The Best Defense

The wrong stuff: The F-35 vs. what U.S. airpower really needs in the future

By Kelley Sayler

Best Defense guest columnist

The fact that the F-35 Lightning II isn't making an appearance at the Farnborough International Airshow is the latest in a never-ending string of disappointments that have marked the plane's controversial history.  From past challenges with tail hooks and tires to engine cracks and engine fires, life has never been easy for the F-35, which has even had to confront an embarrassing vulnerability to its namesake weather phenomenon.   

Such setbacks might be acceptable -- and expected -- in a nascent experimental program, but the F-35 has already been in production for 8 years.  Indeed, largely due to concurrent testing and production, an approach that Under Secretary of Defense for AT&L Frank Kendall memorably referred to as "acquisition malpractice" (and one that hopefully will not be replicated any time soon), DOD will spend $1.65 billion merely to bring early-production jets up to standard.  Total program acquisition costs will reach $398.6 billion, with 55-year life-cycle costs surpassing the stratospheric $1 trillion mark, thus solidifying the F-35's legacy as the most expensive weapons program in history.

Supporters of the F-35 are quick to defend the plane's shortcomings as "the price to be paid" (both literally and figuratively) for a cutting-edge program.  The F-35 has, for example, found a staunch protector in Congress despite coming in well behind schedule and so far over budget that it breached Nunn-McCurdy limits by more than 50%.  With the exception of a few vocal outliers like John McCain, who has called the program a classic example of the "military-industrial-congressional complex," this support seems unlikely to wane any time soon (if for no other reason than, as Kate Brannen has reported, components of the program have been thoughtfully distributed across at least 45 states).

Likewise, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has remained a supporter of the F-35 in the face of its most recent challenges, going so far as to term it "the future for our fighter aircraft."  (One might have hoped, however, that the secretary would have waited until the plane was at least deemed to be airworthy before making such a pronouncement.)

To be sure, the F-35 is an impressive aircraft.  It features revolutionary technologies and some of the most advanced radar, sensors, and weapons in the world -- all of which will contribute to the important task of deterring high-end conventional conflict.  At the same time, it is not at all clear that the plane is well-suited to actually operate in the threat environment of the future.  As a short-legged, tactical aircraft that can carry a relatively limited number of weapons in its much-touted stealthy configuration, its capabilities are likely to be constrained in a mature A2/AD environment.  Nor is it likely to be of much use in urbanized environments or even in the types of environments the United States has been operating in for the past 12 years.  (For a variety of reasons, its sister system, the F-22, has yet to see combat.)  

While the F-35 will have its uses, the U.S. military of the future will require a more diverse tool set -- including smaller, less complex, and more numerous systems -- capable of operating across a full range of contingencies.  While making substantial cuts in the F-35 buy will increase unit cost and potentially unsettle partner nations, doing so would enable the United States to divert funds to other systems that could provide increased range, loiter time, and kinetic effects. Given the extent of vested interests in the current program of record, gaining the political traction for such a move will certainly not be easy, but then, doing the right thing never is.

Kelley Sayler is a research associate with the Center for a New American Security's Responsible Defense Program.  Her most recent report, co-authored with Ben FitzGerald, is Creative Disruption:  Technology, Strategy, and the Future of the Global Defense Industry She tweets @kelleysayler.  

USAF/Julius Delos Reyes/Wikimedia

The Best Defense

The Future of War (II): As the nature of war changes, the familiar dividing lines of our world are blurring across the board

Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on January 15, 2014.

By the Future of War team, New America Foundation
Best Defense office of the future

Changes in the nature of warfare profoundly shape both the manner in which the state is organized and the law itself. An obvious example of this is how the adoption of gunpowder warfare and the emergence of small standing armies helped to produce the absolute monarchies of the 16th and 17th centuries. In turn, the levee en masse -- the mass mobilization of conscripts -- by Napoleon's revolutionary armies helped spell the beginning of the end for those monarchies. The need to raise and maintain ever-larger armies also required the creation of the apparatus of the modern state such as a census, universal taxation, and basic education.

Today, we are at another major inflection point, one in which technology is reshaping the way wars are fought. The future of warfare will be shaped by the role of ever-smaller drones; robots on the battlefield; offensive cyber war capabilities; extraordinary surveillance capabilities, both on the battlefield and of particular individuals; greater reliance on Special Operations Forces operating in non-conventional conflicts; the militarization of space, and a Moore's Law in biotechnology that has important implications for bio-weaponry.

Consider a few examples:

  • The Manufacture of Life: Scientists can now manufacture living organisms, including new viruses. These breakthroughs are useful to scientists but also, potentially, to terrorists or unscrupulous states.
  • Drones: Drones allow us to assassinate individuals a world away by remote control and they are proliferating in unexpected ways. Already, the brief monopoly that the United States, Britain, and Israel have had on armed drones has evaporated. China took the United States by surprise in 2010 when it unveiled 25 drone models at an air show, some of which were outfitted with the capability to fire missiles. This year, the Chinese disclosed that they had planned to assassinate a notorious drug lord hiding in a remote part of Burma with an armed drone but opted to capture him instead.

Just as the U.S. government justifies its CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen with the argument that it is at war with terrorists such as al Qaeda and its affiliates, one could imagine that China might strike Chinese Uighur separatists in exile in Afghanistan with drones under the same rubric. Similarly, Iran, which claims to have armed drones, might attack Iranian Baluchi nationalists along its border with Pakistan.

Yet the Pentagon, with characteristic short-term thinking that focuses too much on "readiness" and not enough on "preparedness," seems lately to be shying away from fully embracing drones, cutting spending on them while continuing to devote billions of dollars to manned warplanes.

  • Cyber-siege: One potential technique in the new world of warfare is what New America's Director of the Open Technology Institute Sascha Meinrath terms "cyber-siege" war. Presently, we conceptualize most hacking attacks as opportunistic, meaning they concentrate on the softest identifiable targets. However, Meinrath predicts that an enemy undermining the core functionality of our computer systems could harm our increasingly tech-reliant society and that would then lead to a more massive, far-reaching, and invasive cyberattack. The NSA's multi-year strategy to undermine commercial encryption is just such a "cyber-siege" on fundamental technological functionality. Meinrath believes we must assume that other nation states and non-governmental forces are working along the same lines. Is China, for instance, putting "backdoors" in hardware chipsets?

A cyber-siege isn't won or lost based upon singular battles. Instead, we have to think about how we're bolstering defenses writ large -- something that the United States is not doing. Instead, the U.S. focus is disrupting small networks of cyber-criminals. If the United States really wanted to protect the country and the privacy of individuals from what's next, we'd be thinking in terms of standardizing and "hardening" computer systems for everyday products (i.e., cars, appliances, home security systems, etc.); compartmentalizing data (to prevent grabbing huge amounts of customer data at once); disclosing when breaches occur (to acknowledge weaknesses and shore up defenses), and protecting consumer data (whether health, banking, or social networking).

The scientific manufacture of life, the proliferation of drones, and increasing opportunity of cyber-siege are just the tip of the iceberg. The evolution of surveillance technologies, space weapons, and autonomous unmanned systems of all sorts are also transforming warfare.

New technologies have also democratized mass violence, enabling non-state actors to use and threaten lethal force on a scale previously associated only with states. The 9/11 terrorist attacks shattered the comfortable assumption that the United States faced only conventional state adversaries. Since 9/11, the United States has fought conflicts of various types against a variety of networks of non-traditional combatants, such as al Qaeda and its allied groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

New America's "Future of War" project will not only look at how wars will be fought but who will fight them -- and what rules will govern the conduct of warfare.

Taken together, recent changes both in the technological drivers of warfare and the enemies we face have erased the boundaries between what we have traditionally regarded as "war" and "peace," military and civilian, foreign and domestic, and national and international.

  • They have blurred the lines between military law and criminal law as the United States grapples with how to prosecute members of al Qaeda who are part of a criminal enterprise that is also at war against the United States and her allies.
  • They have blurred the lines between military and civilian roles, such as the delivery of aid and development. Consider the case of members of Provincial Reconstruction Teams in warzones such as Afghanistan where they are essentially armed social workers.
  • They have blurred the lines between public and private. Private contractors now handle a considerable number of military functions that would previously have been the purview of government employees. This raises a thicket of thorny legal and accountability questions: For instance, could a contractor involved in the CIA drone program be charged with murder if a civilian is killed in a drone attack?
  • They have blurred the lines between the military and the intelligence community. It is no longer even a cause for much comment that the CIA has become something of a paramilitary organization, which, even taking the most conservative estimates, has killed around 3,000 people in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen under President Obama alone.
  • They have blurred the lines between domestic and foreign. The most well funded Pentagon spying agency, the NSA, was set up to counter the threat posed by the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. In part due to the near-impossibility of cleanly distinguishing between "domestic" and "foreign" communications, the NSA has now collected the telephone metadata of hundreds of millions of ordinary American citizens.
  • They have eroded traditional conceptions of sovereignty. With more and more states developing technologies that enable them to "reach inside" other states with relatively little immediate risk (whether using drone technologies, space-based surveillance systems or cyber tools), the nature and meaning of sovereignty is being transformed.

And so on. As Charles Tilly observed, "War made the state, and the state made war." If war is changing, then the state will change, and so will the non-state organizations that increasingly challenge those states and the international organizations that seek to channel state behavior. What these changes will look like is hard to predict, but they are likely to be as profound as the shift from the pre-Westphalian world to the modern world of nation-states.

The Future of War project is led by Peter Bergen, director of national security studies at the New America Foundation. This series was drafted by him and the team's other members: Rosa Brooks, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Sascha Meinrath and Tom Ricks.