Gone are the days of spending millions of dollars on technology and equipment that is all but obsolete by the time it is fielded to troops, Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the annual Association of the United States Army.
And no longer can the United States afford to cut out large chunks of its defense budget for weapons systems that provide only a niche capability, he said.
The prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fundamentally changed the construct of the force that for decades was built on the idea of having to fight two large enemies at the same time.
“[Iraq and Afghanistan were] not on anybody’s list as peer competitors. Not on anybody’s list to last more than 30 days in conflict. And here we are now approaching the ninth and 10th year [at war],” Cartwright said.
Now, weapons systems are going to have to be adaptable enough to fight across several fronts, and cheap enough to be fielded in large numbers, he said.
As an example, Cartwright cited the unmanned aerial vehicles now in high demand in combat. During the Cold War, air superiority was paramount in defense spending, but the large, costly fighter jets and bombers have proven less effective in today’s counterinsurgency fight.
“Compared to a fixed-wing aircraft … [a UAV] takes about a tenth of the gas for about 10 times the flight time. It’s always there when you need it,” Cartwright said. “It does incredible things and has incredible leverage for nowhere near the cost.”
Cartwright said he has not yet met a commander on the ground who doesn’t want more of the unmanned aircraft. In fact, the aircraft cannot be produced fast enough in the United States to fill the demand overseas, he said.
“We’re trying to figure out how to open more [production lines],” he said.
Because of the speed of today’s technological advancements, the general said that any system built has to be flexible enough to incorporate the latest technology.
Cartwright heralded recent progress made in tying old and new networks together for a broader missile defense shield, making the system more adaptable. The system can now tie into radars that were built in the 1970s, he said. And newer command and control systems are able to tap into these radars, expanding their range and flexibility.
But, no matter how good a weapon system is, it has to be affordable, Cartwright said.
“You can have the world’s greatest idea, [but] without resources, it’s an hallucination,” he said.
Cartwright predicted minimal growth and tight funds in the department’s future.
“The growth that we’ve had over the last eight to 10 years is a thing of the past. And so hard decisions are going to have to be made,” Cartwright said.
What worries him, the general said, is that the trend in defense building is toward developing top-of-the-line products at very large costs.
Cartwright cited the escalating costs of building today’s bombers. The department bought more than 700 of the B-52 Stratofortress, a long-range bomber used by the Air Force since 1955. They cost about $53 million each in 1998 dollars, according to the Air Force. The B-1B Lancer bomber was introduced in October 1986 costing more than $283 million each in 1998 dollars. The Department bought about 100 of them, Cartwright said. The newest most advanced bomber, the B-2 Spirit introduced to the service in April 1997, cost nearly $1.16 billion. The department stopped production at 20.
“I can’t afford one [plane] on each coast, one ship on each coast, because that’s all I can afford,” Cartwright said.
“Think about the next generation bomber. We need hundreds of them. Not two,” he said.
Cartwright said the value of the niche capabilities of a weapons system have to be weighed against the value of having more capabilities.
“Competition has got to find us a way to get to scale,” he said. “If we don’t, we’re going to be sorely disadvantaged.”
“We’ve got to find a way to get this affordability equation to work in our favor,” he said.