If there’s one thing defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld doesn’t like, it’s redundancy. He killed the Army’s Crusader artillery vehicle because he thought the Air Force could provide more responsive fire support. He wants to terminate the Air Force’s F-22 fighter at less than half of the formal requirement (381 planes) because he thinks the services are over-investing in air dominance. And he is structuring this year’s Quadrennial Defense Review to rationalize joint “enablers” such as sensors and lift across the department.
There’s a lot to be said for reducing duplication, especially when military spending looks likely to exceed half a trillion dollars per year for the foreseeable future. But in one mission area central military transformation — intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) — some redundancy is definitely desirable. Consider the tradeoffs involved in being able to continuously track hostile ground vehicles.
The Air Force has at least four programs dedicated to “ground moving target indication,” as military planners so lyrically describe it. One is the E-8 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, an airborne radar that can track all the vehicles in a Baghdad rush hour while also taking thousands of pictures through darkness or bad weather using the same sensor. JSTARS was a huge success in Operation Iraqi Freedom, enabling the military to detect and destroy enemy tanks in a raging sandstorm without harming nearby civilians.
But JSTARS can only stay on station for 10-20 hours, and carries a crew of 21 that you wouldn’t want to put in harm’s way. So the Air Force also has a high-flying unmanned vehicle called Global Hawk that can remain over targets for much longer, transmitting imagery and tracking data to ground stations. It plans to buy a bigger version of Global Hawk that can do electronic eavesdropping at the same time it is taking pictures and tracking surface vehicles.
Nobody doubts the value of these assets. But a controversy has arisen over whether the Air Force should buy a successor to JSTARS called the E-10 Multisensor Command and Control Aircraft. E-10 would be housed on a bigger airframe, enabling it to carry more equipment –including a radar array that can track stealthy cruise missiles. Rumsfeld’s advisors don’t much like the E-10, because they think the next generation of moving-target indicators should be in orbit. They favor a Space Based Radar instead.
Space Based Radar would have a much wider field of view than the E-10, but it couldn’t track cruise missiles. Since neither system will be operational for at least ten years, you have to guess which feature would be more valuable. Meanwhile, JSTARS and Global Hawk are getting lost in the shuffle. Policymakers need to decide whether the aging JSTARS should get new engines and radar upgrades, and what mix of manned, unmanned and orbital assets is optimum. This is one area where no matter which system you leave behind, something useful gets lost. So some degree of redundancy is definitely indicated. Premature streamlining of the overall architecture could kill the system warfighters one day need most.
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