Two weeks ago I was in Torrance, California home to a division of Honeywell International, a multinational supplier of engineering and defense related products. One of their main partners, Lockheed Martin, sent representatives to talk with employees in a rally for the F-22 Raptor, the most sophisticated fighter in the U.S. Air Force and currently on the chopping block for the 2010 Pentagon budget. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been aiming for a year now to roll back future combat systems (FCS) in order to fight “today’s wars,” marking the first time COIN (Counter-Insurgency) experts “will have a seat at the table” proportional to 10 percent of total spending. Hence, only 4 more of the $350 million dollar jets will be earmarked for fiscal 2010 with the program completely phased out by 2011.
I don’t believe for a moment that Secretary Gates discounts the capabilities of the F-22. the Raptor is nothing short of a marvel in modern aviation. Sitting in the virtual demo at Honeywell, it was plain to see that U.S. Air Force pilots – in the Raptor — possess unparalleled maneuverability and a field of vision that extends beyond the cockpit window. In the fifth generation fighter pilots can effectively manage the airfield in a single battlefield display, allowing them to communicate information and grasp the position of wingmen, while absorbing the intent of enemies on the air and ground. It can be armed with internal weapons systems for air to air and air to ground roles, including: two 1,000 pound-class Joint Direct Attack Munitions for “smart” precision guided bombs, six medium range AIM-120C missiles, and two short-range AIM-9 missiles, the close-range M61A2 20mm rotary cannon and a globally positioned GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb for ground threats. While frustrating and defeating enemies, the Raptor avoids detection with its reduced sound, heat, turbulence, and radar signatures.
Despite its unsurpassed capacity, air dominance, and the currently volatile global context, Secretary Gates is right when he says the Raptor has got to go. For the United States, “today’s wars” are primarily irregular, and therefore the military needs to meet its objectives with lower cost weapons systems and a population-centric approach.
Critics of the newly proposed Pentagon budget overlook that at $534 billion it is 4 percent more than the $513.3 billion earmarked for 2009. Critics also overlook the fact that the United States still dominates global defense spending. David Kilcullen from The Center For A New American Security (CNAS) notes that total U.S. defense spending comprised 54.5 percent of all nations in 2007 (70 percent including Iraq War funding). It stands to reason that, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, any rational enemy won’t engage American forces with conventional weapons, nonetheless dogfight against a F-22 in open air. It’s no wonder why the F-22 has proven useless in both countries.
What has been proven useful is the agility and the manpower which corresponds with combating the lawlessness of the unconventional battlefield. A reality that many conservative hawks haven’t come to terms with (and one that many liberals won’t stomach). John Nagl, President of CNAS and author of Learning To Eat Soup With Knife: Counter-Insurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, notes that it’s the industrial will and capacity of the American Army that developed its proclivity towards total annihilation of enemy fighters. Lesser Armies lacking the alternative of overwhelming the enemy such as the British force that successfully fought in Malaya in the mid-20th Century was forced into a more population-centric approach when the “kinetic” approach proved futile. Nagl notes that in 1956 – just as the Vietcong insurgency was beginning in the South of the country – the United States Army devoted none of its study to combating insurgencies or gaining knowledge of irregular warfare. The successful British – in contrast – spent just 51 (albeit well used) out of 1042 hours for the study of combating insurgency. Accordingly, the U.S. Army’s initial strategy – counter-productive and hampered by heavy losses — was based disproportionately on indiscriminate use of firepower: heavy artillery, close air support, and B-52 strikes that ultimately didn’t provide the capacity for overwhelming a very fluid and rational enemy.
It was under General Creighton Abrams (who eventually replaced General William Westmoreland as commander in Vietnam) that Vietnam Strategy began to change. Commissioned in 1965 to lead The Program for the Pacification and Long Term Development of South Vietnam (POVN), Abrams concluded that the continuation of “search and destroy” operations would not meet the coalitions’ objectives instead favoring a localized low intensity – secure, hold, and rebuild — approach that could win the population to the government’s side.
According to Vietnam War historian Lewis Sorley, the population-centric strategy proved fruitful. American units maintained a persistent presence with the Vietnamese Army and local authorities to secure populations and provide developmental aid at the village level. By 1968, the Vietcong insurgency was defeated, the numbers of American troops killed in action declined precipitously, and by 1973 the South was ready to defend itself if not for Congress’s decision to cut off operational funding.
Granted, a key element of the Nixon’s Vietnamization strategy was tactical air support for the Southern army against northern invasion. But even if air support were critical to “best efforts” in Afghanistan, Iraq, potentially Iran and more “conventional” enemies (China, and Russia are too prone to asymmetrical behavior), the United States armed forces already demonstrates air dominance with its current fleet. Secretary Gates also plans to increase the amount of F-35s, the capable Joint-Strike Fighter by purchasing 513 over a 5-year plan.
The Vietnam narrative is applicable for obvious reasons. The population-centric strategy led by General Petraeus in Iraq reflected “lessons learned.” Similar to Vietnamization, tribal leaders in 2007 were emboldened to re-take their country when supported by improved U.S. counter-insurgency measures. Especially Baghdad and the once blood-soaked al-Anbar province experienced a precipitous decline in civilian deaths. There has also been a steep drop in U.S. military deaths since 2008.
Afghanistan remains to be seen. But regional developments such as the 2006 Kunar Province road project have shown enormous promise in providing economic progress, unity with Kabul, and security from Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. Ultimately, $500 million in additional funding to assist foreign militaries for similar stability measures and a 5 percent increase for special operations are a foregone conclusion when compared to what yields from the most sophisticated – in this case futile – aircraft.