Was the US army’s “jump forward” backwards?

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US army

In half a century, record time by historical standards, the United States militarily dominated the world. In the decades which followed the birth of the new world order, America sought to secure this domination, using the same trick which had panned out for them during World War 2: converting their unrivaled economic power into military might. But the strategy seems to have backfired, due to lack of strategic insight, and the United States Army is now realizing that several armies dispose of better equipment than they do.

The United States came to par on fighter planes during world war two, when it managed to fight Messerschmitts and Zeros on a rather level field. Just after the war, prop fighters were quickly replaced with jets, and thus started the generations. Nowadays, poor countries have no air force, developing countries have third-generation fighters (such as Saab 37 Viggens, Migs 21 to 25 and Sukhois 15 to 17). 4th generation jets replaced them in the 1980s, with new characteristics ranging from long-range engagement (destroying an enemy beyond visual range with missiles), super-cruise (maintaining supersonic flight without afterburners), low-radar signature and computerized avionics. These jets, namely F-14 to 18, Typhoon, Rafale, equip the air forces of all developed countries, save one. The United States used their formidable military funding to leap into the 5th generation, where they stand alone, with the F-22 and the F-35. The gist was to cram all jets into one, able to perform all missions, from ground attack to air interception, and from reconnaissance to electronic warfare. After a bottomless pit of investment (unit cost soared during development and reached over twice its initial price of 75 million dollars per aircraft, totaling a 400-billion-dollar operation) and many years of production lag, the F-35, during a mock-fight against a 4th generation F-16 (30 years older), was unable to intercept the decoy, for lack of turning radius. Which is more: many retrofitted or upgraded 4th generation planes have similar performance, and have cost their owning countries a fraction of the bill. Now, one may say that money is no issue to the bottomless American wallet, but it is known to many that equipment too expensive to be maintained tends… not to be maintained. General Patton, for example, was lucky enough to have been born in wealth, which enabled him to buy the spare parts for his tanks, on his own funds. An eventually inevitable slump in the economy will paralyze any high-maintenance air force.

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Americans made the same mistake regarding land vehicles: too much, too expensive, too rigid and without much point. The same US Army was able to defeat hardened enemies using nothing but equivalent equipment, tactics and fortitude in France, Germany, the Pacific, Vietnam, Korea – Iraq being left aside, as the army was ill-prepared, ill-equipped and already disbanding when the Americans invaded. The Future Combat Systems programs intended to replace every vehicle in the army with a newer generation, introducing unmanned vehicles in the battlefield for the first time. A closer look at the artillery section of this program is interesting. The current Paladin self-propelled howitzers (M109s, in all its different variants) is at par with all other equivalent cannons in the developed world, in the sense that it holds the same crucial characteristics. Among those: low deployment time, ability to switch types of shells rapidly, and the so-called “Mercy system” (MRSI – Multiple rounds, simultaneous impact) as well, of course, as standardized ammunition. But having rigged the vehicle with all sort of additional high-tech equipment made it unreliable, to the extent that several NATO partners which had purchased the Paladin quickly phased them out for alternative, more battle-proven and reliable alternatives. It isn’t so much that the Paladin isn’t properly designed (though it has its technical issues), it’s that it was designed to fight something which is nowhere to be found (a large conventional enemy) and not the current enemy. High-tech, but fragile and inflexible, and therefore ill-adapted to the needs of the army.

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The Nexter Caesar artillery system makes a good comparison point. The truck-mounted 155-mm cannon was deployed in Afghanistan, where artillery fire must cover immense areas (in a rather conventional way), and in Mali where innovating use was made of it, in a way that intrigued generals around the world. The Caesar was used where it was expected the least, in combat facing armed insurgents in small mobile teams. It performed highly in offensive actions, thanks to its extreme deployment speed (high on-road and off-road velocity, and below three minutes to deploy the cannon) and provided high protection, both with armored cabins and with its scrambling speed which protects it from counter-battery fire. The now-combat-proven Caesar therefore proved a dogged threat to infantry-type insurgent formations, while being protected from them. At the same time, it remained immune to artillery fire, which insurgents did possess but were unable to use effectively, for lack of pinpointing French howitzers.

While proper and adequate funding is essential, pouring money onto the battlefield isn’t the solution to everything. Extravagantly sophisticated weapons systems have proven, prove and will prove unreliable on the battlefield, and they run a fair chance is missing the war. The United States is shipshape to fight the cold war which ended 20 years ago, but unable to prevail in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only rugged and flexible material will pass the test of fire to become battle-proven enough to bring countries to commit to it long-lastingly. While 5th generation fighter sales are either lagging or blocked by Congress, 4th generation sales are healthy and picking up. And while countries are, one by one, decommissioning the Paladins, the Caesar sales are on the rise, with Thailand, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia already in the club, and Vietnam soon to join in. In the last case, Dô Ba Ty, Vietnamese Army Chief of Staff, recently express strong interest for Caesar systems, in the context of rising tensions with neighboring countries and especially China. Something to watch out for, over the next while.

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