We first published this article in November of 2015, and are re-running it now in light of the dramatic advances Russia has recently made in weapons tech, rapidly outpacing the US. A lot of the problems the author identifies here explain why the US is falling behind.
In this fascinating analysis, our contributor explains why the US military is in serious trouble, unable to compete with Russia, and unlikely to change going forward. He has experience in the military, civil service, Congress, and the lobbying and contracting sectors. He lives in the Washington, DC area.
Lately we have seen some good analysis on the limits and vulnerabilities of the American military in light of events in the former Ukraine and especially Russia’s demonstrated competence in Syria.
So we have the “what” of the issue, but how about the “why”?
As a U.S. Army veteran and a longtime resident of the Beltway—including four-and-a-half years living on Crystal Drive in Arlington, Virginia, which has probably the densest concentration of “defense” contractors anywhere in America—I think I understand what is fundamentally wrong with the U.S. military-industrial complex (MIC.)
First and foremost, the MIC has long been incapable of producing durable, efficient, versatile weapons.
We don’t even have to look to the F-35 on this one.
(America’s latest fighter which has turned into a spectacular technical failure and massive ($1.5 trillion!) expense – see our super-popular article about how this plane stacks up against the Russian competition- edit)
Just consider the most basic item, the M-16.
The M-16 Assault Rifle
My field experience with this piece of junk is that it runs into problems in the presence of even a small amount of sand. When enough sand gets in to the chamber and mixes with the lube oil on the bolt assembly, the grit thus formed results in up to every second round misloading.
God forbid you should brush an oiled open breach against the side of your foxhole—you are out of commission. In the absence of air or artillery support or sheer overwhelming numbers on your side, you are dead meat against anyone with a gun that functions in a sandy environment. And why? Because, as I was told in boot camp (whether it’s true or not), this thing is perfectly built to have zero fault tolerance.
Supposedly, just about every metal component in the M-16 is cast and/or machined to perfection rather than stamped. Contrast this with Russian or Chinese weapons that are said to be built like can openers to spray lead under any conditions. In other words, the M-16 is so sophisticated that it doesn’t work well.
It is now acknowledged that the M-16 with its 5.56mm rounds is insufficiently lethal beyond a couple of hundred meters, making it unsuited to long-distance firefights over open terrain (again those deserts, or perhaps shootouts between mountain ridges.)
The M-1 Abrams tank
Another great example – this can be a real dog. The engine is a gas turbine, like with an aircraft, except that it is being driven around in deserts and even sandstorms, making it extremely finicky and high-maintenance. (Would you fly your Boeing into a sandstorm?) Of course, the Abrams was designed to fight in Germany where sand is not an issue. But during the Iraq adventure, sand so tore up the turbine fans (or whatever) that over 1000 of these million-dollar “power packs” had to be removed and sent up for depot-level maintenance or refurbishment stateside.
Yes, that’s right—these things cannot even be fixed in the field. All you can do is pull them out with a crane and ship them back to the civilians at enormous expense. At the height of the Iraq adventure, around 2007, the maintenance backlog was so bad that even the national media got wind of it.
Of course, when you have the world’s reserve currency, you can afford all that and more—the entire world is paying for your wars.
But the waste and inefficiency are a fact.
The Basic Problem : Excessive Complexity
I think the problem here is that American war planners and logisticians prefer originality, complexity, and/or expense-for-the-hell-of-it over versatility and ease of use and maintenance. This is no surprise given America’s wealth and the longtime generous funding of its armed forces. After all, every military reflects its own society.
Unfortunately for Uncle Sam, what he gets is equipment that may work very well in one environment but not another.
But so much for American equipment per se. Let’s talk about Crystal Drive (a neighborhood in suburban Washington where many defense contractors have offices – edit.) —or more broadly, the MIC.
The Military Industrial Complex (MIC) is failing on a massive scale
It is clear now that the MIC cannot build anything for less than 200 percent of its original planned budget (and that’s being extremely conservative.) Nor can anything it cranks out nowadays meet performance or survivability expectations. Besides the never-ending supersonic train wreck known as the F-35, we have other boondoggle failures such as the Littoral Combat Ship, which by all accounts is less capable and more vulnerable than the 20 to 30 year-old vessels it was supposed to replace.
Or, going back a few years, we see the Army’s “Commanche” helicopter, an intended replacement for the Apache, which blew through $6.9 billion—in 1983-2004 dollars, probably over $10 billion today—before the entire program was scrapped. That’s right, over $10 billion for nothing—not one Commanche was ever delivered for permanent use to an Army operational unit!
Where did that money go, if they didn’t actually manufacture anything besides a few prototypes? Did they spend $10 billion on PowerPoint presentations?
My brain cannot even wrap around this. Can you imagine what Russia or China could do for $10 billion?
However, even that pales before the Army’s cancelled Future Combat Systems program, which burned through an estimated (no one knows exactly) $20 billion from 2003 to somewhere between 2012 and 2014 (depending on what termination milestone you go by), with almost nothing to show beyond a few prototypes, a lot of concept art, and a 29-pound toy robot made by iRobot of “Roomba” vacuum cleaner fame. In fact, I can’t think of one big new U.S. weapons system that has succeeded in the last 25 years, other than perhaps the Stryker armored car (though some have argued that point, and I just don’t know enough about it.)
As pointed out by many other observers, part of the blame lies with our political system, where MIC corporations buy politicians and then receive favors in the form of contracts, whether or not the contracts make any sense. However, I think this is not the only problem, nor even necessarily the biggest.
Fundamentally what I think we have is systemic over-complexity resulting in nothing getting done, or done well anyway.
US intelligence agencies have the same problem
This is akin to the deep systemic crisis in Uncle Sam’s intelligence agencies, where from 9/11 to the Arab Spring to Crimea to the ISIS conquest of Mosul to Russia in Syria, the word is always “we didn’t expect…” In this case, we have numerous agencies—some of them with overlapping functions—that are drowning in paperwork and garbage data (or too much data) and are almost totally useless.
As some readers will remember, it got so bad that in April 2014 the State Department released a photo collage aiming to prove that (among other things) a bearded Chechen battalion commander going by the name Hamza, who appeared in Russian TV footage of the 2008 Olympic War, was none other than the bearded, overweight Slaviansk militiaman going by the call-sign “Babai”—in other words, Russian special forces have invaded the Donbass. (The New York Times ran with this and was then oh-so-vaguely and gently reproached by its own ombudsman.)
Shouldn’t this awful joke have been prevented by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is supposed to promote info-sharing among agencies and centrally vet all claims and conclusions—especially those being trumpeted on the State Department’s website or at its briefings? Apparently not!
On the other hand, what the U.S. lack-of-intelligence complex is very good at—besides hiring way too many buxom, flirty young things straight out of college and with no language skills or any experience at all (DIA and NGA, you know your ex-military managers like to beautify their offices)—is providing employment for tens of thousands of its own staff as well as tens of thousands of grotesquely-overpaid contractors, including those who build and run billion-dollar eavesdropping centers that have proven incapable of picking up anything useful, perhaps because when you try to listen to everything, you end up hearing nothing.
The lesson here is that the more offices and agencies, the more managers and political appointees who will seek to justify and expand their turf and budgets by shoveling out as much money on as many contracts as possible, as quickly as possible, in many cases even paying contractors to do little more than just sit around (sometimes at home) waiting for the next contract. (I have seen this many times in Washington.)
Then you get so big that people simply trip over each other and the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.
The US MIC worked great 50 years ago because less money and people were involved
So I think this is what’s going on not only in the intelligence apparatus, but in the MIC as a whole. We have hundreds of thousands of staff and contractors as well as military officers assigned to liaise with them, all kinds of project managers and “six-sigma black belts” and other buzzwords, juggling millions of PowerPoints across the river from Washington and throughout the country, and they can’t field a helicopter after spending $10 billion on it.
Really? How did this great country ever defeat the Japanese Empire?
Go to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington; you will see the most amazing things—e.g. generators designed to operate on the surface of the Moon, drawing electricity from the heat of plutonium decay—that were developed when there was no Crystal Drive, no Tysons Corner, etc.
Then go to the museum’s extension near Dulles airport and check out the SR-71 “Blackbird”, the fastest and highest-flying airplane ever built (this was about 50 years ago.)
How did they do it?
Although there were more men in uniform back then, the MIC itself (or should I say the Military-Industrial-Intelligence-Homeland-Insecurity-Complex (MIIHIC)) – had but a fraction of today’s civilian workforce. Luckily, most of those paper-pushing “systems integrators” and PowerPoint rangers did not exist. Blueprints were drafted with pencil and paper.
Today, Uncle Sam can’t even build a heavy rocket engine, not to mention a good helmet or ejection seat for his F-35.
No hope for change going forward
So it seems that as a technical civilization we are degenerating.
Sure, there are constant advancements in microelectronics (a.k.a. integrated circuits) and the programs they allow, but in terms of heavy engineering—of which the MIIHIC and other government initiatives like the space program were at the forefront since WWII—it seems that the U.S. is tapped out.
And you know what? Throwing more money at it is just going to make it worse.
The organizations with their budgets and their perfectly reasonable-sounding arguments for ever-greater budgets will grow, their workforces will grow, the contracting sector will grow, more shiny office buildings will go up, but the result will be an ever-increasingly-negative marginal return.
John McCain and all the other broken records in and out of the Pentagon will say we still don’t have enough funds to counter a pointless Russian invasion of parasitic, inconsequential Lithuania (currently headed by a longtime communist) or any other 1990s-era speculative wargame training scenario that somehow carried over into the public consciousness and morphed into the Greatest Threat to World Peace.
Of course, as long as the U.S. has the money to send gazillion-dollar armies and armadas against illiterate natives armed with sharp sticks and coconuts, this may not visibly threaten its hegemony. Almost any problem or mistake can be papered over with money, for a long time anyway.
But eventually, even if the money spigot does not constrict, we will get to the point where the military really can’t be used as anything more than a façade or a gunboat road-show, hoping no one calls the bluff, because the stuff just doesn’t work like it’s supposed to, or else is too vulnerable (witness the evacuation of the U.S. aircraft carrier from the Persian Gulf after Uncle Sam found out that Russia has cruise missiles with a range of at least 1500km, or the ridiculous sail-around of China’s little islands which had the sense to infringe only very slightly and briefly on that country’s imaginary territorial waters), or the natives can devise their own countermeasures.
In fact, I would say we are at that point already. Not to mention, the U.S. Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs are still so tapped-out after Iraq and Afghanistan that another major ground operation is unthinkable. (At this point, Washington is more likely to launch nukes at somebody than risk another ground war.)
So you can anticipate a lot of hand-wringing and a lot more money being thrown into the breach. That’s simply what the machine does; there is no chance to reform it, nor will the Hegemony dissipate willingly (although lately it’s done a good job of dissipating unwillingly.)
But all that money may as well be flushed down the can.
The threshold has been reached and it’s all downhill from here.