02 February 2009

Sometimes, it pays to be cheap

One of the most fascinating books about modern defense culture is a book by Robert Corham about Air Force Colonel John Boyd, the fighter pilot who was probably one of the most brilliant military strategists of the late 20th Century.

John Boyd and his "acolytes", fellow officers and contractors within the military, tried to circumvent the Pentagon's corrupt and bloated procurement practices. Throughout the 60s and 70s, the Air Force had a fascination with bigger, faster, more complex, and ultimately, more costly jet fighters. These fighters, despite their advanced technology, were ultimately cannon fodder for the more nimble (albeit older and cheaper) MiGs of the North Vietnamese Air Force.

Unfortunately, there was little incentive to change. Many generals in the Air Force were under severe pressure to increase the Air Force's budget, even to the point of buying weapons systems that the Air Force didn't need. Other Air Force generals felt pressure to make aircraft that were increasingly pricey or complex (such as the F-14 and F-111, for example), because these same companies were offering them jobs after their retirement from the military.

John Boyd and his acolytes developed the ultra-nimble and inexpensive F-16 as a result, and it grew into one of the greatest fighters in the world today. Boyd's acolytes also had a little program to develop an air to ground aircraft to destroy tanks. The Air Force felt that an expensive jet fighter would do the trick, while Boyd's acolytes designed a beast of an aircraft to destroy tanks up close: the A-10. Reviled by the Air Force, but beloved by troops everywhere, the A-10 has, in several clashes, taken a punishment from ground fire and still returned safely. It even has two confirmed air to air kills.

With that said, let's look at modern day options for close air support. On one end of the spectrum, we have the possibility that the Marines might resurrect the OV-10 Bronco. An old, propellor-driven aircraft, it has the ability to loiter at low speeds and altitudes for an extended period of time, and drop machine gun fire or bombs on its target. And they're cheap, proven, and relatively simple aircraft--perfect for counter-insurgency.  

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the ultra-expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  While sexy and stealthy, it'll be in development for at least another 10 years, and it has already run into extreme cost overruns.  Maybe it's time to just axe the program and look for an unmanned vehicle?  I don't know, you decide...


SunJun said...

Reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke's short story, "Superiority" where a military force which already had technological superiority over its enemies kept upgrading their equipment and technology simply because it was shinier without fully understanding the implications eventually leading to their catastrophic defeat.

I would argue that USAF's screwups in Vietnam were more because they took highly specialized aircraft designed for a completely different mission and tried to force it into a role without really thinking it through thus leading to the death and capture of many good men.

It does irk me though that these systems are get more and more complex, that their costs and schedule risks are rising exponentially as a result, and that fewer and fewer companies can compete because the costs and risks of even attempting could potentially kill even the largest of defense contractors.

Even more to rant, but I'll save it for a later date.

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Anonymous said...

Boyd was a clever man. I would not call him a genius, though. The F-16 only became THE F-16 when people stopped listening to him. When they put radars and chaff dispensers and PGM designators and the like on the plane, it became a world beater.

Boyd wanted fighters that were specifically designed only for one thing: within-visual-range air combat with guns only during the day. Missiles and radars and smart bomb's were useless, so you didn't need them, they would get in the way of your ability to turn and accelerate like a mofo.

And because missiles and radars were useless and maneuverability was king you didn't even need ECM, chaff, etc. because those missiles were just as useless for the enemy as they were for you. As long as you can turn and accelerate enough you can't be hit by a missile.

As it happens, the F-16 airframe was good enough that it performs quite well even after you add all the stuff necessary to actually be a useful fighter to it, but that's not because of Boyd's genius, that's because of the LockMart engineers.

Check out "The Revolt of the Majors: How the Air Force Changed After Vietnam (and Saved the World)"

for some more of the Anti-Boyd side of things.
Money quote:

"In Lebanon in 1982, the Israeli Air Force crushed the Syrians with
F-16s, destroying 87 Syrian aircraft and losing none, mostly by using
AIM-9s. The roll back of defenses from medium altitude worked. The
reformers called this a victory for low-tech cheap stuff, but the IAF
credited the Pulse Doppler Radar the reformers had not wanted."

And as for the A-10, despite all of its armor it was the Allied airframe shot down the most in our first war with Iraq (6 lost, counting one OA-10). Even in 1991 against an opponent whose IADS was destroyed very quickly, the A-10's armor were not enough to keep it alive. Against any sort of competent air defense... it would not be pretty.

Stay safe and enjoy,