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The Great Stealth Bomber Protest

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So Boeing, on behalf of its teaming arrangement with Lockheed Martin, has protested.

Late last month, the US Air Force chose Northrop Grumman to develop and build its hoped-for Long-Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B), and the losing bidder is naturally unhappy. Two friends at the defense conference I attended last weekend expressed alternate but emotional reactions: well of course they protested said the writer; geez I was hoping they wouldn’t said the consultant. I wasn’t calling the odds, figuring that the nuances of corporate strategy and the degree of corporate indignation were unknowable. But that’s the problem with this episode of the drama—the unknowable knows inherent in this program are nearly inscrutable, but the policy implications of yet another protest are more clear.

The filing was extensively covered. Courtney Albon of Inside Defense did call Boeing's complaint “an unusually detailed statement on its decision to protest.” The simple brief on Boeing's website decried the decision process as “fundamentally flawed.” The company is certainly trying to evoke sympathy with its corporate ambitions for better public policy. “The cost evaluation,” its lawyers claimed, “did not properly reward the contractors’ proposals to break the upward-spiraling historical cost curves of defense acquisitions.” Loren Thompson, advisor to senior management at both Boeing and Lockheed, immediately covered the issue for Forbes to further explain their intent. In Defense News, Andrew Clevenger and Lara Seligman cited him as asserting that “the Boeing/Lockheed team bid $11 billion for engineering and manufacturing development (EMD), but the Air Force calculated EMD at $21.4 billion.”

How such a gap? In National Defense, Stew Magnuson wrote how Boeing complained that “the Air Force over-relied on historical data to make its decision, and ignored recent advances that Lockheed Martin has made in manufacturing processes with the F-35 program.” In the Wall Street Journal, Doug Cameron cited an unnamed source that relying on historicals rather than the contractors’ estimates “doesn’t seem to make any sense.” But is the best basis for estimating future costs really such a knowable know? Should the USAF take contractors’ word when bidding for a cost-plus contract? Should they not thoroughly check them against experience? Perhaps the Air Force also considered how Lockheed has performed on the F-35 program—at least up until those “recent advances”. That two-decade mess is also substantially the government’s fault, but even so, the JSF might not have been the best example to cite. Perhaps the service considered how well Boeing has performed recently on the KC-46A tanker program. If the company can have such trouble developing a flying gas station from a commercial airliner that first flew in 1982, then maybe the whole stealth bomber thing could be a stretch.

To be fair, defense contractors are easy targets for defense analysts like me. Building stealthy attack thingies is hard work, and has been for a long time. Back in 1994, I helped the Air Force Department analyze some details around the AGM-137 Tri-Service Standoff Attack Missile (TSSAM). Development contractor Northrop was having such trouble that by the end of the year, Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutch had terminated the program. The next year, the Pentagon’s acquisition secretariat initiated the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) program as a partial replacement. Lockheed bid its AGM-158 design, and McDonnell Douglas—soon to be bought by Boeing—bid its AGM-159. In 1998, the USAF chose the former, but over the next ten years, production quality problems troubled the winner. By 2009, these were mostly resolved, and the USAF has since bought thousands. The extended range version (the JASSM-ER) is now even the basis for the forthcoming Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), which the Navy will hang from those Boeing F-18 strike fighters that it loves so much.

AGM-137, AGM-158. TSSAM, JASSM, LRASM. Northrop, Boeing, Lockheed. Similar numbers, similar names, similar purposes, repeated problems, same contractors—all now arguing over whether two of them should get a do-over. Historically, those mulligans have been granted by the GAO at a rate of about 2 percent; this time, Byron Callan puts the odds at maybe 15 percent. Again, I have no idea, but this time, I argue that the unknowns are even less knowable. This time, the losers are protesting something that’s classified. The USAF won’t even release the amount of the winning bid, as the figure could “provide a window into the development being undertaken by the contractor.” If they’re keeping even the price from preying eyes, how much the rest of us can ever know is pretty questionable.

All the same, the leadership of the Air Force must realize the importance of knowing those future costs—to the extent that they’re at all knowable. The Congress was already experiencing serious sticker shock before the topline estimate became real. In the 2020s, the LRS-B program will absolutely compete with the JSF program for funding. In future wars, T.X. Hammes recently wrote, quantity may trump quality—so if there’s going to be an LRS-B at all, it had better be affordable. The USAF has already told the Congress that it may want well more than 100 aircraft. For the Big War in the Western Pacific, David Deptula of the Mitchell Institute (“Beyond the Bomber”) and John Stillion of the CSBA (“Trends in Air-to-Air Combat”) are talking about the potential multi-functionality of the big bomber. With added missions, though, usually come added costs.

Whatever those costs and the military need, the protestors are now asking the Government Accountability Office to substitute its judgment for that of the Air Force. For preventing fraud, corruption, or cronyism, I can agree that an appeals mechanism is a valuable public institution. But that’s not the argument here. How the GAO has the clairvoyance to assess, better than the USAF, “proposals to break the upward-spiraling historical cost curves” I cannot imagine. How the GAO would judge, with greater validity than the USAF,whether to consider those proposals with greater weight than historicals I also cannot imagine. At the end of the source selection process—stretched out for months while the USAF checked and rechecked the grading of the papers—some of the decisions had to be judgment calls. It’s understandable that Boeing protested. Unfortunately, at the end of day, we may mostly know that we’ve just lost 100 days.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security where this piece first appeared.


The Rapid Buildup of China’s Military: The 'Intentions' Question

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At the next presidential debate, the moderator asks: “How will you as President strategically respond to the rapid buildup and modernization of China’s military?” Each candidate’s answer will likely depend on the experts who have their ear – and what the candidates ultimately believe China’s intentions to be.

For example, experts like George Washington University’s Amitai Etzioni counsel accommodation – Etzioni sees China “as a regional, rather than global power” with “neither the capability nor evident desire to establish a new world order.”  In sharp counterpoint, the Hudson Institute’s Seth Cropsey asserts China’s “immediate goal is hegemony – to be the overlord of Asia” and insists on peace through countervailing strength.  Former Assistant Secretary of State and father of the “pivot to Asia” Kurt Campbell attempts to bridge this wide intentions gulf with the observation “it's not clear China itself knows really what it wants.”

This question of Chinese intentions is critical to determining appropriate White House policy – and whether any “pivot” to Asia is even necessary. If China seeks only to protect its homeland and guard the trading route its needs to prosper, the world has little to fear.  If, however, China seeks to seize territory and perhaps even drive the U.S. out of the Western Pacific as experts like US-China Commission member Dan Slane and University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer insist, these decidedly bad intentions militate a far firmer presidential response.

China can certainly justify a strong military on homeland protection grounds after a Century of Humiliation involving aggression from a long list of foreign powers. There is also little question Trader China must morph from a continental-based power to a global naval force.

Indeed, as the world’s factory floor, China must continually feed its manufacturing facilities with massive quantities of natural resources from all over the world – copper from Chile, iron ore from Australia, oil from the Persian Gulf. China’s heavily export-dependent economy must also ship hundreds of billions of dollars of product to markets from Sierra Leone and Bolivia to Detroit, Frankfort, and Vancouver. As Alfred Mahan taught us long ago – and Mahanian scholars like Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes of the U.S. Naval War College teach us today – naval power is the key to preserving one’s trading interests.

Having given China’s good intentions angel its due, there is also this insight from Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation: “China has a legitimate interest in preserving its trade routes and preserving access to its markets. The problem arises when China purchases systems that aren't really necessarily focused on defending things like sea lanes, but, instead, appear to be primarily focused on keeping the United States out of the Western Pacific.”  Dan Slane is even more blunt: “The Chinese are embracing their version of the Monroe Doctrine …to get us out of the Western Pacific so that they would have the ability to control that whole area of the world.”

To Professor Mearsheimer, this is perfectly rational: “The best situation for survival in the international system is to be a regional hegemon -- to be by far the most powerful state in your area of the world and make sure no distant great power has come into your region.”

As for China’s revanchist territorial ambitions, Beijing’s leaders themselves – along with People’s Liberation Army commanders – have made them abundantly clear.  While it is old news that China asserts its right to the “renegade province” of Taiwan, few outside of India realize China also claims India’s Arunachal Pradesh as “Southern Tibet.” 

In what Cambridge University’s Stefan Halper describes as a “preposterous claim,” China also asserts sovereignty over 80% of the South China Sea while it similarly lays claim to Japan’s Senkaku Islands – along with a continental shelf that runs from the Chinese mainland right up to Japan’s 12-mile territorial limit.

It is precisely because of such possibly bad intentions that this year’s bumper crop of presidential candidates must think deeply about the “China issue” and respond accordingly.  They must do so not with meaningless slogans but rather with a set of appropriately nuanced policies worthy of the word “debate.”

Peter Navarro is a professor at the University of California-Irvine.  He is the author of Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World (Prometheus Books) and director of the companion Crouching Tiger documentary film series.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Russia's Economy: What Do the Numbers Tell Us?

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Before the Bolshevik revolution, Vladimir Lenin supposedly said “the worse the better.”  Essentially what he meant was that the more conditions deteriorated under the Russian czar (and in its aftermath) the more likely the Bolsheviks would obtain power. In this, Lenin was quite prescient.   

Today, the Russian economy has fallen into a “worse” phase. The collapse in oil prices, coupled with economic sanctions, has significantly impaired economic growth.  The question is: How bad is it, and what are the future prospects for recovery? 

In short, the prospects currently look dismal. Even a rapid and sustained resuscitation in energy prices is unlikely to restore growth to levels experienced earlier this decade.  Let’s glance at the numbers (see above for graph):  

One striking fact is that Russian growth started to decline rapidly in 2012 Q1, well before oil prices fell or economic sanctions took hold. Growth had plunged to approximately one percent before either phenomenon occurred. 

Russia’s 4 percent GDP growth rate was largely manufactured by enormous growth in consumer credit, which was not sustainable. The World Bank estimates that, by 2017, Russia’s real GDP will be smaller than it was in 2012. 

The Russian economy is seriously dependent on energy. Approximately 70 percent of its exports are hydrocarbons, and 50 percent of government revenue comes directly from the oil sector. Given this addiction, the exchange rate has collapsed to 62 rubles per dollar (as of October 2015), compared with its average of 29 rubles per dollar for the 10-year period preceding last year’s decline. Over the last year, inflation has increased from 7.8 to 15.8 percent. 

After being in surplus as recently as 2012, Moscow’s budget deficit is expected to run 4.5% of GDP in 2015. This is an enormous swing over a short period of time. According to Moody’s, the Russian Finance Ministry plans to pull more than 2 trillion rubles from one of its two sovereign wealth funds to cover the shortfall.  Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said Russia could exhaust both its funds in less than two years if it continues to rely on the reserves to balance the budget. 

The Russian Central Bank Governor stated that international reserves stood at $370 billion in early October, down from last year’s high of $510 billion. After crowing about an investment-grade sovereign debt rating for several years, Russia saw both Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s downgrade its rating this year.    

Meanwhile, consumption spending has fallen at its fastest pace since the 1998 crisis--contracting 7.5 percent in the second quarter. And the poverty rate has risen by two percent in just the last four quarters.  Twenty-two million Russians now live in poverty.  

While it is true Russia’s population has stabilized in recent years, that’s only because birth rates were relatively high during the 1980s. With birth rates collapsing during the 1990s, Russia’s population decline is set to quickly accelerate soon.     

The economic sanctions imposed after the invasion of the Crimea peninsula have produced deeper damage than anyone expected. Strict sanctions from many western countries have prevented Russian companies from raising money in Europe and the United States and have also blocked arms trades. 

The drop in the value of trade is indicative of the collapse in economic activity. During the first eight months of this year, imports have declined by 39 percent while exports have dropped by almost 30 percent. 

Looking longer term, without deep and sustained structural economic reforms, Russia, now classified as a high-income country by the World Bank, faces a bleak future. Snow blanketed Moscow the first week in October.  Russians should prepare for a long winter. 

As for that classic Lenin quote, it sparks the question: Will history repeat itself?  Russia had hoped to cut its defense spending—but given its campaign in Syria (and its earlier incursion into Ukraine), that has proved problematic. Vladimir Putin’s poll ratings are still high in Russia. But unless the economic fundamentals improve, such high poll numbers could be short lived. 

A former chief economist for Ernst & Young, William T. Wilson is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

TopicsEconomics RegionsEurope

Get Ready, America: China is Trying to Sell Its Lethal J-31 Stealth Fighter

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Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is making an aggressive push to sell its J-31 stealth fighter to international customers at the Dubai airshow. AVIC intends to fly a production version of its “Gyrfalcon” by 2019. The aircraft could become operational as early as 2022. Full operational capability would follow roughly three years later—but that’s all contingent upon finding a customer.

But the Chinese company faces obstacles in its quest to export the twin-engine F-35 knock-off. The problem is that China is still largely dependent on Russian jet engine technology because it has consistently failed to develop reliable indigenous propulsion technology of its own.

“Engines are still a problem area for China's industry,” aerospace industry consultant Richard Aboulafia of the Virginia-based Teal Group told me.  “So much of an aircraft's performance... Reliability, speed, time-to-climb, stealth, etc., is heavily dependent upon having world-class jet engine technology, so it's the wrong place for an aspiring weapons exporter to have a weak spot.”

China is working on jet engine technology. But Beijing has not yet mastered propulsion technology that would allow its products to compete on the international marketplace independent of Russian largesse. The Russians supply the engines for most of China’s offering like the FC-1 Xiaolong—which is also known as the JF-17 Thunder. The JF-17 is powered by a single 19,000lbs thrust-class Klimov RD-93 afterburning turbofan that was derived from the MiG-29’s RD-33 engine.

However, the Chinese are known to be working on an indigenous replacement for the RD-93 on the JF-17 called the Guizhou WS-13. The indigenous motor—should it prove to be viable—has slightly more thrust than the Russian engine. A prototype JF-17 has flown with the new engine according to Chinese officials who spoke at the Paris air show. However, given the Chinese track record on developing efficient and reliable engines, Beijing probably has a long way to go before the new motor is ready for prime time.

Nonetheless, if the Chinese are truly close to perfecting a production ready WS-13—as some in the Pentagon claim—then that engine could be developed into a propulsion system for the J-31. The current J-31/FC-31 prototype—like the JF-17—is powered by the Russian RD-93. Indeed, Chinese officials speaking to reporters at the Dubai airshow indicated that the production FC-31 would be powered by a Chinese-made  “advanced medium thrust engine” producing roughly 20,000lbs of thrust.

But the Chinese made other claims that may stretch the truth. According to Aviation Week, Lin Peng, AVIC’s chief designer for the FC-31, claimed the jet would have “multi-spectrum, low-observability characteristics” effective against L-band radars—which given the physics—seems somewhat dubious. It’s not clear how effective China’s stealth technology is—however, U.S. officials said that it’s not likely to match the F-35’s low observable capabilities.

Moreover, Lin said foreign export customers would be able to customize their jets with their own sensors, weapons and communications systems. But the J-31 would come with a host of Chinese-developed weapons including the PL-9 dogfighting missile, SD-10A (PL-12) medium-range air-to-air missile and Beijing’s version of the small diameter bomb. The jet will have a total payload of 17,600lb, 4,400lbs of which would be carried internally in its weapons bays. The J-31 will have a combat radius of 448 nautical miles with internal weapons and a maximum takeoff weight of 55,000lbs.

But all of that depends on finding a buyer. The J-31 was intended as an export-only aircraft. Neither the People’s Liberation Army Air Force nor the People’s Liberation Army Navy had ever intended to operate the jet themselves. However, that might be changing. AVIC is currently negotiating with the PLAAF about a potential J-31/FC-31 purchase.

If Beijing buys the J-31 for its own use, it would likely boost the confidence of potential export customers and could provide China with a market opening. But right now, the J-31 is looking for its first customer. Only time will tell if AVIC will make a sale—and if China has finally developed a workable engine.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Revealed: Russia's Next Generation Nuclear Submarines

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Russia is developing two new types of nuclear submarines to replace its Project 949A Oscar-class and Project 945 Sierra-class vessels. The new vessels are a generation beyond Russia’s Project 955 Borei-class ballistic missile submarine and Project 855M Yasen-class guided-missile submarines, which are originally late Soviet-era designs.

The Sierra-class replacement is being designed as an “interceptor” that would protect the Russian nuclear ballistic missile submarine fleet while the Oscar-class replacement would be a guided-missile submarine (SSGN) that would hunt U.S. carrier strike groups like their forbearers.

“As part of the ongoing work on the design of fifth-generation of nuclear submarines, two models of the submarine will be created. The main purpose of the first —to ensure the sustainability of strategic missile submarine cruiser combat groups, and fighting enemy submarines,” Anatoly Shlemov, a senior executive with United Shipbuilding Corporation told the Russian new outlet earlier this year. “The second boat will carry cruise missiles to hit shore and surface targets.”

According to Shlemov, the two submarines—which are being developed by the Malakhit Design Bureau—will be based on a common hull design. The primary difference will be in the two vessel’s weapon systems—the interceptor variant will not feature tubes to carry long-range anti-ship or cruise missiles. That version of submarines is expected to replace Project 971 Shchuka-B (NATO: Akula), the Project 945 Sierra and the remaining Project 671RTM Shchuka-class (NATO: Victor III) boats. The SSGN variant will replace the Project 949A Oscar II-class.

The Russians say that they expect the new submarines to entire production sometime between 2017 and 2018, depending on the variant. The interceptor variant will enter service in the 2020s if the Russian projections are accurate. American assessments of the Russian developments are not so optimistic. U.S. naval experts believe the new Russian boats won’t be entering production for sometime.

“I did some checking and it seems like the Russians do have some new designs in the works. The people who watch this effort, however, don't believe it will result in new construction anytime soon,” said Bryan Clark, a submarine expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “Russia will continue with the upgrades to Akula and Sierra and construction of [Project 955A] Borei and [Project 855M] Yasen.”

Clark noted that the Russians are specifically designing the new submarine to fit into the bastion strategy the Soviet Union used to defend its ballistic missile submarines during parts of the Cold War. However, but the Soviets were forced into using that strategy by the U.S. Navy. “In the Cold War they got backed into having to defend their SSBNs by U.S. actions. Now they are designing subs for that mission,” Clark said.

The most interesting aspect of the new Russian designs is not that fact that they are designing a new generation of submarines, but rather the strategy that is driving the requirements for those boats. “I think what is more interesting is the missions they plan to use the new designs for,” Clark said. “If they believe they need a SSN [nuclear attack submarine] to protect their SSGNs, then the U.S. can force the Russians into a losing game of adding subs to protect other subs. That was part of the Cold War ASW [anti-submarine warfare] strategy.”

Meanwhile, Russia is refurbishing twelve existing nuclear submarines because it cannot build enough Yasen-class vessels to replace its current fleet. Half-a-dozen Oscars and Akulas are being modernized at the Zvezda shipyard in Bolshoy Kamen, which is in the Russian Far East. The vessels will receive a comprehensive upgrade to bring them upto the same standard as the Yasens. “Russia is upgrading some Akula IIs and Oscar IIs to give them new combat systems, new countermeasures, and new weapons. They are designating at least the Oscar IIs as a new ship class, and probably will do the same with the Akulas,” Clark said. “They are doing this because of the long time it has taken to get the Yasens out.”

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.


This is How America's Lethal F-22 Stealth Fighter Could Dominate the Sky

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The U.S. Air Force’s fleet of more than 200 veteran F-15C/D Eagle air superiority fighters could gain a new, vitally important role in its old age.

Twenty-six years after McDonnell Douglas — now part of Boeing — delivered the last single-seat F-15C to the Air Force, the flying branch is adding new sensors, communications gear and potentially weapons options that could extend the type’s operational relevance into the 2030s and beyond … as a heavily-armed “flying arsenal” supporting the stealthy F-22.

As recently as 2009, the Air Force had planned to fully replace its then-400 or so air-superiority F-15s with 381 F-22s, but Robert Gates — the defense secretary at the time — opposed spending tens of billions of dollars on high-tech stealth fighters while the military was fighting bloody ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Defense Department ended F-22 production at 187 plus prototypes, leaving a shortfall in air-superiority fighters that, realistically, only the F-15 could fill. The Air Force began mulling upgrades to keep the twin-engine Eagles war-ready for decades to come.

Structurally, the F-15s are fine. Boeing projects that the F-15C/Ds, which average more than 30 years old, can safely fly another two decades, at least. “Right now, there is nothing life-limiting on the F-15,” Col. Gerald Swift, the Air Force’s top F-15 maintainer, said in 2011. “It is a very well-designed platform.”

But many of the F-15’s systems are dated, in particular its communications, electronic warfare gear and sensors. Newer Chinese and Russian fighters match or exceed the Eagle’s radar-detection range and tracking ability and new surface-to-air and aerial missiles threaten to outsmart the F-15’s countermeasures.

To remedy these weaknesses, the Air Force is paying Boeing and Raytheon to install new APG-63(v)3 electronically-scanned array radars on most of the surviving Eagles, at a rate of around a dozen per year and a cost of more than $5 million per installation. The flying branch awarded the contract for the next 17 new radars in late October.

And on Oct. 1, the Air Force selected BAE Systems to upgrade F-15s with the new Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System, a suite of all-digital radar- and missile-detectors that cues the F-15’s radar jammers, radar-spoofing chaff and flares for distracting infrared-guided missiles.

The new radar and electronic warfare gear could help the F-15 survive in a direct fight with the latest rival fighters. But a separate set of enhancements could prepare the Eagle for an arguably more-important role as an airborne missile truck supporting the F-22. Boeing is developing a pod for the Air Force that helps F-15 and F-22 pilots communicate without breaking radio silence.

The Talon HATE pod, which is still in the prototype stage, essentially “translates” the F-22’s unique radio datalink so that it can pipe information into an F-15’s cockpit — and so an F-15 can send information back. As a bonus, the Talon HATE pod includes a passive infrared sensor, allowing an F-15 to detect targets without turning on its radar and giving itself up. Using the pod, a mixed flight of F-15s and F-22s could work together, both types scanning and communicating discreetly so as to preserve the stealth qualities of the F-22, in particular.

This is important to the Air Force because the F-22, while fast and capable of avoiding detection, is not particularly heavily-armed. In stealth mode, with its weapons packed in internal bays, an F-22 carries just eight air-to-air missiles, four fewer than Russian and Chinese Sukhoi jets can carry in their heaviest configuration.

And considering that there are only around 140 combat-coded F-22s in the American inventory, any U.S. air-dominance force centered on F-22s risks flying into battle with far fewer missiles than its opponents might possess. To tilt that balance of power back toward the Americans, Boeing is proposing a new configuration for upgraded F-15Cs that it calls the “2040C,” a reference to the enhanced Eagle’s possible out-of-service date.

The 2040C, which Boeing unveiled in September, adds conformal fuel tanks as standard and equips the F-15 with new pylons that double the Eagle’s missile loadout from eight to a staggering 16. The idea is that F-22s would lead mixed flights, with the faster stealth fighters with their better passive sensors finding targets for the more heavily-laden F-15s. The F-22s would be smart “spotters.” The F-15s would be dumb “shooters.”

The effect, in theory, would be roughly the same as adding many more missiles to an F-22 without sacrificing the F-22’s stealth.

The Air Force has not committed to the 2040C upgrade, but Boeing is bullish that the flying branch will want to add the enhancements when the Eagles start cycling through the depot for deep maintenance and EPAWSS installation in the 2020s. “Doubling the number of missiles on the jet is not something that’s a current program of record,” Boeing vice president of F-15 programs Mike Gibbons said, “but it is something we know is of interest to the Air Force.”

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 


Let the War over America's New Stealth Bomber Begin

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Predictably, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are protesting the U.S. Air Force awarding the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) contract to Northrop Grumman.

Almost everyone in Washington’s national security circles had expected the two companies to protest the award. As the number of new big-ticket Pentagon procurement programs continues to decline, competition to secure a piece of the pie has become increasingly fierce. Inevitably, a losing contractor team will protest each contract award to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) regardless of whether they have legitimate grounds to do so or not.

“Boeing and Lockheed Martin concluded the selection process for the Long Range Strike Bomber was fundamentally flawed. The cost evaluation performed by the government did not properly reward the contractors’ proposals to break the upward-spiraling historical cost curves of defense acquisitions, or properly evaluate the relative or comparative risk of the competitors’ ability to perform, as required by the solicitation,” the two companies said in a joint statement released on Nov. 6. “That flawed evaluation led to the selection of Northrop Grumman over the industry-leading team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, whose proposal offers the government and the warfighter the best possible LRS-B at a cost that uniquely defies the prohibitively expensive trends of the nation’s past defense acquisitions.”

Northrop immediately fired back with its own statement. “Northrop Grumman Corporation is disappointed that its former LRS-B competitors have decided to disrupt a program that is so vital to national security,” reads to statement from Randy Belote, Northrop’s vice president of strategic communications. “The U.S. Air Force conducted an exceptionally thorough and disciplined process with multiple layers of review. Their process took into full account the parties' respective offerings and their relative capabilities to execute their offerings on schedule and on budget. Northrop Grumman offered an approach that is inherently more affordable and based on demonstrated performance and capabilities. Our record stands in contrast to that of other manufacturers' large aircraft programs of the last decade. As the only company to ever design and build a stealth bomber, we offered the best solution for our nation's security. We look forward to the GAO reaffirming the Defense Department's decision so we can continue work on this critically vital program.”

Given the classified nature of the LRS-B program and the near total secrecy in which the Air Force conducted the competition, it’s hard to judge from the outside if Boeing and Lockheed have any grounds for protesting the award. However, protests to the GAO are becoming all too frequent. These protests—which effectively stops work on a program even if they are rejected—cost the government and the American taxpayer time and money and it could even jeopardize national security if critical capabilities are delayed.

These days, the GAO requires a filing fee since Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, according to Joseph Hornyak, who wrote on this topic for the law firm Holland & Knight. However, the fee is nominal and does not act as much of a deterrent for large corporation. “In the case of defense procurement, however, Congress has given losers the right not only to protest but also the right to hold up the procurement until the protest is ruled on,” former Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Jacques Gansler said. “Thus, for the price of a stamp, anyone can initiate litigation over the award of a contract…”

While protesting an award might cost slightly more than a stamp these days, it still very easy for a company to file a frivolous protest. Perhaps Congress might need to step in and change the rules. One possible solution might be to not only charge a filing fee, but also to charge the protestor for the cost of the investigation and for the lost time and added cost to the government for the delay—if the protest is found to be invalid. Moreover, if the protest is found to be completely frivolous, there should be a penalty for filing such a claim. That penalty should be harsh enough to serve as a deterrent to filing a frivolous claim.

Obviously, there must be some allowances for a good faith protest, but a losing bidder needs to be forced to think very carefully before complaining to the GAO.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.


America's Lethal F-16 Fighter Jet Could Fly for 92 Years (In Theory)

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Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the iconic F-16 jet fighter, just completed a two-year test that simulated a staggering 92 years of normal flying for one of the single-engine planes.

That’s a long time. And amazingly, the F-16 — a 1990s-vintage Block 50 version — held up just fine. “The airframe was then subjected to several maximum-load conditions to demonstrate that the airframe still had sufficient strength to operate within its full operational flight envelope,” Lockheed noted in a press release.

The point of the test was to provide data for Lockheed’s coming effort to rebuild 300 or so U.S. Air Force F-16s — Block 50s and earlier Block 40s — so they can keep flying at least into the 2030s. The Air Force is struggling to maintain its roughly 1,900-strong fleet of F-15s, F-16s, F-22 and A-10s while also buying new F-35s to replace the oldest F-16s, for starters.

At some point in the 2030s, according to Air Force plans, the fighter fleet will consist of just 180 or so F-22s and slightly more than 1,760 F-35s. It’s getting from here to there that’s tricky.

That’s because the F-35s are coming in dribs and drabs. In 2010, the Air Force wanted to buy 80 per year starting in 2015, but owing to deep budget cuts and the stealth fighter’s high price — currently around $100 million per copy — today the plan is to buy 80 per year starting in 2021.

So the newest of the Air Force’s 1,000 F-16s must stick around longer than anyone had expected. As built, Block 40 and 50 F-16s have an 8,000 flight-hour fatigue life. At normal usage of around 300 hours per year, that amounts to 24 years, which would compel the F-16s to retire … well, now.

So the Air Force is bumping these F-16s up to at least 12,000 hours. Hence the fatigue testing — and the surprising conclusion that, in theory, an F-16 could last as long as 92 years. “The successful completion of this phase of full-scale durability testing demonstrates that this aircraft was built to last,” Susan Ouzts, vice president of Lockheed’s F-16 program, said in the press release.

To be clear, there’s basically no chance an F-16 will need to remain in service nearly 100 years. Although, to be fair, the Air Force’s 1960s-vintage KC-135 tankers and B-52 bombers could be 80 years old by the time they retire.

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here


The Russian Military's 5 Next Generation Super Weapons

The Buzz

The Soviet Union might have collapsed in 1991, but modern Russia continues to develop state-of-the-art weapons even if its defense industry is a shadow of what it once was.

In recent years, Russia has launched a host of new developmental programs to replace its Soviet-era arsenal. Though development work has been hurt by economic sanctions and low oil prices, work on myriad projects continue.

While not every part of Russia’s defense industrial complex has weathered the Soviet collapse equally, there are certain areas where Moscow excels. Russia still makes excellent aircraft, armored vehicles, submarines and electronic warfare systems--certainly systems NATO should have its collective eyes on in the months and years to come.


The Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA is probably Russia’s most prominent modernization project. The new jet is being developed as a stealthy fifth-generation fighter that would eventually replace the trusty Su-27 Flanker and its many derivatives.

Once fully developed, the PAK-FA would be a rough analogue to the U.S. Air Force’s Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Like its American counterpart, the PAK-FA is designed to fly high and cruise at supersonic speeds. It’s also being designed to be extremely agile. Russia is also expected to fit the aircraft with advanced sensors and electronic warfare systems.

However, the PAK-FA is expensive and Russia has curtailed its buy to twelve for the time being. Russia probably won’t ramp up production until new, more powerful engines specifically designed for the new jet have completed development.


Russia has also started work on a new stealth bomber. Tupolev, which is the design bureau that has built the majority of Russian bombers, is developing the new aircraft.

There is little concrete information available concerning the PAK-DA. However, there are indications that the plane is being developed as a stealthy, subsonic flying-wing. That’s a departure from earlier Russian efforts that have focused on speed. Indeed, the last Soviet-developed bomber was the Mach 2.0 capable Tu-160.

Russia is delaying the PAK-DA program in favor of new-built Tu-160s, with the PAK-DA  being pushed out to 2023. So the program might be slowed down--but Moscow will need a new bomber sooner rather than later.


Russia is also developing a family of new armored vehicles under the aegis of the Armata program. Instead of a specialized vehicle designed for a specific function, Russia is developing a common chassis that can be adapted for each role.

As such, the Armata is being developed as a series of vehicles including a tank, infantry-fighting vehicle and self-propelled artillery among others. The vehicles incorporate advanced armor and electronics and novel features never before seen on a Russian or Soviet machine. Indeed, the T-14 tank variant includes an unmanned turret and an active protection system.

The question is—can Russia afford it?

Electronic Warfare:

While many Russian technological developments have tended to lag slightly behind the West, Russian electronic warfare systems are equal to if not more advanced than their NATO and American counterparts.

The Pentagon has taken note of Russia’s focus on electronic warfare even as the U.S. Defense Department has lost its way on dominating the electromagnetic spectrum. Some good examples of cutting edge Russian electronic warfare system are the exceptionally capable Krasukha-4 vehicle-borne jamming system and the very capable Khibiny airborne jamming pod—though that system’s capabilities are often grossly overstated.

Russia continues to hone its electronic capabilities and it will continue to be a significant threat going into the future.

Nuclear Submarines:

Russia has always built excellent submarines. But even though they are very capable, the latest Russian designs that have put to sea—the Borei-class ballistic missile submarine and the Yasen-class attack boat—are originally late Soviet-era designs.

The Russians are well aware that technology has moved forward and are working on next-generation nuclear submarine designs. Currently, the Russian navy appears to be developing two additional nuclear submarine designs—one to replace the Oscar-class SSGN and another to replace the Sierra-class.

The Oscar replacement will stalk U.S. carrier strike groups just as their predecessors did while the Sierra replacement will be an “interceptor” that would protect Russia’s SSBN fleet.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.


A Lot of What We Think We Know About World War II Is Terribly Wrong

The Buzz

The Second World War remains an enduringly fascinating subject, but despite the large number of films, documentaries, books and even comics on the subject, our understanding of this catastrophic conflict, even seven decades on, remains heavily dependent on conventional wisdom, propaganda and an interpretation skewed by the information available. In my new book The War in the West: Germany Ascendant 1939-1941, first in a three-volume history, I am challenging a number of long-held assumptions about the war, many of which are based on truth by common knowledge, rather than through detailed and painstaking research.

My Damascene moment came some years ago when I was being given a tour of the Small Arms Unit at the British Staff College at Shrivenham. I was glancing at aGerman MG42, known as a “Spandau” by the Allies. “Of course, that was the best machine gun of the war,’ I commented, relaying what I’d read in many books.

“Says who? Says who?” retorted my guide and head of the unit, John Starling. In the next few minutes, he proceeded to deconstruct everything I thought I knew about this infamous weapon: that its phenomenal rate of fire caused massive problems of over-heating, that it was widely inaccurate (for which having since fired one, I can now vouch), that is was incredibly expensive to manufacture, massively over-engineered and lacked certain simple additions that would have made its handling so much easier. The men supporting this weapon not only had to carry vast amounts of ammunition to feed this thirsty beast, they also had to lumber around six spare barrels because of its readiness to over-heat. And each barrel bore multiple inspection stamps. “Which were,” John told me, “an utter waste of time in the middle of total war.”

I was gobsmacked, but this visit led me down an entirely new line of research, and one that was equally revelatory. I began to realize that almost everything the Germans made was over-engineered, from the tanks to gas-mask cases to the field jacket of the lowly landser. Eventually, in the German military archives in Freiburg in the Black Forest, I found a memo from early December 1941, signed by Hitler, in which was the line, “From now on, we have to stop making such complete and aesthetic weapons.” In other words, up to that point, they had been consciously doing so. Needless to say, his instruction was not followed; those all-metal, finely-designed-yet-cumbersome and utterly pointless cylindrical gas-mask cases were made right up to the end of the war, while still to come was the Panther tank, not to mention the Tiger, with its Porsche-designed six-speed hydraulically controlled semi-automatic pre-selector gear-box, as complicated and sophisticated as it sounds and entirely unsuitable for front-line combat or use by poorly-trained young drivers. The transmission on a U.S.-built Sherman tank was a robust four-speed manual, simply made in vast numbers. America built 74,000 Sherman hulls and engines; Germany built just 1,347 Tigers.

Studying such things in detail meant I was now looking at the operational level of war. Any conflict — or business for that matter — is understood to be conducted on three levels. The first is the strategic — that is, the overall aims and ambitions. The second is the tactical: the coal face, the actual fighting, the pilot in his Spitfire or man in his tank. And the third is the operational — the nuts and bolts, the logistics, economics and the supply of war.

Almost every narrative history of the war ever published almost entirely concentrates on the strategic and tactical levels, but gives scant regard to the operational, and the result is a skewed version of events, in which German machine guns reign supreme and Tiger tanks always come out on top.

Studying the operational level as well, however, provides a revelatory perspective. Suddenly it’s not just about tactical flair, but about so much more. Britain, for example, decided to fight a highly mechanical and technological war. “Steel not flesh” was the mantra and that’s why the British had a small army, yet still ensured it was 100-percent mechanized. They also developed a vast air force and built a staggering 132,500 aircraft during the war — and that’s 50,000 more than the Germans. Until the start of 1944, the priority for manpower in Britain was not the army or navy or even air force, but the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Well-fed men and women were kept in the factories.

Germany, on the other hand, was very under-mechanized but had a vast army, which meant it was dependent on horse-power and foot-slogging infantrymen. As a result of so many German men at the front, their factories were manned by slaves and POWs, who were underfed and treated abominably, and whose production capacity was affected as a result.

And if the ability to supply war was key, then in the war in the West, it was the Battle of the Atlantic that was the decisive theater. Yet Germany built a surface fleet before the war, which could never hope to rival Britain or France and in doing so neglected the U-boat arm. Despite sinking substantial amounts of British supplies in 1940, it was still nothing like enough to even remotely force Britain to her knees. In truth, there were never enough U-boats to more than dent the flow of shipping to Britain. In fact, out of 18,772 sailings in 1940, they sank just 127 ships, that is, 0.7 percent, and 1.4 percent in the entire war.

Suddenly, rather than appearing like David against Goliath and backs-to-the-walls amateurs as is so often depicted, Britain emerges once again as a global super-power in command of the largest trading empire the world has ever seen, while Germany, despite impressive victories on land early in the war appears to be woefully under-resourced and flagrantly squandering what supplies it could call upon. What’s more, after the initial glut of conquest booty, the occupied territories swiftly became a drain and burden that had to be manned and which proved a further drain on precious resources. The words “Teutonic” and “efficiency” usually go together; in the Second World War, nothing could have been farther from the truth.

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr. 

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