This weekend, as I noted earlier, I went and saw “Thor” in glorious IMAX 3-D. And i also mentioned that I’d traveled to (shudder) Massachusetts to see it — a trip that took me a bit over two hours, each way.
I could have seen it in New Hampshire, in all likelihood. We do have at least one IMAX theater. So why the hell would I subject myself to Massachusetts — especially to boost their economy?
It had to be a woman.
More specifically, an ex-girlfriend of mine. We occasionally speak, and she’d mentioned that neither of her sons were going to be visiting her for Mother’s Day. And since I had business of my own in her general area, I figured what the hell — I’d treat her to lunch and a movie.
She told me that things had been a bit tense for her at work. She works for a Very Big defense contractor, and had survived a few rounds of layoffs, but was still nervous. She’s been there for a very long time, but in that kind of work, there’s no guarantee, no tenure.
She’d had the same job while we dated. And all the time we were together, in an amusing twist, she consistently made almost exactly three times what I did. Every time I got a raise, so did she — and the ratio stayed very consistent. But that didn’t cause any tension. What did was a certain habit of hers.
“Hey, hon, how was your day at work?”
“I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.”
Around the 83rd iteration of that conversation, it started to grow stale. At 214, it was annoying. And the last straw was circa 429.
Anyway, she did tell me, generally, what she did work on — the parts that weren’t classified. I knew what big projects she was working on, and generally what she did for it. And over the last few years, the Pentagon has been cutting back more and more on her primary project.
I’d not thought much about the fate of that Very Big project over the past few years, but never really thought about how it might affect her. She was clearly worried, though, and that bothered me.
I’d never really thought too much about her job, as her work is in a very specific area, but I have always been fascinated by the Big Projects in general (but not her specialty.) And I do consider myself a bit of an amateur analyst on politics and the military, and am pretty good at picking up trends. I started putting together an e-mail with my thoughts for her, then realized that if I stripped away a few of the specifics, it might make a good posting here.
The United States military is undergoing a profound change, in a long-delayed response to real-world events — especially in regards to what kinds of hardware it is needing. The big projects — the F-35 fighter, the DD-1000 destroyer, the CG-21 cruiser, a new-generation tank — those are all endangered.
And that’s because there’s no looming threat that demands we replace our current generation of front-line hardware.
Back when we had the Soviet Union as our main foe, we were always outnumbered. The Soviets had far greater numbers, but we had the high-tech edge. Stalin once said that “quantity has a quality all its own,” but we rebutted that with far more effective, efficient, and capable hardware.
In a sense, it was a role reversal from World War II. In tanks, the Nazis always had the superior vehicles, while we had numbers. Yes, the Tiger tank was worth three or more Shermans — but we’d attack one with seven or ten Shermans and overwhelm them. But with the Soviets, they’d have a dozen subs versus one of our Los Angeles-class boats — and I’d put my money on ours, it was that much better.
That world ended a couple of decades ago. There’s only one nation that even comes close to posing a threat on the magnitude of the Soviet Union, and even China is years and years away from getting there — with few indications that they want to get to that point. And that means that sinking tons and tons of money into even more capable, even more high-tech, and most importantly more expensive weapons simply isn’t worth it. Our current generation of weaponry is still comfortably far enough ahead of any other nation’s that it doesn’t need replacing. What we need is numbers more than anything else — because as awesome as these next-generation weapons systems are, they can’t be in two, three, or four places at once.
And so my ex should start looking away from the big-ticket items like the next generation warships, fighters, or ground combat vehicles. And even upgrades to the existing ones isn’t that essential.
No, the shape of modern warfare is changing, and the Pentagon is finally catching on. There are new priorities, new realities, that they have to react to. The new buzzphrases that indicate the new focus of defense spending are “asymmetric warfare,” “counter-insurgency,” and “drones.”
“Asymmetric warfare” is a fancy way of saying “they aren’t fighting the way that we fight.” We are still fighting our wars by a centuries-old model, involving uniformed masses of troops and big weapons bearing the insignia of our nation. The other side has largely ditched those, and we’re finding that our cruisers and destroyers and fighters and tanks really don’t do us a lot of good. Hell, in some cases they’ve been a liability — Al Qaeda nearly sank one of our destroyers, and the Navy (apart from carrier-based ground attack aircraft) hasn’t done much to hit back besides firing the occasional cruise missiles.
Yes, I’m excluding the SEALs, who just nailed Bin Laden, but the SEALs have never been part of the big-ticket, mainstream Navy. They tie into the next phrase.
Which is “counterinsurgency.” That is the model for all of our current conflicts. Traditionally, it refers to trying to put down a struggle aimed at overthrowing a sitting government, but now it tends to refer to attempts by a weaker, unconventional force to defeat a more conventional one. And as we are the unsurpassed superpower in the field of “conventional forces,” practically by definition any conflict we get involved in quickly becomes a “counter-insurgency.” Even in Libya, where we’re backing the technical insurgents against the established government, that government’s forces are quickly adopting insurgent tactics to counter our conventional attacks. They’re ditching their uniforms and tanks and fighter jets, dressing like the guys we’re backing.
Finally, drones. They have tremendous appeal for many people, especially liberals. They help reduce warfare to a kind of video game, where all the action happens on computer screens. Further, they keep Americans out of danger — the folks piloting the weapons that are carrying out so many of the reconnaissance and attacks around the world (Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and whatnot) are safely ensconced in trailers and work stations in Nevada, literally half a world away from the fighting. The people they kill are blips on those computer screens, who most of the time don’t even see the drones. And even if the enemy manages to shoot down a drone, all we’ve lost is a hunk of hardware, with no American lives ever in the slightest danger — except, perhaps, carpal tunnel syndrome, eyestrain, back aches, and the woes of the average office worker. Many of today’s most effective combat warriors are telecommuting to the front lines.
That’s the future of warfare. That’s the future of our war machine.
And, I hope, that’s the future of my friend’s career. At least until she reaches retirement, comes to her senses, and gets the hell out of Massachusetts.
And, maybe, even stops voting for liberal Democrats. But that’s probably a complete fantasy there.