The defining images of the opening stages of the 2001 Afghanistan invasion were of bearded U.S. Special Operations forces on horseback talking with invisible air assets high overhead. Ancient transportation technology melded with cutting-edge communication protocols created an odd but appropriate scenario in the midst of a wholly unanticipated conflict. The synergy of high- and low-capability technologies likely will define 21st century conflicts, especially with foes we cannot currently imagine.
As our official defense posture pivots to the Pacific, this strategic imperative calls for specific procurement decisions and military kit. Yet, what if we are wrong? Does the greatest threat to our national security truly come from Asia? What if in preparing for a low-probability, high-cost conflict, we end up facing an enemy who intentionally and subtly maneuvers around our complex systems?
It seems more than coincidental that our perceived threats also mesh with status quo, high-cost technological solutions. Intentionally or not, we are preparing to fight only the types of wars we currently are best suited to fight. Our military is built on emphasizing the physical aspect of warfare, especially when it comes to fielding advanced technology.
However, pouring precious time and scarce resources into incredibly complex, expensive technology, inhibits our ability to buy capabilities more suited to higher-probability, low-intensity, prolonged conflicts. These more difficult challenges, like rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan, are not going away, even if we hope they will.
The argument for high-cost, high-complexity weapons systems in all circumstances claims that by countering the most capable threat, these systems necessarily will be suitable for every contingency. They can be “degraded” with equal effectiveness for a lower-intensity conflict. This, however, is simply not always the case.
Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) are touted as the future of aviation, both in aerial and ground attack. And while this may be true if we were to fight a peer-capable adversary, it is an incredibly unsuitable platform for stability operations.
My biggest lesson learned in flying combat missions over Afghanistan, and subsequently talking with numerous ground-based joint tactical air controllers (JTACs), is that the Super Hornet I flew was one of their least preferred assets. In a permissive battlespace, their requirements were defined by time on station, quick alert airstrip response, personal interaction between aviators and ground units, and a wide selection of weapon types.
JTAC favorites are Apaches, Cobras, A-10 Warthogs, AC-130 Specter Gunships and a variety of propeller-based surveillance platforms. Most of these are legacy systems modified to meet the realities of current operations. All are inexpensive to build and operate compared to their imagined replacements. They also are on station in a matter of minutes from forward operating bases; can provide hours of loiter time; and carry large numbers of low-collateral-damage weapons.
By contrast, the F-35B has about the same amount of internal fuel as a Super Hornet and a minimal internal weapons payload. Its gun is mounted on a wing rack. While the pilot may have near universal situational awareness, despite industry’s assurances, it appears unsuitable for operating out of austere locations prone to dust storms and limited network support. Furthermore, it is unlikely that a $150 million asset would be assigned the same dirt-hugging and punishment-inducing roles the venerable A-10 currently undertakes—the very reason infantry units love the Warthog.
The JSF certainly may be valuable in a high-intensity conflict, but low-end options need to be integrated into the force as well. This especially is the case because stability operations in places such as West Africa likely will become much more common in the coming decades. Assets such as turboprop-driven Super Tucanos, operable out of austere locations with long on-station times and minimal operating costs, are a perfect low-end complement to higher-end systems.
Additionally, even in conflicts with similarly capable foes, having robust, basic kit will provide a counterpunch to enemy efforts. Near-peer adversaries likely will focus on taking down our extensive networks during the opening stages of a kinetic operation. While counter-network-degradation measures should be taken, publicly showing our adversaries an effective capability to operate in denied environments with low-end systems will keep them further off balance.
As fiscal realities set in, our military will not be able to purchase as many of the whiz-bang items that many people appear to think will guarantee victory. Creative thinking, especially integrating already developed low-cost solutions, can be a panacea to the apparent panic over reduced budgets.
War will not come in a place and time of our choosing. Instead, having a wide range of tools, both simple and complex, will ensure our forces are meeting a given threat with the most appropriate and effective equipment.
Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN, is an F/A-18 instructor pilot serving in the Innovation and Concepts Department at the Naval Warfare Development Command part of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell. He is the founder of Disruptive Thinkers, an organization devoted to bringing innovative military personnel together with civilian entrepreneurs. The views expressed in this column are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Navy or of SIGNAL Magazine. We welcome your comments on this column below or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.