The disposable economy

If you don’t shave with a straight razor, odds are you shave with some sort of disposable. Either you go hipster DE wet shaving with replaceable blades (my preferred shave) or you do the cartridge razor thing (not a bad choice really, you can get a very nice shave from some of the generic cartridge razors for not too much per head) or you rock the old school blue disposable razors (yay Gillette Good News knock offs!).

We essentially have throw away shaving gear. We essentially have throw away pens (some of you guys probably have some pretty awesome fountain pens, but I dare say that none of you actually cut your own quills with a penknife). We essentially have throw away computers, laptops, and tablets. We even have throw away guns (just look at the cost of a High Point or police trade in Glock some day and wonder why you don’t have like ten of them stashed for the zombie apocalypse).

What we don’t have is throw away military equipment. Tanks, airplanes, artillery, ships. In WWII we essentially had throw away military equipment. It didn’t have to be qualitatively better than German or Japanese stuff so long as we had a quantitative advantage of stuff that worked well enough as a complete system to get the job done. But, that was essentially the ONLY TIME in US Miltiary History where all the toys were new, all the toys were procured with a single conflict in mind, and all the systems were designed as cheaply as possible to win the war.

I could go into detail about how the entire war machine was meant to work together as a whole, but someone else already did that heavy lifting: and it is well worth your time to read.

Ever since then we’ve been designing and procuring equipment to last. The Six Days war showed American military leaders that we had to have an Army ready to win on day one of the next conflict. No more North Africa campaigns. No more getting our noses bloody while the massive industrial machinery spun up to turn citizens into a well equipped fighting force. You could say that the modern American procurement doctrine was created when the Israelis and Arabs destroyed more than a years worth of American and Soviet armor production in a week of fighting.

To put that into context, the Israeli side of the Six Day war publically admits to losing 400 tanks. The other side admits to “several hundred” Even if we say that only means 300, it means that modern maneuver warfare between peer forces can easily eat up 100 tanks per day of combat.  Makes it seem inconsequential when Congress tells the Army to buy 12 tanks a year to keep the lines open when at one point Israel lost 50% of their total tank force in less than a week.

In WWII it was Sten Guns and M3 Grease Guns, cheap stamped sheet metal weapons that were adopted not because they were the best, but because they were the cheapest. When facing an enemy in a grinding battle of industrial warfare having a 90% solution that costs 10% of the 100% solution is the way to go. I guess right now is a good enough time to talk about the concepts of the different generations of warfare: You could say that there is a pre and post Six Day war divide clearly in the middle of third generation warfare. Before is the WWII model, after is the Desert Storm model.

So the Six Day war changed things. Our military gear was no longer, “lots and lots of good enough” that took forever to move because it takes more resources to move 20 crappy tanks than it does to move 2 good ones, our gear became the best we could afford that worked as part of a combined arms team. The US Army (and NATO Allies) all embarked on periods of modernization. The Abrams, the Challenger II, the Leopard 2 main battle tanks were partnered with the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Warrior, and the Marder fighting vehicles respectively. Instead of having a quantitative advantage in number of tanks, fighting vehicles and men, we would embrace a qualitative advantage over the Warsaw pact. We would train our forces to see first, shoot first, move faster, and use the terrain in Air Land Battle and the Mobile Defense doctrine to give the enemy more terrain than he could handle, then mop up the red horde with defeat in detail.

It worked. The post Six Day War concepts proved themselves in Desert Storm, and again in the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom where the Soviet model of equipment and training were found lacking (and the Russians took note of this too).

For those who have been paying attention to Ukraine, war is about to change again. The Separatists, for lack of a more descriptive term we’ll just call them “Russians” and the Ukrainians are pretty much in a stalemate brought about by political and tactical forces. The amount of armor that’s been eaten up by that conflict is pretty insane. And most of it was good quality Soviet era stuff. Stuff that is still in front line use across much of the world.

The new era of warfare is just a continuation of the old, but now it is using EW and SIGINT platforms to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum to fundamentally see and hear more than the enemy while you are blinding and deafening the enemy. It is the information aspect of the OODA loop (Boyd’s cycle) being played out on land and in the air. The quality of information and coordination trumps the quality of tanks, fighting vehicles or aircraft.

The people who are paying attention are concerned. The people who are idiots are selling the F-35, which will have neither a quantitative nor qualitative advantage. It can’t fly higher, faster, or turn quicker than existing planes, and using it as a mini-AWACs makes it incredibly vulnerable to enemy EW and SIGINT platforms. If we want an AWACs, there are better platforms than a miniature strike fighter, and if we want a strike fighter then bigger is better (which is why the USAF was talking about getting the F-22 lines going as an interim next gen light bomber). As a side note a few wonks have started lobbying for the YF-23 to be manufactured for the interim light bomber mission, which I think is a fine idea.

But just like the M4 Sherman was meant to be essentially a cheap solution to a big problem, and the Army has tried to upgrade from the M16 and M4 rifles almost constantly since they were introduced (OICW, SPIW, XM8, H&K 416, FN SCAR, heck even Robinson Arms threw their hat into the ring) the Army can’t find an upgrade that is both significantly better and even as cheap. Right now the M4 is essentially down to the level of being a throwaway component. The modern M4A1 costs the Army less in real dollars than a Garand did in WWII or an M14 did. This makes the M4A1 ubiquitous across all sorts of our allies. The AK-47 is the same way, it’s cheap and it does the job its buyers need it to do.

There is nothing wrong with the F4 Phantom II fighter, it is still in use today with a few of our allies (as is the F-5). The F-4 flies faster than the F-35, and in a number of engagement scenarios the F-4 can kill the F-35. The kill depends on the F-4 being fed information that negates the F-35s stealth advantage and ensures the F-4 pilot can engage in a manner advantageous to the Phantom. The entire selling point for the F-35 at this point isn’t the aircraft itself, but the toys it carries and how it will somehow enable other legacy systems to be more effective. That makes about as much sense as the Army buying a tank that it won’t use as a tank but as a command, control, and communication (C3)node in a 7 million dollar tank chassis when a 50,000 dollar truck would be better. In a war against a peer force, we don’t need a lot of C3 tanks, but we will need C3 trucks, and we’ll need a lot of tanks. And not tanks that cost more than we can afford or are too heavy to get to the fight on time in useful numbers. The Sheridan was only airdropped into combat 10 times (that is ten tanks were dropped once each into Panama), but it worked and they were there when needed (amazingly fire from a hacienda would stop once a 155mm shell came crashing through).

The USAF would be better off with a few “mainframe” aircraft and a lot of “dumb terminal” aircraft getting their intel updates. Even the Gripen is cheap by modern standards comes with on the fly networking and sensor to shooter linking capabilities (the pilot that can see the target can queue a missile from a wingman who can’t to kill the target). For the cost of an F-35 we could conservatively buy 3 Gripens. That would be a better use of taxpayer dollars.

Now I don’t want to depress people, the Russian military machine is not the behemoth it once was. It struggles with professionalism and is still mostly conscripts. But already the Russians have adopted “more and cheaper” instead of best tech that money can buy. They see the writing on the wall, and know that people die in war. Survivability is a selling point for weapons contractors, and in reality it is only a subordinate function of being able to kill the enemy before he kills you.

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5 Responses to The disposable economy

  1. jccarlton says:

    Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    In war everything is disposable. The problem is that in peacetime, every weapon and piece of equipment becomes a treasure and there is never anything such as just good enough. Which is why we got those battleships before WW1, The land battleships before WW2 and the gold plated aircraft that we have now.


  2. PRCD says:

    “The people who are paying attention are concerned. The people who are idiots are selling the F-35, which will have neither a quantitative nor qualitative advantage”

    It has more power than the previous generation fighters to hold more weapons while still maneuvering like a fighter. The weapons are contained inside the aircraft reducing RCS. It has stealth which reduces RCS. It’s useless if you’re superior in a dogfight but get blown-away by radar-guided air-to-air missiles or SAMs before you can close with the enemy.

    I get your point about quantity being a form of quality, but survivability is important when facing a threat such as surface-to-air missiles where one tracking radar can simultaneously guide 6 comparatively cheap missiles to targets 100-200 km away.


  3. rthtgnbs says:

    It has more power, yet can’t fly faster than an F4 Phantom II. It can’t outmaneuver an F-16 in a dogfight. In order to use BVR systems to avoid a dogfight, it needs BVR sensors such as the AESA radar, which makes it vulnerable to enemy ES sensors. This is why the F117 and B2 fly under radio receive only. So the conditions for a stealth “fighter” are such that if you lose the AWACs you lose the advantage of stealth against an opponent with decent ES. Guess where China and Russia are actually ahead of the US, and if you guessed Electronic Warfare (ES, EA, and EP) you would be correct.

    So yes it can hold weapons internally. That’s cool. But it is not a silver bullet solution to the problems facing the DOD and other US allies. I say this because silver bullet solutions, the one thing that will solve all your problems and win the war, don’t exist. More recent arguments in support of the F-35 have centered on how it will enhance existing capabilities, which is a much better argument than the original “lets replace all the F-16s and F/A-18s” with this because buying in bulk will save money.

    The last time the DOD did this it gave us the F-111, which was a decent enough plane in its own way. It wasn’t much of a fighter, but it was a decent bomber, and eventually even a decent EA platform. If you take a look at the LRSB requirements, it looks quite a bit like an updated F-111, which is why the YF-23 is being tossed about as a possible contender.


    • PRCD says:

      To your broader point, I can’t think of a “joint” fighter that has been successful. Many comparisons have been made to the F-111. Every fighter that’s a huge compromise for all services won’t be great at anything.

      “So the conditions for a stealth “fighter” are such that if you lose the AWACs you lose the advantage of stealth against an opponent with decent ES. Guess where China and Russia are actually ahead of the US, and if you guessed Electronic Warfare (ES, EA, and EP) you would be correct”
      I think you’re greatly overestimating what EW can do for you. Russia supposedly spent the past decade upgrading EW and IRCM systems yet a Sukhoi was just shot down by the Turks, possibly by a Russian SAM. EW only “works” when used in conjuction with a lot of other things such as formation flying, maneuvers, and the threat of cluster bombs. Even then, it’s never really been tried against double-digit SAMs.

      Stealth aircraft turn off their radars not because EW systems can be used for targeting but because they can be used to inform trained air defense systems operators the angle, altitude, and likely range with very poor resolution so that radar operators can turn up their gain and start searching the right sector for targets with low RCS. If the rumors about the Kosovo air campaign are true, stealth aircraft can be shot down without emitting anything. ES is far from a silver bullet for stealth.

      The actual Chinese and Russian strategy against stealth aircraft is far from using EW. It’s to build radars out of band and distribute receive arrays such that returns can be collected from stealth targets at aspects where the target stealth is poor. That said, JSF stealth is pretty poor in a lot of other bands and aspect angles:


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