In a recent piece called, The Paradox of American Naval Power, Bryan McGrath laments not being aware of an Executive Branch process to paint a picture of “the Navy we need,” as opposed to merely the Navy we can afford. Having spent several years in the Pentagon as a strategic planner for the Air Force, I can confirm that the kinds of pictures for which McGrath yearns are being painted and repainted every day by many very skilled and committed artists working for all the services, Navy and otherwise. It just turns out that painting meaningful pictures of what we need is a lot more complicated than splashing more of the same colors on bigger canvases. (No sailing pun intended.)
Determining what we need in each of our military services is harder than deciding how big each service needs to be, or – in the case of the Navy – how many ships we should have. Even in a world with unconstrained resources for national defense, bigger would not necessarily be better. It is not enough to ask, “How much?” We also need to ask, “How much of what, with how much of what else – and where, and when (how soon for how long)?”
Capability Vs. Capacity
Military strategic planners make a careful distinction between capability and capacity. The F-22 Raptor, for example, is an incredibly capable aircraft. In fact, in this humble airman’s opinion, the F-22 outclasses anything else flying today or anytime soon, given its combination of stealth, supercruise, maneuverability, and avionics integration. One F-22 therefore beats one of any other aircraft or air defense system in the world hands down. This is the capability story. But, even as good as it is, one F-22 cannot beat a thousand lesser aircraft or surface-to-air weapons all at once, unless they are much lesser – like Wright Flyers or the same era’s small caliber guns, perhaps. And one day even the 123 combat-coded F-22s the Air Force has today will not be enough. That is the capacity story, although it does not simply mean that more F-22s are the answer (even if it was probably part of the answer while the F-22 production line still existed).
The recent A-10 controversy makes the same point in a different way. The much-loved Warthog is extremely capable for certain limited purposes, under certain limited circumstances. If money were no object, the Air Force would therefore likely keep the A-10 flying as long as possible, in order to apply it’s finely honed capability to those situations in which it excels like nothing else – assuming sustainment and manning and basing and threats were also no object. But because money and all those other things must in fact be taken into account when we are investing American treasure to send American warriors into harm’s way, to break things and kill people to protect and advance American and allied interests, the Air Force made the difficult decision to trade the entire A-10 enterprise in order to reinvest A-10 funding in higher-end multirole platforms, principally the F-35. Multirole platforms can do more things under more circumstances. In convoluted terms, multirole platforms multiply your capacity, even if you have less capacity.
If it were actually possible, the political expediency in trading as few as a dozen F-35s to keep 326 A-10s could not be overlooked. But this political expediency is not the same as thinking about and trying to deliver the military forces our country truly needs now and in the distant future, as McGrath wants someone to do. As a result, the strategic planners who do that kind of thing for a living come to those political considerations only long after they have already done their best work. The primary justification for scrapping the A-10 fleet was not simply to save $4.2 billion, but to use that money to buy what our strategic planners very thoughtfully considered to be essential capability and capacity which those A-10s cannot deliver.
More is Not Always Better
While the other guy keeps making us guess how much of what we are going to need – with how much of what else, and where, and when – the other pesky problem in major weapon systems development is that development timelines and price increases have outstripped capability increases. Building an unrivaled system that takes forever to finish and leaves no room in the budget for anything else is a sure-fire way to lose the next war. We need to get better at making things better. In their new 30-year strategic vision document, Air Force leaders call this “strategic agility.” I like the ring of that, but you can also simply call it common sense in a constrained, competitive world.
How much of what is – and will be – enough? Many of our most accomplished military leaders have argued that it is not enough unless it is overwhelming. As Americans we do not like to fight, but when we do fight we do not want to have to fight fair, either, in large part because we would like to get it done and get back to happier, more enjoyable pursuits. But if we want to be overwhelming, we need to know something about where and when. Predicting the need and assessing the risk requires both art and science, like painting a picture with pigments made of metal alloys on a moving backdrop. I am relieved to know that some really smart men and women are working at that every day.
The answer will never simply be a bigger canvas and more paint. If it crowds out the right thing, more of the wrong thing is a liability; and the wrong thing can be the right thing if that right thing comes at too high a price. We are in big trouble if the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Army, or the Air Force we need is a Navy, Marine Corps, Army, or Air Force we cannot afford.
After retiring as an Air Force colonel in 2013, Eric Jorgensen served the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force as a Senior Research Analyst. In his final military assignment, Eric was Chief of the Total Force Enterprise Management division in the Air Force Directorate of Strategic Planning in the Pentagon. He is a pilot with more than 4,000 military flying hours in aircraft including the F-111F, the F-15E, and the KC-135R.
[Top photo: Flickr CC: USAF Air Combat Command]