Interesting Times

We are in an extraordinary era in aerospace and defense, full of threats, risks and challenges but also an era of opportunity. Industry events are playing out against a backdrop of international and national politics that would have been close to unthinkable ten or fifteen years ago. A major land war in Europe. The UK pulled out of the EU. China’s rise and militarization. The entire U.S. system of government under attack by a determined populist movement.

A couple of days ago, I was listening to a webinar on future air power from a U.K. perspective (the U.S. faces the same issues on a large scale) and one of the leaders, Justin Bronk, of the Royal United Services Institute, made a point with which I agreed, but with an important caveat. Bronk argued, correctly, that new shiny objects like the Global Combat Air Program (GCAP) aren’t relevant to the Ukraine war or to other geopolitical threats in the rest of this decade. That’s correct, but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t important.

The problem is that meeting the threats of today’s headlines and the 2020s is necessary but not sufficient. The future must be engineered as well, because it’s becoming clear that old ways of equipping armed forces are becoming unsustainable. In many areas, Western militaries are on the wrong end of a cost-imposition equation, where the cost of making primary weapon platforms both survivable and lethal is higher than the other side’s cost of building defenses and proliferating targets.

The result is that major weapon systems are more expensive than ever to design, build, and support – in a world where the reverse is true of most manufactured objects (compare the $800-from-Costco thing I’m writing on today to the $3,000 Xerox 820-II with which I entered the information age). Development takes longer, production is slower, forces shrink and the balance of power shifts.

Two stories.

One aviation legend that is mostly true is that the conceptual design of the Boeing B-52 took place over a weekend in October 1948, in the Van Cleve Hotel in Dayton, after Boeing’s team had been firmly assured by the Air Force that the turboprop bomber that they had been working on was not going to proceed. Fourteen years later, the last of 744 aircraft, a B-52H, rolled off the production line, and although unmistakably a B-52, it was very different from the early B-52 in structure, propulsion, and subsystems.

In May 2020, the USAF issued a request for proposals to re-engine the B-52H force. The project is due to be completed 18 years later, in 2038.

Nearly 50 years ago, an Air Force scientific study identified the potential of a major reduction in radar cross-section as a way to defeat the ground-based air defenses that had proven so effective over North Vietnam and the Sinai desert. Just over ten years later, with the Northrop B-2 already in development, the USAF required all-aspect stealth for its next big combat aircraft project, the Advanced Tactical Fighter (later the F-22). That was the moment that the service set a course towards an all-stealth combat air force.

If you’d suggested, back then, that the USAF would be taking delivery of new F-15s in the 2020s and would be planning to fly F-16s through the 2030s, you would have been strapped to a gurney and quite possibly trepanned. The all-stealth project has taken almost 40 years. For comparison: the era of the classic battleship started with the commissioning of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 and effectively ended 35 years later, when the British Admiralty placed the order for Vanguard, the last such ship to be ordered and completed.

We have problems. There are solutions, but among those that won’t work are pouring money into the old ways of doing things, or incanting magical slogans, whether “fail early”, “network-centric”, or Rumplesnitz!

Let’s get started.

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