrier Alternative Weekly « New Wars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: