Friday, April 20, 2007

Transformational Calculus

I've taken plenty of flak for downplaying efforts to develop and acquire new artillery pieces and strategic bombers for the U.S. military. Critics often assert that my outlook on transformation is 'too infantry' or 'anti-mechanized.' My response to such claims is that the commentators themselves haven't done the deep planning calculus required by transformation. As Colin Gray described in a 2005 paper he wrote at the Army's Institute for Strategic Studies:

The transformation needed most urgently in the Army is in its suitability as the primary policy instrument of the sheriff of world order. The transformation now underway in all of the Armed Forces, including the Army, necessarily has as a prominent feature, the further leveraging of information technology (IT) so that the troops can do even better what they do superbly well already. America’s most pressing strategic problem, really a condition so persistent, is that time after time military prowess is not employed as effectively as it should be in the service of policy.

Does the military really need new strategic bombers when its current systems are adequate for U.S. purposes? What about replacing them systems that can achieve similar (or more useful) effects at a smaller cost? To illustrate my point, I will do simple breakdown of the changing costs of a relatively known transformational quantity: Precision-guided munitions

Bombs on Target

A lot of variables going into the circular error probable of dumb bombs, but for the sake of argument, I will use the simple calculation put together by Richard Hallion in his Precision Guided Munitions and the New Era of Warfare. In order to have a 90% certainty of hitting in a target 60' by 100' box from a medium altitude during the Vietnam War, it would take 176 2000 lb MK84 general purpose bombs. With a price tag of $3,100 each, the ordnance cost of the entire operation would cost $545,600.

To reach the same degree of certainty in the same size box using a 2000 lb Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) would require just 2 bombs. The price tag on each JDAM is the $21,000 tail kit plus the $3,100 MK84 bomb body for a total ordnance cost of $48,200. In terms of the munitions needed to hit a target, precision-guidance reduces cost by about a factor of ten.

The savings don't stop there though. Since you only need to drop 4,000 lbs of bombs instead of 35,200 lbs, you need far fewer aircraft per sortie. In fact, precision-guided munitions are so accurate that the U.S. reached a sortie inflection point. Now an individual strike aircraft flies a single sortie against multiple targets, instead of multiple aircraft flying sorties against a single target. This in turn means that U.S.'s strike fighter fleets (Air Force, Navy and Marines) need fewer fighters, pilots and support services to achieve the same effects on the battlefield.

Since precision-guided munitions can reliably hit increasingly small targets, the Air Force and the Navy are discovering that they small blast effects to accomplish missions. In effect, precision has raised the question, "Why destroy an entire building when the target is only on the fifth floor?" The answer to this question has been to design munitions that emphasize penetration and small blast effects, such as the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) and the Sensor-fuzed Weapon (FSW). This weapons only further expand the number of targets that an individual aircraft can engage.


Precision-guided munitions do have a number of disadvantages. One issue that the services are struggling with today is supply line size. The reduced quantities of munitions and delivery vehicles demanded does increase short-term costs, but it also reduces long-term profitability. When the Pentagon only plans to build fewer than 200 F-22 Raptors, where is Lockheed Martin's incentive to reduce cost or keep the production line open for more than a decade? Especially if Congress is going to block foreign military sales of the fighter.

Bringing allied nations into production plans early on in the process like the Navy and Marine Corp did with the F-35 Lightning II is going to become an important cost-control and supply tactic for the military. As an insider in the Army procurement community, I can tell you that we have been looking at foreign military sales as a way of keeping GMLRS lines hot and staving off a Nunn-McCurdy breach for the Excalibur. As we are discovering, this may become difficult because of the U.S. military's increasing reliance on the Global Position System and other sensitive technologies.

This is aside from the fact that precision-guided munitions are more complicated, which naturally makes them more expensive than dumb munitions. They also require skilled operators and engineers for support and use, which increases recruiting standards and personnel training costs. As the military tries to reduce cost by outsourcing some support functions, contractors may one day take up the job of preparing and handling precision-guided munitions on carriers and airbases.


Transformation is complex and ultimately leads to major changes in the way we fight. This goes well beyond narrow conceptions of the American Way of War once proposed by Thomas Barnett and Art Cebrowski (or characterized by Max Boot).

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