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Jay Tea, Career Counselor

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.

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Comments (8)

Good advice for people look... (Below threshold)
Tina:

Good advice for people looking to make career moves in such fields. Who would have dreamed that a hobby of flying model airplanes would become a critical skill for national security?

But I hope the Pentagon doesn't forget that we do need a new tank - one that can protect its occupants from the old, primitive, archaic homemade bombs that are not made more sophisticated by their new names "IEDs" (Improvised Explosive Devices). These most ancient of weapons have accounted for a majority of our casualties.

There is nothing in history to support an assumption that all future wars are going to be like our most recent ones.

The need to prepare against the most basic weaponry in our immediate presence is always going to be essential, because the real, local world is where the people are.

JT, it was Rumsfeld in the ... (Below threshold)
WildWillie:

JT, it was Rumsfeld in the first 4 years of the Bush administration that said we need to modify our forces, equipment and strategies to be lighter and faster to strike at real time targets. He had significant push back from the Army and the politicians that wanted to protect the factories in their district. I agreed with Rumsfelf then and I am glad they are finally movng forward with the idea. ww

Nothing wrong with Massachu... (Below threshold)
Don L:

Nothing wrong with Massachusetts that Iran won't someday change. After a bit of reality hits this nation, Massachusets and the lib East (including parts of NH) might least the charge back to sanity.(that converts are the most zealous thingy)

JT,The next conven... (Below threshold)
Rodney Graves Author Profile Page:

JT,

The next conventional threat is quietly trying to develop a true blue water navy with the capability of projecting force overseas. It will probably take them twenty years or more to build and train that blue water navy.

The United States Navy now has fewer combatant vessels in commission than it did in December of 1941.

The United States remains a maritime nation, in that the vast bulk of our trade moves across the oceans of the world.

The up and coming power is also heavily dependent upon seaborne trade, and even more dependent upon seaborne supplies of POL.

The current design to fielding of combat capable units for the United States is nearly 20 years.

Letting that up and coming power get a leg up could prove very expensive indeed in both treasure and blood.

The future for the armed fo... (Below threshold)
Matt:

The future for the armed forces is actually "Full Spectrum Operations." It includes COIN, asymetric warfare, disaster relief and being able to ramp up to full on force on force operations. Probably will never see Corps agains Corps, or Division agains Division again, but Brigade size or smaller actions are very plausible.

Possibly the best example of the requirement for maitaining an agile force is the Russian invasion of Georgia. If we had been called upon, or able to assist in that conflict (on Georgia's side) with ground forces, it would of been one or two BDE max, if we could of gotten the right equipment to the right place on time. We have to have weapons systems that are transportable (it would take an enormous amount of airlift to transport a BDE or even BN of M1 Abrams) and a robust capability to get them to where they need to be in time.

I will skip the moral/political arguments as to whether or not our Armed Forces should be "force Projecting" all over the world.

Matt,It's ALWAYS b... (Below threshold)
Rodney Graves Author Profile Page:

Matt,

It's ALWAYS better to fight on someone else's dirt.

Here's a weird thought that... (Below threshold)
Andrew X:

Here's a weird thought that I once came up with. A few out there thinkers have pondered scaping the entire US Marine Corps, and basically folding it into the Army. Setting aside the tragedy to history such would be, one could make a valid argument to that end.

So my idea was to fold ALL special forces (SEALS, Green Berets, Delta, AFSOC, etc) into a much smaller and very specialized Marine Corps, that would not only maintain the Corps, but even put it at the tip of the spear, and leave the division size ground-pounding to the Army, while the entire Marine Corps focuses on the kind of things we saw the SEALS do here.

Of course, the other three services would raise a holy stink, but what is new about that. As an idea, though, I kind of like it.

i like that idea, andrew. e... (Below threshold)
ke_future:

i like that idea, andrew. each branch of the service having their own special forces group never really made sense to me, especially since we are seeing more and more combined services operations where one branch takes lead with the other branches providing a supporting role.




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