28 thoughts on “Losing The Edge”

  1. First we need to have a country in the future. You know, a group of people who aren’t going to spend all their time trying to stab you in the back and burn down your home and livelihood, play absolutely petty and spiteful dominance games, and in general engage in tribal warfare.

    Then we need institutions that aren’t entirely dysfunctional cargo cults clinging desperately to reputations built by the competence of long departed generations of engineers. Institutions that empower people to make sane design decisions instead of manifesting in physical artifacts the organizational cancer of a bureaucracy every bit as technical as paleolithic headhunters (but who look fabulous behind a lectern.)

    Then we can start building equipment that makes sense, for a military that is well organized and trained.

    And only THEN should our politicians even dare consider as a possibility fighting a war with what used to be peer competitors such as Russia and China. I hope that if it ever comes to that, they do it for sane serious reasons after having all other options exhausted, not for stupid court intrigue and internal power plays fueled by insane delusions that originate and terminate within the Washington bubble.

    1. “And only THEN should our politicians even dare consider as a possibility fighting a war with what used to be peer competitors such as Russia and China.”

      China and Russian get votes on when and where to fight wars. They may decide not to wait until we’re ready. In fact, you can count on it. They aren’t that stupid.

      I served in the military for 13 years and have worked as a contractor for 25 years. One problem the military needs to face is gold-plated requirements that add much to the cost of weapons systems but little to their practicality. They need to hasten the protracted acquisition cycle that must have Kelly Johnson spinning in his grave. It isn’t just the Air Force with this problem. Before they got serious, the Army was talking about taking 20 years to reach IOC for their new Future Vertical Lift aircraft. Imagine that, a new Warrant Officer or 2LT would be eligible for retirement before those systems were operational. I remember working on an operational architecture for Air Force Space Command in 2002 whose “near term” timeline was 2015 and “long term” was 2025. That’s nuts.

  2. Need to get away from Cost Plus and the congressional district approach to contracting that has mired the process in minutiae and causes a decades-long procurement process that leaves us with brand new antiquated aircraft. We were in WWII for three and a half years – how many aircraft were designed and mass-produced in that time? We could not do it today.

    The only saving grace is that other countries tend to be worse than we are in that regard and have a lower technology baseline to start with.

    1. Most of the US aircraft that saw combat in WWII started development before the war. Few types that began development after Pearl Harbor were operational and in combat before V-J Day. Those planes, even the B-29, were very simple in comparison to modern military aircraft. They were built in their thousands because almost the entire US economy was turned over to wartime production. The numbers of items produced were staggering, but so was the logistics involved with making it all happen, especially in an era without computers.

  3. It seems air superiority, is largely about pilots.
    But in terms of technology, it’s mostly about space superiority.
    Explore the Moon and determine if there is mineable water.

  4. I think MadSci and Larry hit it well at the beginning. And certainly part of the procurement problem is as Berntson describes with both Cost Plus and spreading the supply chain across congressional districts. All those items I agree with, but only from the standpoint of building better aircraft (as we do), that cost less (as we don’t do), such that we can produce to match the quantity to take on China or Russia.

    Otherwise, I see the whole article as just another USAF propaganda piece for a Congressional budget battle. It has nothing to do with rectifying the points made above, and everything to do with scaring voters to tell their representative to give the USAF the money they want. I think we can take on Russia or China with what we have, but if we are not careful, they may break us the way Reagan broke the Soviet Union by getting them to over spend on defense.

  5. Forget the slow pace of development, and “lagging” technology – we would have to be able to build whatever we needed, and that requires access to raw materials, and a lot of manufacturing capability. The “environmental” movement would finish us off in a flash with its huge obstruction infrastructure driving domestic mining to extinction (where it almost is anyway), and blocking additional manufacturing facilities. Especially if the next war is with China; the greenies would be on their side.

    Oh, and you also need energy. California is leading the way to the Dark Ages on that front. Not so the Chinese. (Russia isn’t a credible threat)

  6. The article brings up drones but there are other options. A few days ago Instapundit linked to an article where a howitzer was used to take out a missile. A few years back, the Space Show had a company on who were testing missiles similar to SM3’s but more flexible in how they can be deployed and in what missions they are assigned. There have also been articles about using rocket systems as close air support for ground forces. We have a lot of tools in the tool box, it just takes some creativity and forethought to get them ready.

    One of the big threats to us from China are their missiles but whether or not we counter that with missile defense, we can match and exceed their missiles, making their ships, planes, and ground based infrastructure just as vulnerable.

    1. Imagine a starship heavy booster with a short expendable upper stage. On top of that upper stage sits a couple hundred tons of tungsten telephone poles with independent guidance.

      If Musk is successful, imagine leap-frogging our would-be adversaries…

  7. I’ll make a prediction. The F-35 will be the last new manned aircraft.

    The Air Force wants to spend about a trillion dollars to develop a new “strategic” manned bomber. Where would such a device be employed? Can you imagine being able to fly thousands of miles through contested air space to deliver a bomb? I can’t. We already have drone strategic bombers, they’re called cruise missiles.

    Dog fights are history, if you can see the other guy, you’re already dead. Without a pilot, 30 hour missions and 20g’s aren’t an issue. A fighter becomes a reusable flying missile launcher. If you separate the transmitter and receiver, stealth disappears. The shadows show up as plainly as the reflections.

    1. “Dog fights are history, if you can see the other guy, you’re already dead.”

      They’ve been saying that for as long as I’ve been alive.

      I very much doubt dogfights are going anywhere. But I suspect you’re right that they’ll be flown by drones, not humans.

      1. Well humans flying drones. And switching off as needed. In fact, if the survival of the pilots are not in question it creates a whole new set of air combat tactics non existent today. Like flying wedges designed to fly through or into enemy formations taking out singleton marauders. The angle of attack reduces damage to your own drones while thoroughly destroying the enemy. Crashing your drone into a fuel depot, etc. The smartest of ‘smart’ weapons. G factors no longer dependent on the human cargo, all sort of ‘tic-tac’ maneuvers might be possible with next gen drones.

        1. One of the biggest issues of AF pilot training would be a natural aversion to otherwise fatal maneuvers. The instinct for natural self-preservation being what it is. Video games help with that. OTOH I might not be as comfortable with the idea of airline pilots coming from the military as I am today. 🙂

  8. It has long been my view that if we ever got into a all out, 3+ year, no kidding war with a peer, that (assuming it didn’t go nuke – which is a big assumption) after about 3 weeks both sides would be down to bullets, grenades, mortars and artillery. Things that are easy to produce by the hundreds of thousands.

    Today’s aircraft take FAR too much time to build. In a 3-5 year war you won’t be making many of them. I read once that a wing carry-through on an F-22 took literally years to build. Part of that was waiting for a metal casting to cure.

    So both sides would boil off their expensive, high tech planes…..and then what.?

    My prediction is that both sides would start making cheaper, lower performing planes that are much simpler and therefore easier to build in the hundreds or thousands. Much simpler to operate. Much less high tech. Maybe move to drones.

    I don’t think we’d work our way back to WWII level prop airplanes. But think about it…which would you rather have?

    500 P-47’s or one F-22? (assuming the other side is in the same boat)

    It’s an extreme example to illustrate the point.

    No matter how good or how high tech, eventually you will lose that F-22. If the other side built 500 P-47’s and you had one F-22 how do you think you’d do? And I’m not talking just about air superiority but ground attack…interdiction etc.

    Drones planes with good AI can and will make a difference. In fact a 3-5 year peer war would most likely accelerate their development and use. Perhaps production lines would not be switched to drones. Drones would be cheaper and easier to build. And therefore more numerous. But do not minimize the task of building AI that will make the plane effective. We are just at the start of that.

    Another impact of a long term peer war is that ground based air defense would get special attention because it’s not as expensive, and doesn’t take as along to build thousands, as building airplanes.

    1. Forget about all of those fancy combat aircraft.

      I think the outcome of a future war will hinge on the actions of a pencil-necked Air Force base meteorologist together with the plucky young farmer’s daughter whom he rescued from the clutches of a platoon of enemy soldiers, along with a rag-tag group of Air Police and British paratroop Falklands veterans, as they trek across a barren landscape of volcanic rock as they dodge patrols and supply critical intelligence to our forces over a sat phone?

    2. 500 P-47s (assuming you had the pilots to fly them) verses one F-22 would be like 500 soldiers armed with muzzle-loading flintlock muskets against a SEAL armed with an M-240 or Minigun. The F-22 could fly with impunity, day or night, while the P-47s would be limited to daylight and good weather.

      1. Larry J writes:

        “500 P-47s (assuming you had the pilots to fly them) verses one F-22 would be like 500 soldiers armed with muzzle-loading flintlock muskets against a SEAL armed with an M-240 or Minigun. The F-22 could fly with impunity, day or night, while the P-47s would be limited to daylight and good weather.”

        You don’t understand my point. The P-47’s would not be hunting the F-22. They will ignore the F-22 – they have little choice.

        The P-47’s would be spread out over the hundreds of miles long field of battle blowing things up behind enemy lines, shooting up troops and transport. The F-22 is great but it cannot be everywhere all the time.

        And I also said that – eventually – you will lose that F-22.

        Yes you will.

        No matter how great it is. It will be lost.

        Before that happens you will have lost the data links/AWACs/satellites that the F-22 depends upon.

        Then the side that has 350 P-47’s left will be in charge. And the second year that the P-47 production line is open you will get several thousand of them. And the pilots to fly them.

        And I also said it was an exaggeration to illustrate a point – I said we most likely will not get pushed back to WW II tech – not really pushed back to P-47’s.

        But we will be pushed back to much lower tech than we operate with now. With the one possible exception of drones.

        1. I think a slightly more accurate analogy is not the P-47 vs F-22; but any aircraft vs F-22. The F-22 can only shootdown so many aircraft in a sortie, and only so many can be deployed. The enemy only needs to saturate airspace with targets. The targets could be drones of various sizes, commercial airliners, general aviation aircraft, anything that can carry either troops or explosives into the battlespace were allies are. This may seem absurd, but we forget the doctrine of the past. We needed an AEGIS system, because USSR could launch hundreds of cruise missiles outside the range of a CVBG air umbrella.

          1. The Cold War military joke:
            Two Soviet Generals are drinking in occupied Paris after the One Week War and one asks: “Comrade, who won the Air War?”

    1. Honestly, there’s only one thing that an A-10 can do better than anything else, and with the advent of DAS/sensor fusion and cheap smartbombs, the low-level, manually-aimed gun run is of questionable value.

  9. There is exactly one near peer, China. Russia is history, they have some impressive looking hardware with looking being the operative word. They don’t have the money to build even a handful and probably not the industrial competence to do even that.

    China, for now, also has impressive looking hardware. Mostly unproven and major problems with building engines. They have the money and given time will likely fix some of their other problems. Not a near peer yet, maybe in ten years if they don’t have one of their periodic meltdowns.

    What’s really missing is a plausible casus belli. I don’t see Americans dying to keep Vietnam communist. Taiwan is another matter, if we put carriers close enough to make a difference, we’ll lose some of them. Some President may have to make that call. We could do as much damage as most wars if we simply stopped doing business with them, some of the damage would be to ourselves of course. This process is already underway.

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