In my last post I used the F-22 as an example of the death spiral; a system in which production numbers are cut, so that the total cost of the program increases the cost per-unit, so that production numbers are cut, which increases the cost per unit, and so on.
Of course, while the F-22 ultimately wound up seeing production numbers of about a quarter of what was originally envisioned, some systems don’t even make it that far, and that is where things get really interesting, in some ways.
Take, for example, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle that the Marine Corps was pursuing until 2011. Now, this was not a cheap program, by any definition. In fact, it was definitely another one of those overly ambitious systems, intended to be three times as fast on water as the vehicle it was replacing, as well as twice as well armored and with a significant improvement in firepower. It was intended to give the Marine Corps an over-the-horizon capability for amphibious landings, allowing the supporting warships to stay well away from the coast, while having the speed to close the distance fast enough to leave defenders little time to, well, defend.
Given that it was being developed for the Marine Corps, it was almost doomed to cancellation before it started, but the point remains that it would have significantly improved the capabilities of the Corps.
A bit of history before we continue: In the early 1980’s, the EFV was originally envisioned as part of a family of vehicles designed to give the Marine Corps the aforementioned over-the-horizon capability. That family consisted of the MV-22 Osprey, the LCAC, and the EFV.
Exactly one of those vehicles had a relatively untroubled development history: the LCAC. The Osprey was another program troubled by reliability problems in development, and was in danger of cancellation for many years as those problems were worked out.
The EFV, of course, wasn’t quite so lucky… or was it?
The funny part about the EFV is that at the time of the program’s cancellation, the majority of the bugs had been worked out. Roughly three billion dollars had been spent on the development of the vehicle, and that money is… gone.
Now, there’s theoretically a chance that the EFV program could be restarted, but at the moment it seems unlikely, with the Corps instead pursuing two different vehicles intended to each encompass part of the role the EFV was intended for.
Care to guess what the development costs of those programs are going to be?
Now, the sad saga of the EFV is simply to illustrate a point. Specifically, that the US armed forces are increasingly gearing up to fight in small-scale asymmetric warfare operations, with equipment specifically designed towards that end. They are decidedly not gearing up to fight a war with another major power.
Which brings us back to the title: Are we preparing to fight the next war, or the last war?
Or, I suppose you could say, the current war.
One of the big design elements being pushed for in ground vehicles, for example, is the V-shaped hull that helps them resist improvised explosive devices. The Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and the Marine Personnel Carrier(one of the potential replacements for the EFV) both possess this feature.
There’s a problem with that, of course. V-hulls are great at resisting the sort of blasts expected from an IED, and are also more resistant to penetration by a more focused blast, but they come at a price. They involve more weight of armor carried along a part of the vehicle less likely to face attack in conventional warfare, they require a vehicle with a higher profile or lower ground clearance than one without a V-hull, and outside of patrolling in territory where a counter-insurgency campaign is underway, they serve relatively little purpose.
And yes, I realize that adopting vehicles of this type will save lives in the event that we find ourselves engaged in the same sort of quagmire we’ve had in Iraq. The relevant questions, however, when discussing these sorts of focused design concepts are as follows:
1.) How likely is that to happen?
2.) What are the costs if we find ourselves fighting a conventional war?
Because a lot of these design decisions have negative consequences in a conventional war. Or, it could be argued, result in the military spending a vast amount of money on hardware that we might not get much use out of. It’s a heartless form of calculus, measuring the potential number of lives saved in one instance against the number that could be lost in another, but it’s a question of scale.
Imagine fighting a war with China. You should, because the folks running China are definitely imagining a war with the US.
China isn’t gearing up to fight against a band of rag-tag insurgents. In my opinion, it’s fairly clear that they’re gearing up to deter the United States from intervening in a potential conflict in their sphere of influence.
So the question, again: Are we preparing to fight the next war?
Or are other nations preparing to fight us?