Monthly Archives: January 2012

Justifying carriers

In time, Brits may ask their politicians a simple question: if we spent a decade without aircraft carriers, then why do we need them now? Downing Street will spend the next decade formulating an answer.

The two carriers in question “would cost more, offer less military capability and be ready much later than planned.” This means they may be completed by 2020 instead of 2016-18 and would cost £12 and not £3.5 billion. And there will be other delays, as anyone familiar with defense acquisitions will affirm. The Royal Navy may then be without a carrier for a long time. In fact, “full carrier strike capability might not be achieved until 2030.”

To add insult to injury, the first carrier (HMS Queen Elizabeth) will be mothballed and kept in “extended readiness” after it is launched. And under current plans, the second carrier (HMS Prince of Wales) will operate for only 200 days a year.

While the UK ponders how to justify building these ships – especially as their use will be limited – it will attempt to maintain capability through partnerships.

On 6 January 2012, US Defense Secretary Panetta and British Defense Secretary Hammond signed a “Statement of Intent on Carrier Cooperation and Maritime Power Projection,” which is a “framework for increased cooperation and interoperability on the use of aircraft carriers.” At first, cooperation will be industrial. As Colin Clark observes, US firms may help Britain develop its carriers.

Extensive pilot and sailor exchange programs – a staple of transatlantic cooperation – would follow. But while British personnel will train on American carriers, US sailors will not be offered such luxuries in return. Yet, building carriers to provide a respectable exchange platform does not answer the public’s prescient question.

The UK has discussed another option since its carrier woes began; to fly missions from France’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. And while some may have an impulse to insert surrender anecdotes, a desire to not operate jointly with the French is a poor reason for building expensive ships. In fact naval cooperation continues, even as recent rifts over France’s imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan emerge.

In October 2010, de Gaulle had problems with a faulty propulsion system that kept it docked. As joint operations with the ship are supposed to provide a lifeline for Britain, such technical challenges may get in the way. Well, at least this is one argument politicians could use to justify independent capability.

Other carrier-centered joint operations will continue. The HMS Argyll, a Duke-class frigate, recently joined the USS Abraham Lincoln as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz. Later in the year, the HMS Illustrious, a helicopter carrier, will join de Gaulle in the Mediterranean for drills. Expect such exercises to continue.

An empty deck

Britain’s anguish over lacking carriers may turn out to be the least of its problems. The carriers are designed to fly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF); a program with well documented challenges.

London requested a tailored version of the JSF, one that would take off by catapult and land by arrester wires. This modification – but one addition to years of changing requirements – could drive unit costs up even further. But it would “enable British aircraft to land on French carriers and vice versa.” However, this technology has not been tested. Thus complications may arise.

Furthermore, as Philip Ewing writes:

The Royal Navy hasn’t flown its own fast jets off its own carrier with catapults and arresting wires since 1979, aboard the old warhorse HMS Ark Royal. The three carriers it has had since then — the HMS Invincible, Illustrious and another Ark Royal — proved to be essential ships, but they were built with ski-jumps and designed for Harriers and helicopters only.

By 2023 – and this is the best case scenario – according to one MoD spokesperson, the Royal Navy would operate [only] 12 F-35 jets. This was said with a sense of accomplishment, yet it seldom suggests confidence or capability.

It would be hard to explain paying for empty carriers.

Keeping the sun from setting

If the UK continues to involve itself in coalition operations such as Libya and successfully – a relative measure – then it will be even harder for it to justify a capability that it spent many years without.

Keeping the sun from fully setting on the empire will cost London dearly. Instead of pursuing old glories that its handicapped carriers won’t provide, the UK should save on some costs and rethink the purpose of its future ships. As both sides of the Atlantic seek to increase cooperation, the UK could specialize and not replicate expensive and extensive American capabilities. It won’t be able to accomplish complex air missions with a handful of jets anyway.

Thus, in recognition of tomorrow’s challenges, the UK may consider transforming the carriers into amphibious assault ships operating drones and helicopters, as well as into motherships for elite forces (taking a clue from Washington). This could help save on costs today and operating costs tomorrow. It could also keep the Royal Navy on the high seas, where it belongs.


A hollow budget

This isn’t the first time that the defense budget has commanded headlines or the defense industry has perceived itself a victim of policy.

But today two different narratives exist.

The Pentagon – pressured by a government faced with severe economic austerity – has been asked to reduce spending. Its objective is to cut costs but maintain capability. On the other hand, the industry is afraid that cuts will eliminate programs that feed into its bottom line. Its goal is to emerge relatively unscathed, preserving its technological edge and growing revenues.

The untold story here is that the budget may remain high while programs will, in fact, be slashed. In this scenario, both the government and industry lose. And this is concerning.

Budget prophecies

As Lawrence Korb highlights, the baseline defense budget has grown “in real terms for 13 years, and it is now $100 billion above what the nation spent on average during the Cold War.”

The budget faces two potential cuts. First is the $450 billion (over ten years) cut the Pentagon and policymakers agreed upon last year. This would only slightly alter current growth and – after some initial reductions – keep the budget growing at pace with inflation. This “modest trim” in FY13 will be “37% higher in real terms” than the budget in 1998.

The second set of cuts may be caused by a trigger mechanism that the Budget Control Act of 2011 authorized if the supercommittee failed, which it did. This could bring another ~$500 billion in cuts over 10 years to the military. For sake of argument, let’s consider that Congress won’t interfere and this will happen. The impact is still not as dramatic. In fact, the base budget would fall to $472 billion in FY13, which is almost equal to FY07, adjusted for inflation.

According to Todd Harrison all these “cuts” may reduce the base budget 14 (or 17) percent in real terms from its peak in FY10.” But this would still keep it high, compared to cuts that five other presidents have managed to accomplish in previous eras.

However, because certain goals will have to be met, defense programs are in for a slashing. “Dozens of weapons programs face terminations or big cutbacks in FY13,” say defense officials. And judging by proposed lists (see here, here, and here to name a few), weapons and platforms of all varieties may fall under this budgetary guillotine.

These dynamics could create a hollow budget, not force. A new budget that is large and intimidating, but not capable of maintaining future military needs.


The gun that killed Clausewitz…

To be clear, I am open to criticizing papers or journalists I would normally agree with. It’s just you won’t see me doing that with The Economist often. Call it Anglophile loyalty, if you like. But a recent article in the paper concerned me. It boldly suggested that a new technology – a gun – could make one Clausewitzian wisdom redundant.

The gun is the XM25. A futuristic weapon. It can fire and detonate a 25mm projectile at pre-programmed and variable distances. The questioned wisdom is that an “outgunned force that maneuvers to shoot from behind cover” can save itself.

Clausewitz certainly penned this, but I would be hard-pressed to assign this basic battle principle solely to him. After all On War is a collection of astute observations translated into military theory. Using natural or man-made obstacles for self-preservation or to gain tactical advantage is as old as combat itself.

Not all weapons become available to enemy forces. For example, the Taliban won’t exactly be operating frigates or fighters anytime soon. But when it comes to small arms, the advantages provided by the XM25 may be short lived.

Already other countries such as South Korea are developing similar rifles. Sure these efforts haven’t been successful, but that won’t be true forever. Even crude imitations could be devastating in the wrong hands. One lost XM25 on Afghanistan’s frontier could eventually be reverse engineered by all the usual suspects. There would be plenty of buyers on that market.

Future challenges

The XM25 is undeniably amazing. And if reports from initial trial runs are true, then many more of them are destined for the battlefield. The vision (as the above video demonstrates) is to reach the enemy behind barriers, “protected from oncoming weapons fire.” And it will.

But Clausewitz – or at least the wisdom he observed – is not dead. Taking cover won’t exactly go out of style, it will just improve. If anything it seems that today’s enemies have consistently demonstrated a knack for innovation on the battlefield. And other risks abound. How would coalition troops adopt tactics if faced with a similar weapon? Of course, a war between Israel and Hezbollah would look different as well.

The buck won’t stop with the guns that can detonate at a set distance. After all, they are not making hard right turns yet. However, since accuracy can be compromised, stability is less needed. And thus, such weapons could be mounted on various unmanned systems.

(Three side comments to consider: 1) Will proper training be provided? 2) Will those carrying the XM also carry their standard issue rifle? If so, weight (from the gun and ammunition supply) will need to be addressed. 3) How will the gun stand-up to battlefield conditions and natural elements?)


A defense industry opportunity

Qube Police Drone

Source: Gary Friedman, Los Angeles Times

In the future, the law enforcement community will have more equipment requirement synergies with the military than ever before. In addition to looking for adjacent markets in healthcare or energy sectors (as they are doing now), defense firms should consider law enforcement.

Traditionally, law enforcement professionals were issued equipment that was relatively inexpensive and lasted an entire career. Think of a pair of handcuffs and a firearm. But times have changed and officers and agents are thirsty for new technology.

Crime has evolved. It still occurs in dark alleys. But it happens in virtual worlds far more frequently. For today’s police officer, the tablet may be more useful than the taser. On the other hand, crime has also become transnational and increasingly violent. The situation in Mexico is but one example that highlights this.

As a “systemic rise in anger, protests, and political volatility that could last years or even decades” increases globally, government will face a myriad of complex law enforcement challenges. The skills required in the law enforcement community of the future are somewhat bifurcated. Law enforcement professionals will need to learn how to wield advanced virtual and social technologies, as well as military-grade equipment and tactics.

Federal paramilitary organizations such as Customs and Border Protection are already using unmanned aerial and ground systems. And police departments all over are beginning to adopt drones. The city of New York, for example, has anti-aircraft capabilities.

Government authorities will seek a wide variety of materiel to meet tomorrow’s threats. Instead of filing cabinets, police departments will soon ask for facial recognition software, live feed building schematic applications, and heat recognition devices. To name a few.

A natural ally

The defense industry can play an integral part in helping realize this future technological need.

A major obstacle exists, however. Highly advanced defense industry products are decidedly expensive for law enforcement and often too complex. Law enforcement (that is always budget-starved) will procure ever-simpler commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies. And make due.

By being inventive, defense firms could use the law enforcement market as a growth opportunity and an incubator for creating military-like equipment at a lower cost. The law enforcement community has always considered defense a natural ally, time for the industry to recognize its needs.

Image source: W.J. Hennigan, “Idea of civilians using drone aircraft may soon fly with FAA.” Los Angeles Times, November 27, 2011


Holistic personal information

Imagine living in a country where your credit card, national identification number, driver’s license, bank account, health insurance information, and even metro pass are linked and stored in one place. This is the world that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev envisions.

From 2012 to 2015, Russia will begin to issue Universal Electronic Cards (UECs) to every citizen.

There are substantial and undeniable advantages to this program. The Russian government will be able to collect taxes more effectively, have a running census, and provide better services. Accountability could increase.

Several challenges to the UECs launch remain. First, its seven step implementation process always had an aggressive timeline. Although admittedly, India’s biometric identity program is proving this false. Second, many private and public entities that will need to support the UEC have not had time to prepare their infrastructure. Third, there is no unified agreement of what services this card will support and its implementation may differ between regions. There were delays in St. Petersburg due to a disagreement with Moscow over which vendor to use for manufacturing UECs.

While the English-speaking press has seldom covered this development, there has been one notable exception. Aaron Saenz discussed at some length the Russian UEC and highlighted several challenges. For example, people will be issued alternate PIN numbers, one for everyday use and another to give thieves. This is a ludicrous solution, as all criminals will know of this publicly announced gimmick and may resort to physical violence to obtain the correct password. (Saenz also addresses corruption and autocratic abuse. But that is a discussion for another post.)

Three banks – Sberbank, Uralsib, and AkBars – will oversee the UEC program. As future criminals will spend most of their time breaking in, damaging, and robbing people in cyberspace and not on the streets, these banks will need to have the necessary tools to provide their customers – the entire country – protection. Russian banks have not had the need to think about security at such a scale before. Their ability to secure private information remains questionable and will certainly be tested.

For many Russian citizens, having their identity recorded on paper also made them secure from these modern crimes. And lacking an established credit system also meant that even at the most basic level, Russian citizens have been insulated from the crimes against identity that have plagued the West.

Privacy management

As Russian citizens leapfrog to this uniform information management system, they will need to adopt a habit that took many in the West more than a decade to develop: privacy management. It is important to note that many Russian Twitter users list their email addresses and telephone numbers right on their profile page. It will take time for new habits to form.

Russians will need to ask and their government and financial institutions will need to address a lot of questions on privacy and security before the UEC is fully implemented. But for now the most popular topic related to the launch of the UEC is a nation-wide contest to choose the card’s logotype.


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