Matthew J. Kypta is a political strategist and branding expert based in Washington, DC.
As rising powers like Russia and China develop capabilities to secure their spheres of influence, the United States continues to view the entire world as its responsibility. But our strategy of global engagement is becoming increasingly unsustainable – and nowhere is this more evident than in our weapons development. Right now, the US Army, Air Force, and Navy are scrambling to fix or kill off the failed weapons systems that were based on our goal of being everywhere and doing everything at once.
Earlier this month, the Army announced that it would be retiring all of its M1128 Mobile Gun Systems. This vehicle, based on the Stryker, is supposed to provide firepower above that of typical light armored vehicles. But an Army study has determined that the vehicle and its cannon are obsolete. It’s not the first program of its kind to fail in recent memory: the previous M8 Armored Gun System completed development, but was not adopted. And the Stryker itself is a product of the Interim Armored Vehicle program, intended as a stop-gap. Competing priorities like air mobility, improvised explosive device protection, and the ability to fight in both counter-insurgency campaigns and conventional wars have kept the Army from committing to a light armored vehicle program for more than a decade.
Compare the mess that is American weapons procurement to the way Russia has modernized her armed forces. Following a victorious but poorly executed war with Georgia, Russia began re-building her military to achieve regional objectives. Russia’s closest equivalent to the M1128 is the 2S25 Sprut. It’s more compact, transportable by air, has a bigger cannon, and can fire guided missiles. This makes it ideal for supporting airborne or amphibious troops against a wide range of opponents, such as Russia’s small but well-armed neighbors. And while some of its characteristics may lag behind those of American vehicles, it – like much of Russia’s military equipment – is designed to last.
Last week, the Air Force acknowledged that the start date for full-rate production of the F-35 stealth fighter is still undetermined. It has been fifteen years since the first prototype flew in 2006, and the program is anticipated to cost $22 billion more than originally expected. The aircraft still has nearly 900 design flaws, including some that are potentially fatal: pressure spikes inside the cockpit, sensor and optics glitches, and structural damage at high speeds. From the beginning, the program suffered from requirement creep, and production started while major features were still in testing. But with manufacturing distributed among more than 1500 suppliers, the program is too big to cancel, and Congress wants to fund even more aircraft than the DoD has requested since the program benefits companies in 44 states. The F-35 was supposed to fulfill a broad range of requirements and make the Air Force, Navy, and Marines happy. So far, it has only made Lockheed and other contractors rich.
Now, take a look at how China developed its J-20 stealth fighter. Defense analysts generally agree that the J-20 is optimized for long-range interceptions and surface strikes. While it can still take on other top-of-the-line fighters, its performance seems to fall short of Russia’s Su-57 or America’s F-22. But its long-range capabilities are ideal for a conflict with the United States in the Pacific, where China would need to shoot down American early warning aircraft and strike American ships.
In February, the Navy announced plans to decommission four of its Littoral Combat Ships, or LCS. The USS Freedom, Fort Worth, Independence, and Coronado were commissioned between 2008 and 2014, meaning that some have been in service for less than a decade. The four ships come in two different designs, which has only increased the program’s complexity. Both were designed using a high-risk approach where technologies for the ships were still being tested as they were being built. Both have encountered problems with the engine and other components. Both have been unable to use various weapon systems intended for them. Is this starting to sound familiar? In the words of Shelby Oakley, a Government Accountability Office official overseeing Navy acquisitions, “there was a lot of over-promising of capability and technology and concepts that didn’t come to fruition.” It’s the same trap that the Air Force and Navy fell into with the F-35 program.
While the United States botches yet another defense program and fields under-armed, under-performing ships, China is building next-generation cruisers and destroyers armed with powerful anti-ship missiles that could threaten American ships, especially aircraft carriers. The LCS program failed in part because the Navy tried to make the new ships capable of doing everything at once, from intercepting small vessels used by terrorist groups to taking on other navies’ ships – a reflection of America’s scattershot defense priorities. By contrast, China is building blue-water vessels to project power in the Pacific and amphibious ships to accomplish regional objectives, like annexing Taiwan. The United States cannot identify a clear sphere of influence because it insists on maintaining a global reach. This means that American officials set unrealistic expectations for defense programs, then act surprised when they fail.
The United States military will one day realize that it will take more than expensive toys to deter a committed foreign adversary with a coherent geostrategy. Without a hard look at her priorities, America will find it increasingly difficult to maintain a global presence. Without a top-to-bottom reassessment of her weapons development practices, America might not even have any of the expensive toys left.
The views expressed in this review do not necessarily represent those of Great Powers Journal. However, we endorse it as a valuable contribution to the conversation.