Last week, the US Navy announced that its vaunted "next-generation" destroyer, the DD-1000 or "Zumwalt" class of ships, would be discontinued after only two ships were built. Originally, they had hoped to put 32 of these hulls in the water, but constantly rising costs finally took their toll on the ships.
This got me to thinking about something that has been preying at the back of my mind for some time: what the hell should we be doing with our defense budget?
The primary mission of our armed services is to defend our nation and our interests wherever necessary, by whatever means necessary. And those means are most often through force, or the threat of force.
Or, as some are wont to put it, "killing people and breaking things."
No, it's not pretty and pleasant and nice, but far too often it's necessary.
So, these days, what sorts of people need killing and what kinds of things need breaking?
That's a very, very flippant way of putting a very, very essential question: what are the threats to America and our interests?
One thing that has changed in a huge way just in my lifetime has been the collapse of the Soviet Union. For literally decades that was the primary focus of the US military -- and while Russia still has a formidable military, it is nowhere near the threat the Soviet Union was. Hell, now that it's no more, we have found out that the Soviet Union wasn't quite the threat we thought they were, either. It's even arguable if they were the threat they thought they were, their systems were so screwed up.
Anyway, threat the Soviet Union posed was of a modern, technologically advanced, very large military force. They had quite a few very advanced, very capable weapons systems, and huge numbers of less-advanced systems. So, to fight them, we prepared to have a sufficiently advanced military that could counter their advantages in numbers with efficiency. So what if Ivan had more attack subs? Ours were so much better! The same held true for surface combatants, tanks, fighters, and bombers.
For those decades, our military was poised to fight -- and defeat -- a superpower. We needed both quality and quantity, and we got it.
But we won that battle, without ever actually having to fight. We beat the Soviet Union by largely economic means. We simply outspent them, turning military expenditures into a game of "chicken." And since -- as has been proven over and over and over and over again -- the combination of democracy and capitalism will utterly destroy socialism and communism in the long run.
OK, we won. We won by building the baddest military force the world has ever seen. Now what?
Let's look around and see what other superpowers (or even near-superpowers) there are that might be a good match for our own. That will show us whether or not we still need the kind of force that brought down the Soviet Union.
First up, there's China. Huge numbers, lots of low to medium tech weapons. But let's be blunt -- they suck at power projection. Their navy (the hysterically-named "People's Liberation Army Navy") is pretty much limited to a coastal force. They aren't a true "blue-water" force, able to operate far from their home shores.
The same holds true for the People's Liberation Army Air Force. Not much for advanced aircraft.
In short, China's military is strictly a regional force. A force to be reckoned with, to be sure, but nonetheless very tightly tied to their own territory and immediate neighborhood. They can cause big problems for us, but not for very long. No, the bigger threat from China is through espionage and economic warfare, not actual steel-on-steel conflict.
There are other nations that possess formidable militaries, but they are all -- to various degrees -- allies of ours. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, and others. They could cause us some concern, but realistically speaking, they're not going to. They might not always be the best of our allies, but they're certainly not potential enemies.
India also has a respectable military force, but again they're strictly regional. Also, they're more interested in increasing social, political, military, and economic ties with us, not confronting us.
So, what are the big threats we currently face? The kind of threats that require a military response?
First up, obviously, is terrorism. The best weapons we've discovered so far are, to be blunt, "the bloody infantry." Americans in uniform, carrying small arms and communications equipment. When he needs more firepower than he has on hand, he can call in for tanks, artillery, helicopters, aircraft, and missiles -- but those all act in support of the infantryman.
The other threat that is not discussed very much at all is pirates.
Fine, get the Johnny Depp jokes out of your system. I'll wait.
Piracy is becoming a major problem on the high seas. The new pirates don't fly the Jolly Roger and sail big ships with cannons running out the sides. No, the new pirates use small boats and light arms (automatic rifles, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades, just to name a few) to carry out their attacks. Rough estimates put the toll of piracy at between $13 and $16 billion dollars a year, and I'd be willing to wager the true cost as a bit higher.
The International Chamber of Commerce keeps close tabs on piracy incidents, and it's a troubling total.
The United States Navy got its first real challenge fighting pirates, off the Barbary Coast of North Africa. (The Marine Hymn's reference to "the shores of Tripoli" predates Colonel Quadafi, or however the hell he's spelling his name this week, by well over a century and a half.) And the most recent "action" our ships have seen has been against pirates off the eastern coast of Africa. The Cruiser Cape St. George and the destroyer Gonzalez took on some pirates last January off Somalia, killing one and wounding five without suffering any casualties of their own.
By international law and custom, piracy is the enemy of all nations, and all nations' navies have not only the right, but the duty to fight pirates wherever they may be found. It's a fundamental principle of every navy in the world, long encoded in international law and treaties.
With these two threats, how well do projects like the Zumwalt destroyers, the new fighters being developed, and other new high-tech wonders fit?
I hate to say it, but not very well.
The biggest militant threats we now face are small. I'd wager that a single US naval task force could easily wipe out every single pirate on the high seas, quite possibly without using a single aircraft. And our combined Army and Marine Corps probably outnumbers the number of active terrorists, let alone outguns them on every single worthwhile metric.
But their size is not just a weakness, but a strength as well.
Our military is designed to fight other militaries, put forth by other nations. We don't have that problem any more -- there's not a nation on earth that either wants to or could stand up to us in a fair fight.
So they don't even try.
Instead, they focus on attacking "soft" targets, avoiding the kind of force-on-force engagements that will end very, very badly for them. And in between those attacks, they disappear, they hide, they lurk in the shadows and avoid drawing our attention.
Against such non-state actors like that (even when they enjoy covert support from actual states), how will such high-tech, high-price-tag, high-capability weapons systems like the Zumwalt and the Joint Strike Fighter fare?
Not very well.
Those amazingly capable weapons are remarkable technological achievements, and they represent the latest and greatest in American ingenuity and technology and innovation and industriousness. They are the ultimate (for now) example of the American tradition of "quality over quantity."
But they are expensive as hell. We can't afford very many of them.
And against foes like terrorists and pirates, we need quantity over quality.
The Zumwalts will be, quite simply, the most powerful destroyers ever built. Indeed, I question whether they qualify as "destroyers." They are far closer to cruisers in size, and will possess greater destructive power than the mightiest battleships ever wielded.
But against pirates, I'd trade one Zumwalt in for a half-dozen World War II-type light cruisers, modernized with advanced communications and sensors. Hell, keep the cruisers -- gimme a half-dozen Fletcher-class or Sumner-class destroyers with modern electronics. Their vintage weapons would be more than enough to take on today's pirates.
Now, in a straight battle, if the Zumwalt was to take on six World War II destroyers, it'd be no contest. The Zumwalt would put all six on the bottom before the old ships even knew they were under attack. But against pirates, the old ships would have one huge advantage over the Zumwalts -- they could be in six different places at once.
In the absence of some actual World War II vintage vessels, though, we need new ships. Ships designed to handle the high-speed, low-tech, low-firepower threats modern pirates pose. Here's my suggestion:
A small ship, considerably smaller and ligher than the Zumwalt or even the current Burke-class destroyers. Maybe four to five thousand tons. Two 3" automatic guns on the bow, one on the stern. Helipad astern, just forward and above the stern gun. Hangar space for one helicopter and some drones. Modern communications and sensors. Four Phalanx mounts, one forward, one aft, one on each beam. Half a dozen 20mm cannon sprinkled along the sides. Enough engines to move the ship at 35 knots or more. Enough fuel for a range of at least six thousand miles at cruising speed. A brig scaled for up to a dozen prisoners. No torpedoes, no missiles,
The first argument against this design I can think of is the traditional one -- it's focused on the current threat, and not versatile enough to deal with future threats.
Well, there aren't any major, high-tech threats on the horizon, and our current forces are more than capable of dealing with any force-on-force threat we might face.
What we don't have is what we need right now -- numbers. Cheap hulls, cheap weapons, in sufficient quantity to cover a lot of ocean and a lot of amall threats.
So while I do feel a bit saddened at the cutbacks to the Zumwalt-class destroyers -- they promise to be fine, outstanding ships -- I think that it was the right decision. They are the solution to a problem that doesn't really exist any more. The dangers that they are optimized to face -- surface combatants, submarines, aircraft, and missiles -- aren't the weapons of choice of our current opponents, or those we are likely to face in the immediate future.