Author Archives: MG

Adjusting to an additive reality

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing will have a profound impact on defense firms. Ironically, the military’s adoption of 3D printers may affect its industrial complex most.

Many defense manufacturers such as Boeing or DRS already put 3D printers to work. At first these machines were used to build prototypes. Today, they produce working parts. 3D printers waste fewer raw materials, improve efficiency through rapid prototyping, allow for mass production of bespoke parts, and reduce the need for inventories.

3D printing can make manufacturers much more efficient and innovative, resulting in substantial savings for defense companies and in turn the taxpayer.

However, if the industry fails to address and dynamically adapt to two emerging trends some of its participants may suffer market consequences. First, 3D printers will bring more competition into the market. Smaller firms will be able to manufacture advanced parts and in many instances supply them directly to the Pentagon. This to many is a welcome development.

Second the armed forces may eventually procure 3D printers instead of finished products; this could make the industry a burdensome middleman. To be sure, 3D printers won’t print ships or planes. But imagine the possibilities! 3D printers could replace literally truckloads of pallet containers filled with spare parts; everything from toilet seats and pens to oil filters and vehicle tracks could be printed. Instead of having any and every conceivable part manufactured, stocked, and transported to every base globally, a few 3D printers on location could produce replacement parts when needed.

On ships, 3D printers could remove entire rooms of what-if-something-happens parts. This could, for example, provide space for new electronic systems, berths, arms materiel or aid supplies. While emergency parts are still required, “gaskets, nuts, bolts and circuit boards” as one former US Navy Lieutenant told the author could be produced on a 3D printer, especially as that technology matures.

And on the front lines 3D printers, as one former Army Infantry Officer postulated, could be used to manufacture replacement parts for “night vision devices, weapons, radios, and related items.”

So what are they and how do they work?

Let’s leave defense for a moment. (This is a long one, if you are familiar with 3D printers skip to the Current uses section below).

The technology is not new. The evolution of 3D printing began in 1984 when the first printer was built by Charles Hull. 3D printers do what they say, “print” objects. As Michael Weinberg in his breakthrough paper It Will be Awesome if They Don’t Screw It Up explains, a 3D printer “can turn a blueprint into a physical object. Feed it a design of a wrench, and it produces a physical, working wrench.”

A 3D printing machine builds objects by particle or layer. Two common approaches are Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). FDM exudes a “hot thermoplastic from a temperature-controlled print head to produce objects” while SLS “builds objects by laying down a fine layer of powder and then using a laser to selectively fuse some of its granules together.”

Large scale 3D printer

Monolite's huge 3D printer used to make buildings out of sand and inorganic binder. It works by spraying a thin layer of sand and a layer of magnesium-based binder from hundreds of nozzles. The glue turns the sand to solid stone." Source: David Kirkpatrick http://ow.ly/a3gyi

The key to SLS is that it can build objects from a variety of materials, such as “polystyrene, nylon, glass, ceramics, steel, titanium, aluminum, and even sterling silver.” (See Christopher Barnett’s detailed explanation of 3D printing and its techniques here.)

3D printers can manufacture products with varied properties and internal structures and another long awaited trend is emerging. Some 3D printers are now able to “in a single build process, print parts and assemblies made of several materials with different mechanical and physical properties.”

The broader implications

There are several. First, because 3D printers build objects from bits of material and not entire blocks they can “create structures that would be impossible” to produce otherwise. For example they could produce a solid object with internal movable parts. Normally this would call for a separate assembly process. They could also push the boundaries of design to form factors traditional manufacturing approaches would not permit.

Second, 3D printers let firms prototype and innovative rapidly. Products are normally designed and drawn conceptually. They are then modeled in say clay and designed in CAD or another computer program. Engineers will then commonly make a crude working model using spare or DIY parts. At this point, if all goes to plan a factory will manufacture a prototype batch. Products are then tested. And finally assembly lines are readied for mass production. With a 3D printer companies can prototype rapidly and skip many of these steps.

Third, with 3D printers it is possible to customize on a large scale. Today, most products are made uniformly. But assuming manufacturing plants could instead use 3D printers you could start to imagine a world where customers can order customized products that are designed, prototyped, and manufactured only after an order is received.

This is made possible with the advent of 3D scanners, objects that can literally scan any physical world item, turn it into a readable file, and then have a 3D printer manufacture an identical replica. Today, these may vary in material composition or size. But they are already capable, for instance, of manufacturing shoe prototypes based on foot scans. Imagine a running shoe that actually fits perfectly.

This radically transforms markets.

Finally, the adoption of 3D printers does not end here. In fact, in the future some envision a 3D printer – like it was once for the PC – in every home. People will be able to print what they ordered at home and all they will need is the source code; a file that will be as easy to download as a song. Alternatively, products may be produced at a local 3D printing shop. (This is something UPS and FedEx stores should start considering).

Growing market demand

One of the main drivers of 3D printer growth is that there is a widespread community of enthusiasts – not just firms – that are inventing in this space. For example, Brook Drumm started an “open hardware” project on Kickstarter to build and ship 3D printer kits “that anyone can build.” His Printbot is the “simplest 3D printer” and can be assembled in a couple of hours. After that it can “print” its own replacement and additional parts to help the user expand their options. Brook’s goal was simple: he needed $25,000 to help him scale production. At the time of this writing 1,808 people backed his project and his Printbot raised $830,827. Now that’s hitting a goal!

3D printing is a booming market, to say the least. In fact, it is expected to “reach $3.1 billion worldwide by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020.” I would venture to guess that these figures are very conservative. There are two reasons for this growth. First, and simply, many more companies find 3D printers useful and are buying them. Second, 3D printers have evolved and are no longer utilized just to produce product prototype models. In fact, as The Economist notes:

“As 3D printers have become more capable and able to work with a broader range of materials, including production-grade plastics and metals, the machines are increasingly being used to make final products too. More than 20% of the output of 3D printers is now final products rather than prototypes, according to Terry Wohlers, who runs a research firm specializing in the field. He predicts that this will rise to 50% by 2020.”

If 3D printers ever mature to become ubiquitous the figures above may amount to just a fraction of the market.

And it’s not just companies; universities are wholly adopting 3D printers. Although explicit reports are hard to come by, there is an undercurrent of agreement in the industry that 3D printing really will transform manufacturing. No one knows for certain when. It may not be in two years, but it likely won’t be 20 either.

Current uses

Aerospace companies were this industry’s early adopters. (As I mentioned before, 3D printers do not manufacture entire platforms yet, so for large manufacturers and system integrators they are all opportunity with little chance of disruption.) 3D printing for Boeing or Airbus is an obvious choice. As The Economists special report explains:

“Aircraft-makers have already replaced a lot of the metal in the structure of planes with lightweight carbon-fiber composites. But even a small airliner still contains several tons of costly aerospace-grade titanium. These parts have usually been machined from solid billets, which can result in 90% of the material being cut away. This swarf is no longer of any use for making aircraft.

To make the same part with additive manufacturing, EADS starts with a titanium powder. The firm’s 3D printers spread a layer about 20-30 microns (0.02-0.03mm) thick onto a tray where it is fused by lasers or an electron beam. Any surplus powder can be reused. Some objects may need a little machining to finish, but they still require only 10% of the raw material that would otherwise be needed. Moreover, the process uses less energy than a conventional factory. It is sometimes faster, too.

Boeing has used additive manufacturing to print “assembly jig inserts.” And sports car makers have used 3D printing “molds for carbon-composite panels. Machining or sculpting the complex curves required for these body panels is far too time consuming and expensive to do any other way.”

DRS Tactical Systems, a subsidiary of DRS Technologies, a major defense firm, specializes in manufacturing handheld and tablet computing devices for the military. The company’s ARMOR family of devices is designed to work in extreme, outdoor environments. Several years ago, DRS began designing new, smaller models of their devices. At first, it sought 3D models from a specialty firm, but as early as 2008 its tactical systems engineers decided to acquire an Object Eden 500V 3D printer to model the new line of ARMOR products. Using the 3D printers helped DRS “cut the development cycle by approximately 25 to 40 percent, and the cost of development was reduced by two thirds.” Simply put, a 3D printer got “DRS products to market faster.”

And smaller firms such as RedEye, a 3D manufacturing unit of Stratasys, Inc. has recently earned AS9100C certification. Such level of certification means that it can manufacture parts for the aviation, space, and defense industries. It can now use FDM to make parts that can be “applied to end use in commercial, hobby, and military applications.”

 Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA

Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA

Robotic labs are also using 3D printers to design a wide variety of devices. For example Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation created a high-tech spider that is able to crawl through spaces that are hazardous. It could, for example, enter areas stricken by “natural disasters or industrial accidents.” It was made with a 3D printer that applied “layers of a fine polyamide powder with the aid of a laser beam.” The most remarkable aspect about this robot, as its engineers remarked is that it cost only €500 to build. It was so inexpensive strictly because it was manufactured on a 3D printer and not conventionally. Robots that are manufactured in this way could be sent into nuclear fall-out zones for instance and – at that price – could then simply be disposed of.

Anticipating disruption

No one knows why Special Operations Command (SOCOM) procured a 3D printer late last year. However, their intention seems obvious. For now they are experimenting. As Danger Room reported, SOCOM had their eyes on a Stratasys Dimension BST1200es printer.

DARPA, for example, is taking the long view at 3D printing. It will place 1,000 “production quality 3D printers in high schools across” the country. The forward looking defense agency also launched a factory of the future initiative titled Instant Foundry Adaptive Through Bits (IFAB) program. The goal of the program is to “reduce the product cycle of defense systems from an average of almost 10 years down to two years. According to an Ars Technica article, to accomplish this task DARPA is funding software programs that will let engineers “design, prototype and test systems collaboratively before they are ever built.”

And the agency announced that IFAB will develop “a computer-driven flexible manufacturing capability that will allow for distributed, software-driven manufacturing of systems in ‘foundries’ that can be quickly reconfigured to new tasks, using technologies like computer-numerically-controlled (CNC) machine tools” and 3D printing “to scale up rapidly from prototype to full production.”

And in the UK, 3D printers have been used to produce small UAVs. (See this post’s opening video). But the stories don’t end there.

The military is already using 3D printers to manufacture multidimensional maps. In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers has been doing this since 2005 when it used a ZPrinter to map Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. The Engineers were able to see topography differently, providing a richer and better analysis of the situation on the ground.

New 3D printing technology that could manufacture products from multiple materials is invaluable to defense. It could be used to generate products that are impact resistant and can absorb shock. They, as Object’s site suggests, could produce gaskets and seals among a variety of other widgets.

3D printers could radically transform the defense industry, its procurement practices, and as a result be an answer to large-scale cost overruns and inefficiencies. (This post is designed to be an opening to this discussion. Other topics – such as how 3D printers could be used by competing countries to close the technological gap at a lower cost, as well as the cybersecurity implications of stealing product designs and just printing them will be discussed in subsequent entries).

Could the Pentagon print itself out of gargantuan budget? That remains an open-ended question. But the technology is there and it will soon hit a maturity curve of exponential improvement and growth. Defense firms have the cash to make major investments into additive manufacturing and help usher it into the mainstream. They could – and some are already proving wiser than others – be one of the first industries to recognize a disruptive technology and do something about it. In other words: save themselves.

The other trend – the military’s own adoption of 3D printers that would undoubtedly improve the capability of the warfighter and reduce overall costs – also could eliminate entire departments from defense manufacturers. But this is only true if you imagine defense firms to be static and unable to adopt to change. The military is not in the business of designing or building platforms, albeit in many cases it does own the intellectual property. It will look to the industry to provide the printers, the materials, the designs, the maintenance and the services. Large platforms will still need to be envisioned and assembled. 3D printing is the opportunity, it is not a threat.


The end of history and the last drone

Drone quadcopter operated with iPad by Ville Hyvönen

iPad operated quadcopter

On 25 February 2012 the Financial Times published Francis Fukuyama’s op-ed on drones. It addressed how the world may change when “drones are cheap and ubiquitous.” Fukuyama questioned how other countries, private individuals, rogue states, and terrorists may use unmanned and robotic systems in the future.

Access to drone technology will invariably lead to its nefarious use, suggests Fukuyama. He fails to recognize that when transformational technologies become commercially available, their widespread adoption is inescapable. More importantly, historical precedent suggests that all extensively adopted technology is overwhelmingly used for good.

The article is full of other problems and inconsistencies. Fukuyama spends three long opening paragraphs advertising his own do-it-yourself (DIY) quadcopter. His personal story is useful only as a literary prop for the sweeping generalization at the end: “That’s why I want to build mine now, before the government makes them illegal.”

Not quite the end of history, but certainly the wrong conclusion.

After an arduous opening that advertises Fukuyama’s knowledge of the word “telemetry” he proceeds to tell us the big ticket items. The Predator and Reaper drones have been used to strike “deep into Pakistan.” Hurrah. The Air Force will have more drone pilots than F-16 pilots by next year. And imagine this; they will be piloted from “half a world away.” Of course, drone strikes have also killed civilians. And manned fighter or bomber strikes have not?

Let’s not dwell on the overview. Most articles are not aimed for a drone-news-following reader. The issue here is that this introduction is so clumsy and superficial that it is painful to get through.

Fukuyama then plunges us into the future. “Down the road,” he says, “are insect-sized drones that could be mistaken for a housefly or spider, which could slip in under a door-sill to record conversations, take photos or even inject a lethal toxin into an unsuspecting victim.” And further into the future are “nanobots, particle-sized robots that could enter people’s blood streams or lungs.”

This is all true. Although it would be helpful for us all, to start making semantic distinctions between what we call a variety of unmanned and robotic systems. He never claims that this op-ed is all encompassing. But it would seem reasonable to discuss autonomy and its implications if one is to make a leap towards nanobots and lethal toxins.

Fukuyama then enlightens us that privacy is “the chief concern” and proceeds to commercialize how his own drone could “look inside a neighbor’s third-floor window.” Of course he “would never ever be tempted to use it for such a thing.” Come on! This is in the FT, who edits these anyway?

On editing… Fukuyama calls the FAA the Federal Aviation “Authority” instead of Administration. This may be petty, but get it right!

After informing us that drones are used for targeted killings, Fukuyama suggests that as “the defense budget shrinks” using drones to “project power on the cheap” will be attractive. Sure… But the correlation is shaky at best. The proliferation of drones may lead to more targeted killings, but the defense budget – other than being a headline favorite – is really irrelevant here. Drones provide the US military and intelligence community a powerful capability and will be used (for right or wrong) based on overall strategy and tactical objectives. For the purposes of this discussion, we are passed procuring drones on a cost estimate basis. At 7,494 and counting, they are part of the arsenal.

On the other hand, miniature robotic devices do change the dynamics. Soldiers could use them to look into buildings before a raid to minimize losses. And intelligence agencies could employ them for an assortment of missions. However, will this change how they spy or kill? Using drones to deliver deadly pathogens is a possible scenario. But intelligence agencies have been successful at eradicating targets before. Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning in London is a case in point.

Fukuyama is also concerned about their domestic use. This seems to translate into his main argument that eventually the government will outlaw drones. I doubt it. For example, any enthusiast could procure advanced surveillance systems. A simple Google search using “surveillance AND DIY” returns more than 5 million results. There is a plethora of spy toys out there. Having your own drone and using it for degenerate ends won’t make this problem worse.

Fertilizer is used for bombs by some. And others use code for cyber-attacks. The government – rightfully so – now tries to keep an eye on fertilizer purchases. But it sure hasn’t made Java or C++ programming languages illegal. Drones will be used to spy on cheating spouses and to cause harm somewhere. But this should not make us “worried.”

Fukuyama continues. He asks what the world would look like when “other countries [will] operate fleets of drones.” And what would our attitude towards drones be “if our enemies could pick off visiting dignitaries as they stepped off the airplane” or attacked “soldiers in their bases in Europe or Asia.” Worse yet, Fukuyama seems concerned that China or Al Qaeda could use drones to target Americans in “Florida or New York.” He is especially petrified that drones in their ubiquity will be harder to trace and “without knowing their provenance, deterrence breaks down.”

Living in a world where we are “routinely and anonymously targeted by unseen enemies is not pleasant to contemplate.” There is a point here, somewhere. But it is lost.

Stability restored

Yes, other countries are building drones en masse and will continue to do so. And terrorist organizations may try to use them to deliver an explosive. But making them illegal domestically would in no way change this paradigm. In fact, it would make us dramatically less competitive over time. Our systems would become outdated.

How would making drones illegal domestically protect us against these threats? It seems Fukuyama suggests that some dubious activity will be possible because there will be so many of them. That makes sense logically. But as alluded to above, there are websites that give us viruses and guns that are used to kill. Yet, we continue to visit the former and buy more of the latter.

Fukuyama mentions particle-sized robots in our blood-stream, but fails to imagine technologies that would be able to trace exactly to whom a drone belongs. A network of nanobots – to stay futuristic – would easily trace the origin of other drones.

He does cite the legitimate use of drones for police work and traffic management. But there are so many others. Drones could be used to monitor our electrical grid, to take care of the elderly, to assist during surgeries (or to conduct surgeries), to repair broken tissue, to fight cancer (hey, he went there). On the battlefield their usefulness isn’t perfect, but unquestioned.  And countries will not decide to attack us just because it costs less now than it did before or saves them a pilot or two.

Drones – and robotic systems in general – will soon become part of our daily lives. Already in South Korea they are being used as prison guards and as school teachers. Their proliferation could be as transformational as the spread of the Internet or the mobile device. Fukuyama – after redeeming himself with The Origins of Political Order ­– is sadly on the wrong side of history.

Image source: from Ville Hyvönen’s public Flickr page


Drone activity in progress…

Drones in every neighborhood by Alex Gibney

Drones in every neighborhood by Alex Gibney

Two weeks ago 11 street signs appeared in Brooklyn, NY. One read “ATTENTION: Drone Activity in Progress.” The signs were fake. They were posted by an Army veteran turned “radical art student” who remains anonymous.

The message was clear. Over the past decade expectations of privacy have diminished. In fact, most people either did not notice the signs or did not care.

The artist’s warnings are prescient because drones are coming to a neighborhood near you. And their use will vary. Privacy (see 1, 2, 3, 4) – or it’s erosion – may be of greater concern in the long-term, but safety may be compromised immediately.

Days ago Congress passed a bill (Senate 75-25; House 248-169), which will require the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make drone flights available domestically. The bill awaits the President’s signature. Once signed – and it is expected to be – the bill will mandate the FAA to prepare US skies for unmanned aviation by September 2015.

The FAA estimates that 30,000 drones could operate domestically by 2020.

Congress authorized an unprecedented $63.4 billion to the FAA over four years. $11 billion of which will fund the nation’s air-traffic control system modernization. The system currently uses ground-based radars. It would switch to GPS satellites instead. Modernization has its benefits for the airline industry. Commercial and cargo pilots could set better routes and fly more directly, saving on time and fuel.

Without a GPS-based system, operating drones would be difficult. And there are other challenges. As the Air Line Pilots Association, a body that represents 53,000 pilots, points out “safety issues such as training and certification of those flying unmanned aircraft” are still under question.

One reason drones have been so successful in military operations is because they are primarily used in uncontested airspace. They are not designed to operate in busy skies. Drones are unable to detect and avoid other aircraft. They will need to have this capability before operating domestically.

It is estimated that air traffic will grow by 50 percent over the next decade. And this doesn’t include thousands of drones. Many countries have adopted satellite-based technology. But the US, which accounts for more than a third of global air traffic, “has moved cautiously.”

Remote control

The average American has probably never seen a drone, unless they live near the Mexican border where the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses them. Or North Dakota where the Air Force helped local police track down three suspects using a Predator B drone.

Some police departments are already using drones. But currently their use is restricted to public agencies and some of their private partners. Drone use is also limited by size and altitude (below 400 feet). They don’t fly near cities. You sure won’t see one over Brooklyn. The legislation also orders the FAA to “expedite the process through which it authorizes the use of drones by federal, state and local police and other agencies.”

The FAA has already granted “295 special permits for researchers, law enforcement, and the military to operate drones in the US.” And last year a defense bill ordered the FAA to “create six test sites where unmanned flights can operate beside regular aircraft.”

Unmanned systems will quickly expand to other industries. They are great for monitoring pipelines, ports, or power lines. Thus utility and power companies would adopt them immediately. The agriculture industry could use them. They are obviously great for surveillance and emergency response. Google would adopt drones for their Street View program. It won’t be hard to get to 30,000 drones when everyone from the local police department to the tech start-up will want one.

Securing the skies

Balancing security and privacy is a debate we will have for decades. Privacy will dominate headlines as drones begin to hover overhead. So will the threat of terrorists using them. But general safety – caused by accidents and not terrorists – needs to be actively considered and discussed. Drones are not foolproof. In fact, they are accident prone.

Who will train the pilots? Program future autonomous systems with routes and accident avoidance techniques? Manage the air traffic control system? Differentiate between corporate drones and those flown by the government or by enthusiasts?

Considering their expected volume, it is safe to assume most drones will be flown by amateurs and not trained pilots. The FAA’s timeline to modernize is ambitious. It is reassuring to see that benchmarks are set and frequent updates to lawmakers are mandated under the new bill.  But these conciliatory measures may not be enough. The industry and government needs to make sure things work before drones and planes meet unexpectedly.

Also, in a few years, slow down when you see the “Speed limit enforced by aircraft” sign. They are not kidding.


The nuclear power of arms sales

Dassault Rafale at the Paris Air Show

Dassault Rafale at the Paris Air Show

The Indian government selected the French Dassault Rafale as a frontrunner in its Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). Concluding (almost) a multi-year dog-fight between the Rafale and five other competitors: American Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-16, European Eurofighter Typhoon, Russian RSK MiG-35, and the Swedish Saab Gripen.

Toward the end of this battle only two jets stood to win the prize, the French Rafale and – well – the quarter-French EADS Eurofighter Typhoon. Dassault will now begin supplying India with 126 freshly-minted jets.

The size of the order may amount to $20 billion, enough to help bolster the French defense industrial base.

And France pulled out all the stops to secure this win. Three primary reasons explain its victory. The last one may surprise some. First, it was cost. Dassault won because it bid the lowest; a benefit of government subsidies. Losing this competition may have ended French indigenous military aircraft capability, which it clearly thinks is worth protecting.

The games are not over, however. From now until April 2012, the company and its puppet-master the French government are likely to engage in fierce negotiations over details. But winning the frontrunner spot in India still has its risks “until the contract is physically signed.” Negotiations will determine the details of the acquisition: price, life-cycle support, training, and offsets.

This leads us to the second point. France and its national champion were willing to provide a technology transfer package to India. The competitors (and especially the US ones) were not. Thus, 108 of 126 Rafale fighters will be produced at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), India’s largest aerospace company. Not in France. As a reminder, virtually all Indian defense enterprises are state-owned.

And Nicolas Sarkozy’s government has agreed to more than just offsets and technology transfer. Software codes – source codes par industry lingo – will also be provided. This would “allow India to re-program radars and other sensitive equipment.” And in doing so, reveal how they work.

One cannot accuse India of nefarious corporate espionage practices (in fact France would rank far higher on that list) or of being a technology proliferator. But in this deal, India will gain substantial know-how and it will use it for its own competitive advantage in the future. Who can blame them?

Finally, we need to understand why Dassault really won. Price, competitive specifications, technology transfer, offsets, and source codes add to the mix. But it is nuclear cooperation between India and France, signed a few years ago, that sealed the deal.

Don’t underestimate nuclear power

This is of little doubt. France signed a nuclear agreement with India in 2008; a year after the initial MMRCA tender was announced. France’s other national champion, the nuclear energy powerhouse Areva was contracted to build at least two nuclear reactors in India.

During negotiations that took place from 2008 to 2010, France and India recognized that “it is in their mutual interest to broad-base economic relations” and agreed to increase their trade, especially in sovereign industries (or so I call them): arms and nuclear energy.

The $9 billion contract to build two nuclear power-plants in India, solidified France’s position in the country. France and Areva plan to build four more “reactors for the Maharashtra nuclear plant.” Both the nuclear and defense deals are negotiated at the highest levels and during the same meetings, suggesting interchangeability of objectives and tradeoffs.

Implications

First, price, technology transfer, and offsets are indicative of requirements that all emerging powers will require. Weapons platforms such as the F-35 would lose on all counts. And while the US has already entertained the sale of F-35s to India, everything about the Rafale win indicates that the door is closed.

When India decides that it wants to acquire a 5th generation fighter, it may opt-out for the Russian PAK FA T-50. This would be a shame.

Second, instead of building a strong industrial base, Europeans are destructively competing for international tenders. France – and even Dassault itself – is involved in the Eurofighter Typhoon. The second place finisher in the MMRCA competition.

Europe continues to govern itself by protectionist sensibilities over defense industries. These policies are grounded in realism, which I appreciate. If all other headlines from Europe are of any indication, then this will surely continue. And this is exactly why the US – while formulating its own security strategy – may hope for allied assistance, but should not rely on it.

Finally, there is one more international fighter competition that has been brewing. Brazil plans to soon acquire 36 fighters in its FX-2 fighter deal. The competition, however, will be fierce. A decision is due in the next several months. And once again, the French Rafale may win.

The announced victory in India will only bolster its chances. All the usual suspects – which Brazil wants and demands as much as India – such as technology transfers and offsets will be offered. In addition, France is working with Brazil on a nuclear submarine project. If the Rafale wins in Brazil, then it may be time for analysts to pay closer attention to whole-of-government (to adopt a term) competitive advantages and not just specifications, offsets, and costs.

Image source: taken by the author at the 2009 Paris Air Show


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?)


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