Our armed forces are the best in the world. I don’t think there’s any great dissent from that sentiment among my audience. But the fact remains, as an institution, our armed forces do some things better than others. Some of that is an institutional bias, in that the forces would rather do some things than others. To some extent, there’s also a bit of empire building going on. And some of it is just our culture doesn’t like to do some things. For instance, our society found it a good deal easier to support the 100 hour ground war in the 1st Gulf War than our ongoing operations in Iraq since 2003. Why? Well, as a rule of thumb, our society has a fairly short attention span.
As I said, some things, we do well. The US Army spent practically the entire Cold War figuring out the best way to stop a massive Soviet armored assault through Western Europe. The Army’s organization, procurement, doctrine, training, logistics and basing were all geared toward stopping a Soviet attack and fulfilling the Army’s NATO commitment. Indeed, having such an overriding mission made the task of organizing the Army a lot easier. To a great extent, the clarity provided by the Soviet threat also greatly guided the organization and training of the Air Force, Navy, and the Marine Corps.
Once you know what you want to accomplish, it is a lot easier to plan. Indeed, no one plans to fail, they fail to plan.
Let’s take a look at a Cold War centric program, that has proven remarkably useful- the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System. Barrage rockets have a long history in the US. Mind you, “…the rocket’s red glare” in our national anthem refers to British bombardment rockets being fired at our Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812. Barrage rockets in our Army really took flight in WWII. A simple fin-stabilized 4.5in rocket was mounted on al sorts of vehicles to lay down large volumes of suppressive fires on enemy positions. This was a short range, inaccurate rocket. But it was cheap, easy to use, and easy to mount on everything from jeeps, to tanks, to landing craft to PT boats. The Russians, on the other hand, used a larger rocket, known as the Katyusha, as a counter battery weapon. They would fire awesome barrages onto German artillery positions to keep them from firing on Russian formations. The later Soviet BM21 launcher was so successful in this mission, the Russians still use it. The US Army, however, used conventional cannon (or “tube”) artillery for the counter battery role. The problem with this was that US artillery has traditionally been outranged by almost every other nation’s artillery. The Army made up for this mostly by having a better system of fire control. US artillery was almost always better able to locate targets and bring fires to bear on them. But having a shorter range left them vulnerable to Soviet counter battery fires. Having a longer range system would solve this problem, but simply building a bigger cannon wasn’t really the best approach. The bigger the cannon, the harder it is to move, the bigger the vehicles needed to support it, and the increase in range may not be that great. For instance, even the massive 16in guns of the Iowa battleships only have a 23 mile range. Pretty much the only way to get a real increase in range was to use rockets. But rockets have their own issues. Traditionally, rockets haven’t been very accurate weapons. Now, we weren’t looking for a precision weapon, but it would be nice to have a fair idea of where the rockets would land. Also, rockets take up a lot more space than regular artillery ammunition. Rockets aren’t particularly heavy, but they are bulky. Resupply can quickly become a real issue.
When the Army decided in the 1970s to pursue a rocket artillery system, these were some of the issues they needed to address. The accuracy issue was primarily addressed by using a spin stabilized rocket. Additionally, precise navigation and meteorological data led to greater accuracy. Knowing where you are shooting from, and what the winds are makes for better shooting. For the most part, US artillery was already blessed with these systems. This was good enough to get a rocket in the ballpark. But since an enemy artillery battery might cover an area several hundred meters wide, that’s not good enough. Even a fairly large warhead won’t do much damage to an artillery piece unless it scores a direct hit. So how do you ensure a hit? The answer was sub-munitions. Instead of each rocket having one large warhead, each rocket carried a payload of several hundred hand-grenade sized bomblets. The rocket would open its payload over the target, scattering the bomblets over a wide (but very predictable) area. Each bomblet could punch a hole through the light top armor of a vehicle or its fragments could cut down any exposed personnel.
Mobility was important as well. Once the rockets were fired, Soviet radars could track the path of the rockets to determine where they were fired from. If we could fire the rockets, then leave the firing position before they even hit, we would be safe from any counter battery fire that was in range. This is a technique known as “shoot and scoot.” Accordingly, the Army made the decision to mount its new rocket system on a tracked vehicle. Tracked vehicles are heavier, more expensive, and more maintenance intensive than trucks. But tracked vehicles can also travel cross country over terrain that trucks can’t . They can also mount armor that trucks can’t. Rather than design an all new vehicle, the Army’s contractor, Food Machinery Corporation, adapted its M2/M3 Bradley chassis. By using the same engine, transmission, and suspension, development costs were kept to a minimum.
By using a combination of innovative technology for the rockets themselves and the onboard fire control system, in conjunction with legacy technologies such as the navigation systems, and the vehicle chassis, while integrating them into the existing framework of the US artillery system, the Army developed a fearsome capability to fire counter battery missions up to 70 kilometers away. Of course, counter battery wasn’t the MLRS’s only mission. It was also ideal for smashing armored formations in the second echelon or decapitation missions that strike enemy headquarters.
So far, so good. The Army had found a solution to a nagging problem it had faced through most of the Cold War. And the system worked almost to perfection during the 1st Gulf War. When it came to preparing for a conventional war, no one came close to the US.
But not all wars are conventional. In fact, because of our dominance in the conventional warfare arena, possible opponents have quite deliberately decided to avoid a conventional fight with us and instead pursue asymmetric warfare techniques against us. The IED is the typical example of an asymmetric attack. How do you fight an inanimate object? Further, by hiding in the general population, knowing we won’t fire indiscriminately, enemy forces negate much of our firepower. In an era when any civilian casualties will almost certainly be plastered across the headlines as potential war crimes, using an MLRS is pretty much out of the question. Even conventional tube artillery, with a smaller impact than the sub munitions of the MLRS, is too indiscriminate for use in urban areas with nearby civilians.
Eventually, the Guided MLRS round was introduced. Ironically, the rocket artillery was now far more accurate than tube artillery. The GMLRS is accurate enough to be used against a single building, and has a small enough warhead that it can be used in urban areas with minimum collateral damage.
Another example of the lag time in reacting to the new paradigm of limited warfare is in surveillance. By now, you’ve seen plenty of gun camera footage of Hellfire missiles and laser guided bombs smiting jihadis.
You’ve also seen news about the Predator drone and other “eye in the sky” surveillance. For a long time, the video tape was only analyzed after the airplane returned to base. Eventually, real-time transmission of the images gave commanders great information about what was going on in a given area. Building ona legacy of 60 years of designing surveillance systems to “see” the entire battlefield, commanders were thrilled with the level of information dominance they were achieving.
That’s great, but it turned out, troops on the ground weren’t very happy. It turns out that no one thought about them. While the general might be able to see the battle unfolding with a god’s eye view, the guys in the fight couldn’t see any further than if they were medieval yeomen. Pretty soon, a program known as ROVER was instituted that fixed the issue. Now troops on the ground can use a laptop system to view the video from an overhead asset in real time.
The point is this. The armed forces of the US are on the horns of a dilemma. We have to adapt to new conditions on the battlefield, while still equipped and organized primarily to face a conventional enemy. But if the armed forces re-equip to face an unconventional enemy (and re-equipping in these austere times is going to cost more than anyone wants to pay), we face the risk of having some other opponent build its forces along conventional lines. Having re-equipped to face an unconventional foe, we would be ill equipped to face a conventional opponent. Generally, the US forces feel it is easier to adapt our existing conventional forces to face unconventional foes, via training, doctrine, and limited re-equipment (such as up-armored HUMVEES and MRAPs) than it would be to tailor our forces to unconventional warfare and have to face risk at the high end of the warfare spectrum.
And we haven’t even gotten into the messy part of the problem- politics. Virtually all defense related items are purchased from domestic suppliers. And each of these defense contractors has facilities in at least one Congressional District, which means there is a Representative and two Senators who are interested in seeing them get contracts and bring or keep jobs for their constituents. I don’t think anyone here would be surprised to learn that. And while many Congressmen, from both parties, who serve on the Armed Services committees are bona fide experts, it would be asking a bit too much from human nature for us to expect them to cast aside such political concerns when looking at what is procured. For instance, the current kerfuffle over buying several extra Gulfstream jets is probably more aboout getting some extra business to Gulfstream than it is about providing nice jets to Congress.