Cool Ship; What's it for, Again?


Sweet. My Popular Mechanics cover story, "The Great Weapons Debate," is finally online. Everyone's favorite gazillion-dollar destroyer plays a starring role. Here's how the piece starts:pop_mech_ddx_small.jpg

The attack would come quickly, and it would be awful. Cruising far offshore, the U.S. Navy's DD(X) destroyer launches 20 artillery shells in less than a minute. As the satellite-guided weapons fall back to Earth at 830 mph, computer algorithms alter their flight paths so that the 250-pound projectiles all strike the same patch of ground at the same time, reducing everything in the vicinity to rubble and dust. If more firepower is needed, the destroyer can unleash another 580 artillery rounds, as well as 80 Tomahawk missiles. And when the attack is over, the ship simply vanishes. On a radar screen, the DD(X)'s stealthy hull makes the 14,000-ton vessel look like just another fishing boat, casting its nets into the sea.Just one thing is missing from this scenario: an enemy to fight. Targeting terrorists with the DD(X) is like smushing ants with an 18-wheeler, critics say. Attacking an Iranian nuclear facility is something American bombers can do today. "The DD(X) is the most revolutionary surface warship in decades," says John Pike, director of defense think tank "But I have yet to have anybody explain to me--point to a place on the map-and say what they propose to do with it."On the surface, the country's main military goal is clear. "Our nation is engaged in a global war on terror that affects the safety and security of every American," President George W. Bush told an audience of Idaho National Guardsmen last August. "We're using all elements of our national power to achieve our objectives." So you would think the Pentagon's $70 billion annual weapons systems budget would focus on winning the war on terror. But a look at the arsenal the Pentagon is building tells a different story.Inside the defense establishment, the war on terror has competition. In many minds, the real threat is a rising China. But containing China requires different weapons than breaking up Al Qaeda--weapons that were designed for Cold War-style fights. Out of a $70 billion budget, nearly $10 billion a year goes to ballistic missile interceptors originally designed to stop Soviet missiles; $9 billion to next-generation fighter jets meant to take on MiGs; $3.3 billion to new tanks and fighting vehicles; $1 billion for the Trident II nuclear missile upgrade; and $2 billion for a new strategic bomber. Eventually, the Navy is projected to spend $4.7 billion each for seven DD(X)s.
I hope you'll check out the whole thing. I'm also honored -- more than honored -- that former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West decided to contribute an accompaniment to my article, on how we can "Invest in Our Troops." Be sure to take a look at that, too.UPDATE 12:01 PM: DD(X) makers Northrop Grumman have a very different take on the ship, of course. Here's a video outlining their case.UPDATE 12:04 PM: One of the things you find, looking into these big weapons programs, is how how quickly justifications for the systems shift to meet the times. The DD(X), for example, went from a land attack specialist to a commando-delivery ship. The Army has a similar repositioning under way. Now, Future Combat Systems -- the Army's new array of robots, sensors, and ground vehicles, originally meant to take on another big military -- is being pitched as a disaster relief program. Check out the Army's "Aftershock" video to see what I mean.UPDATE 12:15 PM: Just so we have an air component to this video assault, check out this promotional flick of the Joint Strike Fighter.
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