CSBA’s whip smart strategist Jim Thomas contends that as precision targeting and guided weapons proliferate, both high-end and low-end wars will unfold in far less “permissive” operating environments. Battlefield advantage has swung back in favor of the defender, he says, with the further maturation of reconnaissance-strike networks warfare may be entering the “post-power projection era.”
The weapons acquisition choice, Thomas said, is either to go cheap and disposable, with drones, long range missiles and robots that can be thrown at an enemy’s missile magazines without much regret, or ultra-costly, high-end and stealthy and try to slyly maneuver your way past an enemy’s defenses.
A good example of that debate is going on right now in Israel as it considers whether to spend $2.7 billion for the first 19 of a larger planned buy of the stealthy fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, or, to upgrade the current fleet of attack jets with better sensors and very-long range guided missiles. Not to say that Israel’s current fleet of modified F-15s and F-16s are cheap and disposable, but as Aviation Week’s David Fulgham reports, some in the Israeli brass think hanging newer and more standoff missiles on the jet’s wings is smarter than spending so much on the platform itself.
“The [shrinking] force structure problem points us toward fewer, but more sophisticated platforms,” says Air Force Lt. Gen. Dani Halutz, former chief of the Israel Defense Force. “The F-35 fits this trend exactly. If its performance is as advertised, it will allow us to cope with a shrinking budget and force size.”
The counterpoint is offered by retired Army Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s national security council. His argument is that it makes more sense to pit salvoes of long-range air-launched guided missiles against an enemy’s air-defense missile magazines than a limited number of very prized platforms.
“If we continue to use the very advanced [versions of the] F-16 and F-15 and upgrade some of the systems, we could save so much money that we could buy other important systems like ground-based missiles. And you can use more [air-launched] standoff weapons because they have extreme precision and a very long effective range. You don’t have to put all your effort into the aircraft.”
I think this debate is just getting going as defense planners wrestle with flat or declining budgets, platform cost growth and the proliferation of relatively low-cost guided weaponry. It’s a debate I expect will take place in all three domains: maritime, air and on land.
– Greg Grant