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America's hidden industrial 'surge' weakness

Wednesday's brief by two of DC's top defense analysts included another interesting element besides their endorsement of an "industrial strategy" to protect the defense sector: If the U.S. got into a desperate national pinch and needed to "surge" its stocks of weapons or equipment, it probably could not do it, they said.

Barry Watts and Todd Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, explained that there are many reasons why the U.S. could not switch on a major industrial effort like the one that built the "arsenal of democracy" in World War II:

• You can't just simply retool a factory to build today's high-tech warplanes, the way Ford once had its Willow Run, Mich., auto plant building a B-24 every hour. The U.S. doesn't even have manufacturing plants of the comparative number and quality it did back then, or the workers to run them.

• In the early days of the Cold War, Watts and Harrison said, U.S. planners were worried about a full nuclear exchange with the Soviets, which might've entailed the wholesale destruction of the United States. In that context, leaders reasoned, why spend the money on all the extra factories needed to sustain an ongoing World War II-style conventional war? That sort of war wasn't going to happen, or if it did, it would only last a few days or weeks before it escalated into a nuclear war ... in which case, all your extra industrial capacity wouldn't do you any good.

• In each of their post-Cold War conflicts, American forces have inflicted punishing, highly disproportionate losses on their enemies. In the Balkans and then both Iraq wars, the U.S. lost only a handful of aircraft and vehicles -- in the case of Iraq, many of those losses were friendly fire. So the Pentagon has learned to plan that it will not need to replace heavy combat losses. Plus, one of the top incentives for today's Pentagon managers is to keep costs down, so they deliberately do not build extra units into their plans as they try to stick to their budgets.

All this doesn't just affect big-ticket items such as ships and fighter jets, Watts and Harrison said. They revived the long-standing worry about today's forces' reliance on precision guided munitions. Cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs have changed war, but the Pentagon does not maintain large stockpiles of them. In the event of a major conflict, analysts worry the Navy and Air Force could expend most or even all of their weapons in the opening days and then lose their initiative. Harrison said the Navy fired about 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles in the early days of the Libya intervention, which he said was about the same number the Pentagon buys in a year. Not only that, Navy warships' Vertical Launch System tubes can't be reloaded at sea, so if your cruiser fires all its weapons, it's out of action until it can swing by a friendly port.

Oh piffle, you say -- the asymmetrical, game-changing advantages of America's high-tech weapons mean there won't be any long wars in the future. The good guys will just win the day quickly. And if there are prolonged conflicts, our super-jets and such can handle it, right? Well, maybe. But here's a chilling passage from Watts' and Harrison's report that's worth excerpting in full that shows even when you have a qualitative advantage, the player with the quantitative advantage still may win the game:

The United States lacks overseas facilities for repairing damage to major combat systems. And should significant attrition occur, the United States has little or no capacity to quickly replace such high-end assets as F-22s or aircraft carriers. In this regard, consider RAND’s 2008 analysis of a Taiwan Strait scenario in which the entire F-22 force operated from Guam in order to base outside the reach of Chinese ballistic missiles. Heavy F-22 attrition occurred due to the roughly nine-to-one numerical advantage Chinese Su-27 and Su-30 Flankers enjoyed over the Taiwan Strait operating from their nearby airfields.

Even though the analysis assumed that F-22s would be able to shoot down large numbers of opposing Chinese Flankers without losses even when heavily outnumbered, by the time the F-22s ran out of missiles and fuel there were enough unengaged Flankers still in the air over the strait to begin attacking U.S. air refueling tankers and E-8 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft. As a result, F-22s were lost not to enemy fighters but to fuel exhaustion because they were unable to rendezvous with tankers and get the fuel to make it back to Guam.

This scenario would likely produce a lot of grave nods from Air Force and Lockheed advocates who opposed truncating production of the F-22. Watts and Harrison did not take a position on that issue, but their analysis does raise the question about whether America's arsenal is as ready for anything as we tend to think it is. Show Full Article

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