Monday, June 28, 2021

Coherent Unicorns.

And a generic justification for a mess that the US military acquisition system has become from all quarters of the American think-tankdom who care to notice that the United States consistently is not ready to fight real wars. Yet another one of those justifications appeared yesterday in TAC and it is, as is expected, well, generic. 

Generic, of course, but the author of the piece takes us on a journey to the  La-La Land of the American coherent global strategy:

So it’s worth taking a look at what research, development, and fielding of new weapons looked like when America had a clear mission—and when the American defense sector championed merit over politics. In order for future developments such as the Air Force’s promising Next Generation Air Dominance program to succeed

And the author gets immediately into the American military myths. 

The Lockheed Corporation, predecessor to the F-35’s embattled designer Lockheed Martin, was responsible for building some of the most impressive aircraft in history. Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects, nicknamed “Skunk Works” as a reference to a 1940s comic strip, built aircraft that played a pivotal role in countering the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The F-80 Shooting Star was the first jet fighter to shoot down another jet, a Soviet MiG-15 fighter over Korea. The ultra-lightweight U-2 reconnaissance aircraft flew high over Soviet territory, taking photographs of military installations from up to 80,000 feet and evading early surface-to-air missiles. The A-12 and SR-71 spy planes added extreme speed to extreme altitude, blazing past Soviet air defenses at up to three times the speed of sound. Skunk Works was effective because its top-notch engineers were allowed to operate with relative freedom from Lockheed’s bureaucracy and management constraints, and even encouraged to bypass standard procedures when necessary.

It is forgivable for a person with such a generic background as Chris Nagavonski's, to write a generic and militarily and historically ignorant piece. But what do you expect? Truth is, when talking about American ingenuity and high engineering standards which still worked in the times of alleged American foreign policy "coherence" (a historic and geopolitical unicorn many inside the Beltway still believe in) Navagonski could at least point out to excellent F-16 or F-15 fighters which were the force to be reckoned with in 1970s and 1980s, but using a F-80 Shooting Star, who saw its numbers decimated by MiG-15s in Korea, I don't know what was he thinking. Even introduction of excellent F-86 Sabre didn't overturn kill ratio of American pilots who flew by far superior to F-80 aircraft when fighting Soviet pilots. In the history of the jet-age combat aviation F-80 was not a milestone against the background of Me-262 which was superior still to it and saw a fairly extensive, however late, combat in WW II, one is surprised that openly inferior aircraft would garner such an admiration. But Nagavonski doesn't stop here. 

He brings up the U-2 spy aircraft which earned its distinction as US aircraft type which was twice shot down by Soviet Air Defense in 1960 and 1962 and which became obsolete in any serious recon sense barely four years into its service life, because modern air-defense missile systems made it absolutely useless against countries which had them, such as Chinese downing in 1965 Taiwanese U-2 by the Soviet-made S-75 Dvina complex. In other words, U-2 turned out to be useful primarily against backward nations and who can forget this Gary Powers' "surprise, surprise". U-2 is still being used today to monitor all kinds of things using modern recon technology but it is an easy target for any moderately non-ancient combat aircraft and any air defense complex from 1970s. Yet again, how does this aircraft  reflect on the alleged American "coherent global strategy" remains a complete mystery to me.  

SR-71, of course, is a unique aircraft, not the least due to the titanium obtained from the...ahem, Soviet Union, and saw extensive use over Vietnam requiring almost a week to service for a single sortie, but while it is up to the American side to debate until hell freezes over why the initial retirement of SR-71 happened relatively fast, there is very little doubt that appearance of the S-200 air defense complexes in 1967 and eventual procurement of MiG-25 in 1970 with new air-to-air missile made SR-71 obsolete, same as was the case with U-2, few years after it was deployed. None of the American technology author introduces as, in his opinion, proof of some kind of America's better R&D acquisition practices due to some "coherence" can be taken seriously, because all of those weapons failed to make an impact other than against technologically backward adversaries and all three were obsolete by the time they were deployed against "peer" power. 

Remarkably, the best American military technology was produced not because of the "coherence" but because of a scientific and combat tradition which naturally worked in the Cold War period in mass produced and excellent combat aviation ranging from ground-based F-16 and F-15 to carrier-based work horse of F-18, to always excellent US Navy's submarine force which led a revolution in naval warfare and strategic deterrence, which makes U-2 and SR-71 pale in comparison as boutique technological oddities in their "impact". Mass-produced P-3 Orion was a fearsome ASW weapon and in this role was orders of magnitude more feared by Soviet/Russian submariners than some exotic and dubiously "effective" exhibition and PR items. P-3 Orion first flew in 1959, its different and younger mods still fly today--this is 62 years in service, while SR-71 is primarily a museum exhibit with only 32 built, while P-3 Orion saw its production numbers in 750+ range. How's that for comparison? 

But that brings us to the main issue--Skunk Works is a fine-fine engineering org and is the American legend and institution which has to have a certain due respect to be paid for. But it is also responsible for F-35 and F-117 which saw its "stealth" characteristics stripped from it in the most dramatic fashion by Serb good ol' Soviet-made air defense in 1999. In fact, the United States didn't produce a good solid combat aircraft in ages. The last, promoted as if it was a next best thing ever, F-22 Raptor, stopped its production run in 2011 and became known in the USAF as "Hangar Queen". The issue which Nagavonski raises but never actually goes to the heart of the matter is that the US military technology almost never encountered first-class opponent since WW II, bar the air-battles with Soviet 64th Air Corps in Korea (Americans are not going to like those kill ratios) and facing off with Vietnamese Soviet-made MiGs-17, 19 and 21s and air-defenses. Period. The rest of opponents were, as Patrick Armstrong says, small fish. As a result, the United States got used to little to no resistance to its hi-end weapon systems in real combat and learned all the wrong lessons, with or without "coherence". Tumultuous events of April this year give some clue that someone does understand that the R&D and acquisition process in the US is a mess. That is why it brought about a rare moment of an actual coherence on part of Biden's Admin which wanted the summit with Russia, and that in itself could be considered a first verifiable encounter with a coherent unicorn.  

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