General Welsh appeared on Shepard Smith’s program Tuesday to explain the necessity of the F-35, an attempt to shore up support and exert influence as the 2016 defense bill wends its way through the legislative wickets. You can see the full segment here.
A hat tip to CSAF for a nice interview. The F-35 is under heavy assault from — justifiably — from (a) anyone who cares about money and (b) anyone who worries about the gargantuan cost of the program squeezing other necessities out of the defense budget.
For those who believe there is merit in the Air Force’s massive F-35 buy, appearances like this one are essential. They help educate the public and Congress on the choices that must be confronted for that purchase to happen. They hint at the risks of purchasing or not purchasing the F-35, and in doing so at smaller or larger relative scales. Even in a republic as aloof to the realities of national defense as this one, it’s possible to lose politically by failing to interact with the public, so this is a shrewd move at a well-chosen moment.
That doesn’t mean I agree with everything Welsh had to say.
He is 100% right, unassailably, to say that we can’t allow the technology gap between ourselves and potential adversaries to close. He’s right that doing so would eventually compromise our airpower advantage.
That doesn’t explain why we need to go broke at this instant to replace every legacy fighter with the most expensive one ever built, especially when there’s an increasingly evident chance it won’t live up to its promise and may not be able to flex across as many missions as advertised.
CSAF also overstates the problem. Yes, China and Russia are likely to be capable of building and even exporting some truly badass equipment a decade from now. No, they cannot be expected to do so at a scale that makes purchasing 2,400 stealth strike fighters at the expense of being able to much of anything else urgently necessary.
From time to time, putative adversaries may (may) close the technological gap in this way or that, but closing the gap of scale — or even closing to within an order of magnitude of the scale we can present — would bankrupt any other nation on Earth at this point. This fact gets omitted routinely from defense discussions so that everyone — most of all defense contractors who stand to gain or lose the most — can anxiously pretend the need to quickly dump hundreds of billions more into new programs.
At what point do we mature as a nation and as a military to the point that we stop inventing new adversaries as a means of over-building defense capacity — which is then predictably available and thus employed in the place of other and often more appropriate instruments of national power?
We’re supposed to be fielding a defense force rather than a force for global imperialism or intervention. Does 2,400 stealth strike fighters — designed for the express purpose of nullifying enemy air defenses and giving us aerial impunity anywhere in the world — scream “defense” to anyone?
What signals are we sending potential adversaries with such a move? Are we turning non-adversaries into potential adversaries with such a move? How will they respond to our decision? Do we expect they’ll toss roses at our feet and “welcome us as liberators” of the free world because we’re so much more capable than they are?
Or should we expect that having noticed we can’t be challenged in a high-end fight, they’ll simply support and sustain sub-state and irregular warfare activities that have mystified us time and again? Or that they’ll forego the expensive “technology curve” competition and instead employ low-cost, ultra-scale airpower in ways that confound our technological advantage?
I’d suggest that the world has taken note we can’t be challenged credibly in a big war. The world has also noticed our lumbering size, cumbersome logistical tail, and centralized political management of war activities since the end of World War II. Smart adversaries, noting these realities, are much more likely to employ judo tactics than challenge us to a high-aspect fistfight. That means we need to be ready to flex to the sort of low-cost, high-utility, combined arms and special operations warfare we’ve seen since the end of the Cold War.
In other words, we can’t afford to let budget replace strategy, especially when that budget is being driven at least in part by commercial interests situated outside the realm occupied by those with a duty to national defense.
There’s a fine line between preparing for the high-end fight — which is necessary to dissuade and deter adversaries from picking that fight — and over-investing in it to the point that we’re ready for that and only that eventuality. This creates new vulnerabilities that are just as strategically significant.
See 9/11 for what happens when we hit snooze too many times on a given segment of the threat spectrum. See the first decade of this century for what happens to air forces that target fixate until they can no longer adapt effectively to changing conditions. Fighting in both the high and low intensity segments of the spectrum is necessary, and our budget choices need to reflect that rather than it being an ex post contemplation after we’ve decided where to invest.
I believe Gen. Welsh when he says individually that he loves the A-10.
I don’t believe retiring it is about just money. There are other ways to get to the savings. It’s about other things too, including a service vision to streamline force structure and make all missions consistent with an AOC/theater-wide force presentation construct. There are economic and efficiency-based arguments in support of this notion, and there are just as many arguments against it.
We’re not arguing about it because no one is explicitly acknowledging that’s what this is at least partially about. What we know is that joint tactical capabilities that rest outside of AFSOC and are not multi-mission (like the A-10 and tactical airlift) do not fit neatly into the service’s chosen theater force presentation model. These are always the first capabilities targeted when the budget squeeze gets underway.
But agree or disagree with Gen. Welsh’s words and their meanings, you have to give props to someone who supports his boss even after he was just passed over and even though the Administration has made a real mess of the mission/resource mismatch for the services. Hard to imagine a tougher moment to be one of the joint chiefs.
Then again, that’s political loyalty, and it’s required at Welsh’s level of the game. Recall Robin Olds’ description of the role of CSAF:
“Note he is not called the Commander. By law, he cannot be. By nature he is forced to be the consummate bureaucrat, fighting for the all mighty dollar, serving as a buffer between Sec Def / Congress and the people and mission of his service – a demanding, demeaning role playable by very few.”
It’ll be interesting to see how Gen. Welsh uses his remaining seat time now that the CJCS season has passed and he’s got a little more political elbow room. Let’s hope we’ll see more of him. Agree or disagree, his words get others talking, and that’s what should be happening when we’re about to spend enough money that our descendants will still be paying off the interest long after we’ve all begun pushing up daisies.
Footnote: while this press event was unfolding, the House was voting to support a version of the NDAA that forbids the Air Force from retiring the A-10. We’ll see if the Senate — which is doing its own mark this week — follows suit. Given John McCain’s previous statements and Kelly Ayotte’s previous effectiveness on this issue, it’s looking increasingly like it will indeed be a year no Hawgs will die.