Here’s an update on a few defense issues:
1) It has been confirmed that China’s first stealthy fighterplane is real. It’s called Chengdu J-20 and is based on F-22s, PAKFAs and J-10s. It was developed under a secret program, of course, so it has eluded Bob Gates. Nonetheless, it has utterly disproven his fantasy projection that by 2020, China would not have any operational stealth fighterplanes. With J-20 rolled out last year, China has enough time to field hundreds of stealthy fighterplanes by 2020. The USIC projects that China may field its first stealthy fighterplane in 2017. China might do that even earlier, given the fact that the J-20 type was rolled out last year.
So Gates, as almost always, was flat wrong.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chengdu_J-20; http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story_generic.jsp?channel=defense&id=news/awst/2011/01/03/AW_01_03_2011_p18-279564.xml&headline=China’s J-20 Stealth Fighter In Taxi Tests)
2) A recent Weekly Standard article that evaluated Gates’ record as SECDEF was way too kind to him. Nonetheless, it did criticize him, and it did state that he should work hard to prepare the US military for the future, truly reform the DOD, and fight for a larger annual defense budget. It also quoted the report of the Gates-appointed panel that evaluated the 2010 QDR. The panel, chaired by former SECDEF William Perry and former NS Advisor Stephen Hadley, wrote that:
“The issues raised in the body of this report are sufficiently serious that we believe an explicit warning is appropriate. The aging of the inventories and equipment used by the services, the decline in the size of the Navy, escalating personnel entitlements, overhead and procurement costs, and the growing stress on the force means that a train wreck is coming in the areas of personnel, acquisition, and force structure.”
Does that sound familiar? It should, because these problems have been plaguing the US military for years, as has the problem of shrinking weapon inventories, yet Washington politicians, including Bob Gates, have refused to address them.
The panel, as reported by Jim Talent, “discussed the threats facing America, dismissed the Defense Department’s strategic plans as largely irrelevant to those threats, and comprehensively documented the growing gap between the actual strength of the military and the level of capability needed to protect America’s enduring national interests.” And although it did praise Gates for the decision to prioritize the Iraqi war and the Afghan war, an issue on which I disagree with the panel, its report also criticized him – politely, but firmly.
3) The same WS article by Jim Talent also reports that Gates wants to end the production of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet type. This would be a really dumb decision, if it is made. It would be downright disastrous. This fighterplane type does not compete with, and does not threaten, the F-35 program; it has a much smaller budget. This doesn’t matter to Gates, however, who wants to make the US military dependent on a single fighterplane program, one that he and his department have not fixed.
The F-35 program has experienced huge cost overruns, large delays, and is under threat of cancellation. It was projected to cost only $300 bn, but now it is projected to require a total investment of $338 bn. And despite all the money already spent on it, the first F-35B will not arrive until 2012, and the first F-35C (the Navy variant) is projected not to arrive until 2016.
The Super Hornet program is on budget and on schedule. Hundreds of Super Hornets have already been delivered to the Navy, and they have proven themselves in real combat. The price of a single F-18E/F is just $55 mn, almost half of the cost of a single F-35C ($109 mn). These aircraft are being produced right now, and because they were introduced in 1999, they are modern by today’s standards.
The best choice would be to maintain both programs. However, if one of them must be cancelled, it should be the F-35 program, not the Super Hornet program, because it is the former which has experienced massive cost overruns and significant delays and whose cancellation would yield large savings. The budget of the F/A-18E/F program is too tiny to result in any significant savings.
If the F-35C variant (or the entire program) is cancelled, the Super Hornet program can replace it. And if the F-35 program is maintained, the F-18E/F production line can serve as a backup tool.
4) A 2010 study by Col. Mark Gunzinger (USAF, ret.), warns that the USAF’s current bomber fleet is obsolete, the range of the USN’s current strike aircraft is insufficient, and the proliferation of access-denial weapons and their increasing inventories are making it difficult for the US military to operate in highly-defended environments. Gunzinger warns that the most formidable threat is China. (http://www.csbaonline.org/4Publications/PubLibrary/R.20100914.Sustaining_America/R.20100914.Sustaining_America.pdf; http://www.csbaonline.org/4Publications/PubLibrary/P.20100914._CSBA_Releases_Lon/P.20100914._CSBA_Releases_Lon.pdf)