A few weeks ago, I posted a paper here discussing American airpower. In many ways, the paper is more of an essay outlining my general views than a dedicated research paper. It is limited in scope and far from comprehensive. However, I think it raises some interesting issues, and I was fortunate enough to discuss the paper with members of the RAF attached to the British Embassy, Washington. In this post, I want to quickly list some of the key takeaways I got from the discussion, as I think it is always interesting to hear from those actually dealing with an issue on a daily basis as opposed to thinking about it from the safety of the ivory tower. Of course, the usual disclaimers apply: I won’t be sharing names due to confidentiality, and it’s important to note that the views shared below are not necessarily those of the Government of the United Kingdom.
1. There is a fundamental tradeoff between national control and adaptability, efficiency, and interoperability. This is important to remember because it complicates many of the standard criticisms of military procurement and, by extension, lifetime cost estimates for platforms. Specifically, a country can either directly develop and own the IP of a platform and thus have direct control over capabilities and cost, or it can collaborate with industry and international partners. Collaboration is generally cheaper in terms of upfront costs because industry tends to already have the relevant tools and talent, and international partners can help pay for R&D and create enough demand to shift production toward economies of scale. Collaboration is also advantageous because, by developing a common platform, a country can more easily integrate forces within a coalition framework: It is much easier to fight together if everyone uses the same systems and platforms. However, a collaborative approach limits a military’s autonomy by forcing it to compromise with other countries and deal with industry’s profit-maximizing tendencies. For what it’s worth, I think this tradeoff is overstated: Countries with large defense budgets can still create economies of scale and also enjoy some degree of monopsony power, and countries like Israel have been perfectly able to modify and adapt platforms to their specific needs despite frequently buying foreign equipment and relying on foreign financing. That being said, the tradeoff does strike me as a useful heuristic for thinking through these kinds of procurement decisions.
2. It may be the case that the pursuit of common platforms could undermine combat effectiveness. To put it slightly differently, there may be value in diversity insofar as it spreads risk. The way this idea was explained during the discussion was in terms of adversaries’ development of tactics and technologies to eliminate the advantages enjoyed by a particular platform: Russia might have a great way to destroy F-35s, but this technique might be useless against Typhoons. I did not fully follow this line of argument, as I cannot conceive of a scenario in which a country would develop a defensive system so tailored to one platform that it is largely incapable of defeating similar, though slightly distinct, platforms. And even if this might be true on the margins (e.g., a system is optimized for counter-stealth and therefore is relatively inefficient against fast, low-flying attack jets), it still doesn’t seem worth the massive industrial inefficiency of, for example, NATO countries producing 3 or 4 different aircraft just to fill one platform requirement. I think this argument might be true if it is slightly reworked. Specifically, I think there is value in diversifying platforms in case there is an issue with developmental delays or unforeseen problems that threaten to ground an entire type of aircraft. But this particular scenario was not specifically covered during the discussion.
3. There was the perennial discussion of culpability. Unsurprisingly, much of the blame was laid at the feet of industry and Congress as opposed to Air Force leadership. I honestly am unsure of how best to divvy up blame, but I think the broader point is worth remembering: In complex systems like that of defense procurement, there is no one person or organization solely at fault. In fact, it may be the case that nobody is truly at fault but that diverging interests and emergent phenomena are what undermine efficiency. That being said, I know of simply too many anecdotes of military obstinacy and the “Old Guard” failing to adapt to new technology to believe that Air Force leadership is entirely off the hook for the problems we are witnessing with platforms like the F-35. Regardless, ascertaining the determinants of inefficiency in platform selection and procurement seems like an interesting and important, if somewhat difficult, research question, and it probably deserves far more academic attention than it has received up to this point.
4. European countries’ smaller defense budgets necessitate purchasing one kind of high-end platform simply due to budgetary pressures. This means that most platform deployments are inefficient in the sense that the kinds of planes sent out on missions are far more capable and, by extension, pricey, than they need to be, but there is no alternative. When forced to choose with a limited budget, it makes far more sense to invest in one very capable system than several cheaper systems because it is easier and safer to fight low-intensity conflicts with high-intensity optimized platforms than it is to fight high-intensity conflicts with low-intensity optimized platforms. It’s worth pointing out, however, that this is far less of a problem for large defense spenders like the United States, and thus does less to excuse the failures in American platform development. It also suggests that efforts like PESCO, which aim to rationalize and integrate E.U. countries’ procurement efforts, might be worth pursuing if only to allow smaller countries to develop a wider suite of systems. Of course, we then return to the tradeoff explained in the first point.
5. Modular platforms have a lot to offer, but these benefits come with several important caveats. Specifically, while modularity reduces incremental upgrade costs and probably improves operational efficiency by allowing a more tailored mission package, it also greatly increases R&D and fly-away costs. It also probably increases sustainment costs. For what it’s worth, modularity seems like a necessity in light of the budgetary and capability pressures faced by so many Western militaries, but the historical record of modular systems has, to date, been less than stellar.
6. Policymakers probably don’t think enough about the operational imperatives and proper uses of airpower. In the U.S., this lack of knowledge is clearly evident when one thinks back to the presidential primaries (carpet bombing ISIS, turning the Middle East into glass, imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, etc.), but it is a problem outside of Washington as well. No consensus was reached as to why this problem exists, but several hypotheses were offered. The two most compelling, at least to me, were 1) that policymakers increasingly lack military experience and have been conditioned by operations in the past 30 years to overvalue airpower and 2) that policymakers are too concerned with tactics relative to end state, largely because they want to be seen as doing something concrete, and therefore propose approaches that are simply ignorant.