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Sunday
May112008

Buying wings but operating rotors

If I told you that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were the leading cause of U.S. casualties in Iraq, you'd expect the Pentagon would have mounted a major R&D effort to defeat this threat. And you'd be right.

If I told you that helicopter crashes and shoot-downs were the leading cause of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan, you'd expect the Pentagon would have mounted a major R&D to defeat that threat as well. But you'd be wrong.

Helicopter losses are the No. 1 cause of U.S. casualties in high-altitude, mountainous Afghanistan and the third leading cause in Iraq. Yet Pentagon R&D spending on tactical aircraft dwarfs the amount spent on rotor craft. In recent years, the total budgeted R&D for helicopters was $2 billion to $3 billion, roughly half of what the Defense Department spends on just one new tactical aircraft and one-quarter of its R&D on missile defense.

Doesn't that sound out of whack? Spending so much on low-probability future scenarios and so little on today's real-world operations?

This is the reality of U.S. defense spending going all the way back to the fall of the Berlin Wall: we buy one military, and we use another. We buy plenty of super-expensive tactical aircraft for "big war" scenarios and spend frighteningly little on helicopters that are - beyond all doubt - the "long pole in the tent" of small wars, crisis responses, humanitarian relief operations and counterinsurgency campaigns.

You read up on any Western intervention in a failed state today, such as Sudan's Darfur region, and you'll hear the same complaint: There simply aren't enough helicopters, especially ones capable of operating in the harshest and highest environments.

Meanwhile, let me tell you a dirty little secret of the "tacair" community: the last Air Force pilot ever involved in a real dogfight is coming up on his second star, meaning he's a general long out of the cockpit. The same is true for the last naval aviator ever involved in a dogfight. The operational reality is that nobody flies against our tactical aircraft anymore unless they're simply trying to get away from the fight - faster!

Tactical aircraft losses in Iraq and Afghanistan are negligible. We've lost several-fold more troops in friendly fire incidents, and boy, have we ever spent some serious bucks to reduce that problem - as we should.

Here's the long-term trend we need to correct: Back in the Vietnam era, our Marines were losing one tactical aircraft every 1,000 sorties, or individual missions. That loss rate was considered unacceptable, so R&D spending was increased to reduce those numbers. The Marine Corps was hugely successful in that effort. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, our loss rate plummeted to one tactical aircraft lost per every 26,000 sorties.

Contrast this impressive improvement in platform survivability with what's happened in Marine Corps rotor craft over the same time frame. In Vietnam, the Marines lost a helicopter once every 6,000 sorties. In Iraq, their loss rate jumped to one every 1,500 sorties. That is a four-fold increase in rotor-craft losses compared to a 26-fold decrease in tactical aircraft losses.

With this spending record, it's clear that you'd be a lot safer spending your military aviation career as a fighter pilot than a helicopter pilot - counterintuitive but true.

The U.S. military emerged from Vietnam with an understanding that tactical aircraft were vulnerable, so it researched those vulnerabilities and fixed them across the 1980s and 1990s, yielding an attack capability without peer in the world. The same effort could and should be pursued by the Pentagon today as it looks ahead to a long war against radical extremism that will see U.S. troops put in harm's way - time and time again - in environments like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Why do we keep buying one military and operating another, running the latter into the ground with such lengthy, high-tempo operations? The "big war" crowd continues to dominate the acquisition community inside both the Pentagon and the defense industry. Both sides want the same thing: huge and expensive platforms that come with magnificently loaded maintenance contracts.

Responding to today's wars is messy and complicated, while planning for tomorrow's brilliant high-tech space wars against China is so much more fulfilling - at least in a budgetary sense.

Too bad, because the Pentagon's penchant to plan for all possible contingencies - the very absence of grand strategy - is costing the lives of American troops every day in this long war.

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