April 1, 2009  

Obama’s mixed signals on military programs

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama expressed his support for the military. But in his address to Congress, designed principally to advocate his economic program, the new president included one line in his hour-long address that raised a red flag for military programs.

“We’ll … reform our defense budget so that we’re not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don’t use,” he said.

With the Quadrennial Defense Review budgeting process underway, uncertainty exists for the Armed Services and the defense contractors. The costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have drained military budgets. The economic meltdown and the trillions of dollars being spent to deal with it puts more pressure on available funding.

The Defense Department is faced with maintaining and equipping the service members fighting the current wars; preparing for future unknown conflicts; replacing aging and worn out aircraft, ships, weapons and support systems; and developing new technology for the next several decades and for a different enemy than the Cold War Obama mentioned in his congressional address.

The Cold War is an obvious and historical reference to the 40-year one with the former Soviet Union. But make no mistake: A new Cold War is emerging, and a sweeping statement about Cold War weapons we “don’t use” not only overlooks the evolving new realities, it misses the target — the whole point of Cold War weapons is not to use them. These are supposed to deter aggression, not invite it.

The Soviet Union may be gone, but the Russian Federation is re-emerging in new displays of military flag waving. Its defense spending is up by 30 percent. There were recent naval war games with Venezuela. Russian bombers may be based in Cuba and Venezuela. Russia’s leaders announced plans to upgrade its conventional and nuclear forces to counter what they term a “growing threat” from NATO. Officials recently announced plans to construct six new nuclear subs equipped with supersonic anti-ship missiles.

But, according to James McAleese, a defense industry analyst, Russia is not the emerging threat, in the view of the Pentagon — China is.

“The Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2009” paints a picture of a Chinese military structure that makes a clear case of a new, emerging Cold War, even if this nomenclature isn’t used.

Indeed, China’s armed services are on the move. The space program is ramping up dramatically, with as many as 16 satellite launches planned this year. Manned space shots are increasing, and China’s efforts to develop a blue-water navy, complete with a new generation of nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines — in addition to advanced diesel-electric Air Independent Propulsion subs for home waters and those around Taiwan — are well known.

China’s burgeoning commercial aerospace development is, in my view, little more than a front for technology transfer to the air forces.

And in March, five Chinese ships harassed the USS Impeccable in international waters off China’s coast in tactics straight out of the Soviet Cold War.

It’s China’s build-up of submarines that has the Pentagon most worried, McAleese said, a build-up that supports Navy plans to build two Virginia-class attack submarines a year. Virginias are replacements for the aging Los Angeles attack subs. Electric Boat Co., a unit of General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman are the prime contractors. To keep these two shipyards in business, production is split between the companies, which also take turns in final assembly. While critics of the Virginias, including Rep. Barney Frank, question the need for these new subs in a world seemingly without a Cold War, this ignores the growing threat posed by the Chinese submarine build-up. In addition, all Virginias are designed to transport special operations forces, fire conventional Tomahawk Missile attacks, protect our aircraft carrier battle groups and track opposition submarines, regardless of the owner.

Critically, procurement of the Navy’s Boeing P-8A sub-hunter appears threatened by pork-barrel Congressional demands for a third DDG-1000, which costs at least $2.5 billion. The P-8A replaces the Lockheed P-3 Orion, another Eisenhower-era airplane (like the Boeing KC-135 tanker and Boeing B-52 bomber). The majority of the P-3s are grounded as unairworthy, and the situation continues to deteriorate. The Navy — all the way up to the Chief of Naval Operations — is concerned about the decrepit P-3s and the need for the P-8As. Procurement plans call for acquiring at least six P-8s per year beginning in 2010, enough to re-equip one squadron of nine P-3s. (The greater capabilities and productivity of the P-8s permit fewer P-8s to do the job of more P-3s, an irony that probably would not be lost on those involved in the debate of the smaller KC-767 vs. the larger KC-30.) The Navy would like to boost the P-8 procurement rate to 20 by 2012, an unlikely number but one that is indicative of the importance placed on the new airplane.

Why the urgency? This goes right back to the aggressive submarine construction efforts of the Chinese. In addition to the new SSN and SSBN programs in China, the Chinese navy is also aggressively building indigenous advanced diesel-electric subs to supplement similar Russian-built Kilos the navy purchased. A diesel sub is most vulnerable when snorkeling, and even the Air Independent Propulsion units must snorkel every two or three weeks, depending on the design. With China’s increasing desires on Taiwan — always at a high level — and emerging aggressive submarine and surface ship behavior toward U.S. warships and surveillance vessels, the importance of the P-8s becomes increasingly apparent.

But funding of the P-8 appears threatened by congressional direction to acquire a third DDG-1000, which the Navy does not want. Although officials are trying to rob Peter to pay Paul with money from programs other than the P-8, the prospect that the P-8 procurement could be reduced is real.

A side note: The P-8 procurement rate and expenditure during the first three years of acquisition is at a level virtually identical to what would have been the case for the Air Force’s KC-45 aerial tanker.

The regional threats in the Middle East and the war on terrorism in other areas of the globe all put demands on the armed services to provide unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance and attacks; special operations forces, their support equipment and transportation (including submarines); and fighters, bombers, tankers, armored personnel carriers, tanks and on and on.

The strategic direction that the Obama administration adopts will have clear implications for America’s defense contractors. The initial signals from the administration have been contradictory and confusing.

In January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates — a holdover from the Bush administration — identified the Virginias, F-22, the Army’s Future Combat Systems, the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter, the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, and the Air Force tanker replacement program as programs that would be reviewed.

In March, the Office of Management and the Budget suggested the tanker program could be put off for five years and cancellation of a new long range bomber.

The prospect of a tanker delay drew sharp and immediate reaction from supporters of replacing the KC-135s, regardless of whether they favored the Boeing KC-767 or the Northrop Grumman/Airbus KC-30. In rare agreement, Boeing, Northrop and their respective supporters united to head off any delay, and Gates later denied any delay in the program. He also continues to oppose a split procurement between Boeing and Northrop, a prospect picking up steam in Congress. Clarity in the tanker procurement began to emerge in late March when it was revealed that the Defense Department had sharply reduced the parameters for a new competition.

DoD needs to move forward on replacing the aging bomber fleet. The B-52s will be as much as 90 years old by the time these are replaced. The last B-1A was delivered about the time the first of 20 B-2s were delivered. One B-2 has since been lost in a crash.

Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance spending is likely to be a top priority. Funding for the KC-X will also probably survive. CSAR-X may not. The Virginias will likely be a winner. Some think the next-generation bomber will survive budget cuts.

SSBN subs

Longer term, there is the question of what to do about the SSBN submarines. The 18 Ohio class Trident missile subs were designed at the height of the Cold War and were a key component of the Triad approach to nuclear deterrence of the U.S. for decades. Rand Corp., the defense think tank, is concerned that any delay will harm America’s expertise in submarine design and construction.

“For the first time, the U.S. Navy faces a period that could last a number of years in which there will be no design program underway for a new class of nuclear-powered submarines. The resulting lack of demand for the services of submarine designers and engineers raises concerns that this highly specialized capability could atrophy, burdening the next submarine design effort with extra costs, delays and risks,” Rand wrote in a study on the issue. Rand recommended that work begin this year.

With the end of the Cold War, land bases with intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers equipped with nuclear weapons have been reduced as the threat shifted from an anticipated nuclear confrontation to conventional wars such as Iraq I and II, Afghanistan and the war on terrorism using conventionally equipped smart weapons, intelligence and special operations.

Even the number of Trident-equipped Ohio submarines has been reduced from 18 to 14, with four of these converted to SSGN units with emphasis on Tomahawk missiles. Still, the Ohios represent 54 percent of America’s strategic deterrence.

Are the SSBNs still relevant in today’s focus on terrorists who don’t have nation-states? And what should replace the SSBNs as these age, nearing retirement in another 10 to 20 years?

Commanders of the Kings Bay, Ga., Trident submarine base and the skipper of the USS Maryland (SSBN 738) told AFJ during an embark in February that SSBNs are as relevant today as they were in the Cold War.

Commodore Daniel Mack, commander of Squadrons 16/20 in February (since split into two commands), acknowledged to AFJ that some members of Congress are not convinced a strategic deterrence platform is needed in today’s global environment. But Mack believes strategic deterrence missions deter conventional threats.

“If you are going to attack the U.S. conventionally, we have a big hammer,” he said. He noted that 9/11 wasn’t a conventional attack, and neither are weapons of mass destruction.

Cmdr. Jeffrey Grimes, captain of the Maryland, told AFJ that in his view the SSBNs today provide a deterrent even against al-Qaida and terrorists. Hosting nations know that it certainly is feasible the U.S. could retaliate with a Trident should the terrorists use WMDs against a target in the U.S.

There have been some proposals to equip the Trident missiles, or the successors to the SSBN, with a mix of conventional and nuclear war heads. This would permit the SSBNs to retaliate against terrorists or other adversaries without the horror of a nuclear missile. Grimes said this is technically possible, but practical challenges exist.

A conventionally equipped missile looks the same to detection devices as a nuclear-equipped one, raising uncertainty among touchy nations. Even if these touchy nations are told the missile has a conventional warhead, would they believe it? A high-impact, non-kinetic missile is a tactical policy decision well above Grimes’ pay grade.

Other strategic deterrence targets are available, as well. Although Grimes, for security reasons, would not specify these, the countries that could threaten the U.S. are obvious for any astute observer (which may rule out many in Congress) to see.

The Navy is beginning studies for the SSBN successors, for now called the Sea-Based Deterrence System (SBDS). Grimes and Mack believe that the SSBN successor construction needs to begin in 10 years to replace the first of the Ohios that will be ready for retirement by the time the SBDS is ready to enter service. Whether the SBDS is another ballistic missile submarine, an off-shoot of the Virginia class or an entirely new design with an entirely new strategic missile is the subject of the studies. There won’t be any appreciable money in the first Obama defense budget for SBDS, given that the Navy is only at the beginning of sorting out what the successor should look like.

Commodore Mack outlined the likely schedule for the SSBN successor: research and development in the FY2010 budget; detailed design to begin in FY2012; construction in FY2019; first SBDS delivery in FY2025; and retirements of the Ohios from FY2025-2027.

Scott Hamilton is a consultant with Leeham Co. LLC.