The Defense Intellectual Base

When talking about budget cuts, we often fret about the effects on the defense industrial base. Since the 1990s, I’ve been just as concerned about the collapse of what the defense intellectual base. I’ve mentioned this issue before several time, most recently in a couple of posts about Heritage’s Jim Carafano and the F35. See here and here.

As I wrote in the first of those posts:

“The problem is a defense analytic community that doesn’t do any defense analysis, but rather is mired in programmatic and budget analysis.”

This weekend, Carafano tweet a link to this report from Heritage:

the report Obama never read A Strong National Defense The Armed Forces America Needs and What They Will Cost

If you follow the link, you’ll find a report that purports to do the following:

The force structure presented in this paper was developed using the same analytical methods that Pentagon planners and the Armed Services Committees of Congress use to determine U.S. defense needs. The underlying principle is that any considerations of force size and capability must begin with determining likely missions based on security interests:

  • What will the U.S. military be expected to do?
  • What key challenges will it likely face in protecting vital U.S. interests at home and abroad?
  • What capabilities will the military need?
  • How much will it cost over the next five years?
  • What are the possible consequences of failing to develop and maintain these capabilities?

Sounds promising, right? But look at the analytic section from, say, the Asia. Is there any detailed analysis? And by detailed, I mean, at least the basics of the possible contingencies and the forces we might face in such a conflict. No, there isn’t. The report mentions “North Korea has 600 Scud missiles targeting South Korea; 300 No Dong missiles, which can reach Japan; and the Musudan missile, which can hit U.S. bases on Guam and Okinawa.” And on China it notes the following:

The PRC is engaged in a large-scale military modernization program, which is not surprising given that China now has the world’s second largest economy and increasingly depends on imports of oil and other raw materials. Yet many aspects of this program appear to be focused more on denying the United States access to East Asian waters than on self-defense.

The PRC’s military modernization includes extensive efforts to improve its conventional naval and air capabilities, including designing and deploying modern nuclear submarines, stealth fighters, tanker aircraft, and electronic warfare aircraft. These efforts are supplemented by its growing missile forces, including short-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan and anti-ship ballistic missiles to counter U.S. aircraft carrier groups. China is also investing heavily in space capabilities, including a variety of satellite and anti-space systems, and cyber warfare capabilities to exploit and attack computer networks.

But is that enough to get you to force structure recommendations in a disciplined manner? No. To do that, you would need to specify specific contingencies. This would allow you to run some serious numbers. Consider the access denial issue. How many missiles are we talking about? Where are they based? What is their range? What probability of kill does each missile have given U.S. defensive capabilities? How do those kill probabilities change at different ranges? Aside from point defenses, what other mitigation options do we have — such as strikes on Chinese missiles — and what kind of capabilities would that require? What is the state of Chinese air defenses? And so on.

Yeah, this stuff is hard. I get it. But saying that China is modernizing and developing capabilities in a general sense does not produce force structure requirements in any real sense. It gives the illusion of rigor without the reality of it.

Now, I don’t want to jump down Heritage’s throat on this. Consider this product from CNAS, Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity. This thing is actually worse that the Heritage “study.” Why? It doesn’t even specify an enemy anywhere at all. So, you get paragraphs like this masquerading as analysis:

This scenario takes particular risks during the first 72 hours of combat in a highly sophisticated air defense environment in which stealthy capabilities are in great demand.However, we judge that even a reduced number of stealthy F-35s – complemented by B-2s, next-generation bombers and cruise missiles supported by an advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) network – will provide sufficient capabilities to reduce any potential enemy’s air defense capability within days, permitting non-stealthy aircraft to then enter the fight.

What? Huh? Who are we fighting? Where? What is our mission? “We judge that…” What the hell does that mean? Yeah, Barno, Bensahel, and Sharp are smart cats. But jeez, give us at least a back of the envelop calculation here. What are the air defense we’re talking about? How many sorties it require to strike them? What are you assuming about bases? About combat losses? About mechanical losses? What is the enemy’s ability to regenerate capability vs. our ability to sustain operations.

Again, hard work, but you need to do  it if you want to get this stuff right.

But here is the dirty little secret. Most think tankers don’t actually know how to do this stuff. The folks at CSBA often do solid, detailed work. And in the past Mike O’Hanlon and Steve Biddle used to do this sort of work in a disciplined fashion. But how many current fellows/senior fellows in the major think tanks have either done this work in the past or even understand the basic methodology? Very, very few.

Both the Heritage report and the CNAS report I linked are essentially state of the art of what think tanks produce nowadays. But that is a sad, sad commentary.

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