No one much misses the Soviet Union, but there is at least one positive thing that can be said about the threat the Soviets posed to U.S. security during the Cold War: it focused policymakers’ minds on the consequences of bad decisions. Experience suggests that in the absence of an urgent threat to disciplined decision making, U.S. defense policy tends to lose its focus and drift.
Today, ten years after the Soviet empire began to unravel, the nation’s defense posture seems to have entered such a period of decay. Measured in dollar terms, the post-Cold war demobilization of the military has finally been arrested. But the internal coherence of our defense posture is waning as policymakers pursue every trendy idea from information warfare to asymmetrical strategy to infrastructure vulnerability.
Pentagon planners are fond of claiming that current spending patterns reflect a “capabilities-based” investment strategy, rather than the threat-based approach of the Cold War years. That seems to be an oblique way of admitting that the military has no idea what kind of threats to plan for, so it’s just guessing where it needs to place its bets.
There’s no need to be cynical about this apparent aimlessness: it is the inevitable result of having vanquished the last big enemy so thoroughly that we’re having trouble figuring out who or what the next danger could possibly be. Resurgent China? Radical Islam? Homegrown hackers? Chem-bio attack in the U.S. by terrorists? No one knows, so we try to cover all the bases.
If the history of the twentieth century is any indication, new threats will arise soon enough. In the meantime, a smart investment strategy would be to emphasize military systems sufficiently versatile that they will be useful against a wide range of potential threats.
Perhaps the most obvious example of multi-mission versatility is the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey, a “tiltrotor” aircraft designed to combine the best characteristics of a helicopter and a fixed-wing airplane. The Osprey has large propellers at the tips of its wings that can pivot in flight, so it can ascend and descend like a helicopter, but fly with the rapidity and the range of a plane.
The end result, depending on how you look at it, is either an airplane that can land just about anywhere — no runway required — or a helicopter that can fly twice as fast, twice as high, and two to five times further than any other rotor-craft in the U.S. arsenal. The Marines love it, because it replaces an aging Vietnam-era helicopter in the “medium lift” role with an airframe that can be plugged into any mission from long-range reconnaissance to amphibious assault to combat search and rescue to aerial refueling to medical evacuation to logistics and resupply, to non-combatant evacuation operations to disaster relief.
It’s hard to imagine an aircraft better suited to a period of uncertainty about the future because no matter what kinds of threats arise in the next century, the Osprey is nearly certain to be useful everyday. One confirmation of this is Air Force plans to use a variant of the V-22 for special operations missions such as counter-terrorism.
Getting two services to buy the same airframe is usually like pulling teeth, so when you see them doing so willingly and a third (the Navy) seriously considering purchases, it’s a pretty powerful endorsement.
Also, the Air Force is considering the V-22 for its Combat Search and Rescue mission. And why not? We finally have an aircraft that can fly the distances of strike aircraft at twice the speed of helicopters. It only makes sense. Not to be left out, the National Guard Association in September passed a resolution calling for replacement of its existing helicopters with the V-22 in missions such as disaster relief, air rescue, and homeland defense against chemical and biological weapons attacks. The resolution stressed that Ospreys are more survivable than conventional helicopters and can be deployed overseas much more readily than other helicopters (in fact, most of the time they can “self-deploy”, meaning they can fly on their own to places like Bosnia and the Persian Gulf).
Considering how versatile and popular the Osprey is, you’d think the Clinton Administration would be moving out smartly to procure it. But, because of budget agreements, it was impossible to increase the valuable program. However, recent talks between the President and service chiefs have raised the issue of increased spending for readiness and modernization. What makes more sense than accelerating the V-22 to its most economical production rates with this funding? This aircraft was supported and accelerated by the CDR and NDP.
The Marine Corps describes accelerating production of the V-22 as its top unfunded priority, a key contributor to its readiness in the early decades of the next century. Is it really necessary to wait a quarter-century to reach full production, and even then to remain at a sub-optimal level that raises the cost of each aircraft?
This is precisely the sort of unfocused decision making that occurs when the defense establishment loses any sense of urgency about its actions. The V-22 Osprey is probably the most flexible, adaptable aircraft the U.S. military will acquire over the next generation. Instead of waiting for some unexpected threat to underscore its utility, why don’t we show some vision and buy more sooner? Over the long run, it will save a lot of taxpayers’ money – – not to mention some soldiers’ lives.
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