“To change anything in the Navy is like punching a feather bed. You punch it with your right and you punch it with your left until you are finally exhausted, and then you find the damn bed just as it was before you started punching.”
— Franklin Roosevelt, 1940
SAN DIEGO — What the former assistant secretary of the Navy said is descriptive of the entire military. Each service’s culture, and interservice rivalries, and bureaucratic viscosity are resistant to reform. Which is why the next secretary of defense, retired Gen. James Mattis, has the most difficult management challenge in American government.
He comes from a service whose core mission, small-unit combat, involves conflict at its most granular. He will now rely on companies like General Atomics here, whose business is leveraging technology to produce maximum potential military lethality with minimal costs.
The president-elect ardently advocated substantially increased defense spending, and just as ardently favors unrestrained entitlement spending. For about $500,000 in expenditures, the 9/11 attackers did over $2 trillion in damage to the United States and the world economy. The linked physical and cyber infrastructures of complex societies are vulnerable to such asymmetries. General Atomics’ scientists toil to redress this imbalance with, for example, the Predator and other remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs).
But they bristle at the word “drone,” which they think falsely suggests mindlessness on the part of aircraft that perform three “ISR” missions — intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance. RPAs can hover for 40 hours over a Middle East target and deliver, with Hellfire missiles, a munitions payload equal to an F-16’s. The “fast movers” — F-16s and the like — must refuel coming and going from the Gulf, and most have returned to their carriers without expending their ordnance. A Reaper, another type of RPA, can deliver what an F-35, the most expensive fighter aircraft, can. The Reaper is only half as fast, but is speed — aviation’s expensive goal since World War II — so important? An increasing amount of the Reaper’s and the F-35’s work, including sensing and jamming, is done at the speed of light, which is roughly 870,000 times faster than the F-35’s airspeed.
RPAs, which have logged more than 4 million flight hours looking, listening and attacking, can discover what the enemy is planning and doing, and can deliver precision strikes with minimal collateral damage. They could have been an inexpensive and low-risk way of intervening in Syria by enforcing a no-fly, no-movement zone that would have protected President Bashar Assad’s enemies and victims.
But because RPAs are unmanned, they clash with important components of the military culture. Marine jets from Miramar Air Station roar over General Atomics, making what has been called “the sound of freedom,” but some scientists here call it the sound of obsolescence.
The Navy is using high-powered electro-magnetic energy to replace steam catapults to launch 80,000-pound aircraft off carriers with less stress on the planes, and hence less maintenance expenses. Now the Navy is acquiring rail guns that use such energy to fire 15-to-25-pound, 18-inch projectiles at 5,000 miles per hour. They hit with the impact of a train slamming into a wall at 100 miles per hour. The high-speed, hence high-energy projectiles, which cost just $25,000, can radically improve fleet-protection capabilities: A barrage of them could counter an enemy’s more expensive anti-ship missiles.
The daunting challenge posed by defense against the proliferating threat of ballistic missiles is that it is prohibitively expensive to be prepared to intercept a swarm of incoming missiles. New technologies, however, can revolutionize defense against ballistic missiles because small, smart projectiles can be inexpensive. It takes 300 seconds to pick up such a launched missile’s signature, the missile must be tracked, and a vector calculated for defensive projectiles. A single 25-pound projectile can dispense over 500 three-gram tungsten impactors and be fired at hypervelocity by electromagnetic energy. Their impact force — their mass times the square of their velocity — can destroy expensive missiles and multiple warheads.
Mattis will be trying to take control of the often uncontrollable Pentagon, with its interservice rivalries and intricate problems of matching slowly developed weapons to rapidly metastasizing threats. The good news, such as it is, is this:
The nation just experienced a raucous presidential campaign during which there was silence about the crisis of the entitlement state — an aging population’s pension and health care entitlements swallowing government resources, with alarming national security implications. But technology, pursued determinedly, has the potential to make peace through making deterrent strength less expensive.