Technology, Eggs, and Risk (Oh, My)

Tokyo, Japan --- Eggs in a basket --- Image by © JIRO/Corbis
Tokyo, Japan — Eggs in a basket — Image by © JIRO/Corbis

In my last post, on the potential for the possible development of quantum radar to undermine the U.S. technological advantage in stealth technology, I ended by asking this question:

The basic assumption behind the Third Offset Strategy is that the U.S. can innovate and adopt technological capabilities fast enough to maintain or even expand its current military superiority. Does the U.S. really have enough of a scientific and technological development advantage over its rivals to validate this assumption?

My colleague, Chris, has suggested that I expand on the thinking behind this. Here goes:

The lead times needed for developing advanced weapons and the costs involved in fielding them make betting on technological innovation as a strategy seem terribly risky. In his 1980 study of the patterns of weapon technology development, The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, Trevor Dupuy noted that there is a clear historical pattern of a period of 20-30 years between the invention of a new weapon and its use in combat in a tactically effective way. For example, practical armored fighting vehicles were first developed in 1915 but they were not used fully effectively in battle until the late 1930s.

The examples I had in mind when I wrote my original post were the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), both of which derive much, if not most, of their combat power from being stealthy. If that capability were to be negated even partially by a technological breakthrough or counter by a potential adversary, then 20+ years of development time and hundreds of billions of dollars would have been essentially wasted. If either or both or weapons system were rendered ineffective in the middle of a national emergency, neither could be quickly retooled nor replaced. The potential repercussions could be devastating.

I reviewed the development history of the F-35 in a previous post. Development began in 2001 and the Air Force declared the first F-35 squadron combat operational (in a limited capacity) in August 2016 (which has since been stood down for repairs). The first fully combat-capable F-35s will not be ready until 2018 at the soonest, and the entire fleet will not be ready until at least 2023. Just getting the aircraft fully operational will have taken 15-22 years, depending on how one chooses to calculate it. It will take several more years after that to fully evaluate the F-35 in operation and develop tactics, techniques, and procedures to maximize its effectiveness in combat. The lifetime cost of the F-35 has been estimated at $1.5 trillion, which is likely to be another underestimate.

The U.S. Navy anticipated the need for ships capable of operating in shallow coastal waters in the late 1990s. Development of the LCS began in 2003 the first ships of two variants were launched in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Two of each design have been built so far. Since then, cost overruns, developmental problems, disappointing performances at sea, and reconsideration of the ship’s role led the Navy to scale back a planned purchase of 53 LCSs to 40 at the end of 2015 to allow money to be spent on other priorities. As of July 2016, only 26 LCSs have been programmed and the Navy has been instructed to select one of the two designs to complete the class. Initial program procurement costs were $22 billion, which have now risen to $39 billion. Operating costs for each ship is currently estimated at $79 million, which the Navy asserts will drop when simultaneous testing and operational use ends. The Navy plans to build LCSs until the 2040s, which includes replacements for the original ten after a service life of 25 years. Even at the annual operating cost of a current U.S. Navy frigate ($59 million), a back of the envelope calculation for a lifetime cost for the LCS is around $91 billion, all told; this is also likely an underestimate. This seems like a lot of money to spend on a weapon that the Navy intends to pull out of combat should it sustain any damage.

It would not take a technological breakthrough as singular as quantum radar to degrade the effectiveness of U.S. stealth technology, either. The Russians claim that they already possess radars that can track U.S. stealth aircraft. U.S. sources essentially concede this, but point out that tracking a stealth platform does not mean that it can be attacked successfully. Obtaining a track sufficient to target involves other technological capabilities that are susceptible to U.S. electronic warfare capabilities. U.S. stealth aircraft already need to operate in conjunction with existing EW platforms to maintain their cloaked status. Even if quantum radar proves infeasible, the game over stealth is already afoot.

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Shawn Woodford
Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling.

All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

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