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American Secret Sauce Sours
by James Dunnigan
June 23, 2013

The United States is finding that its traditional strategy of using large amounts of cash and large quantities of high-tech gear to dominate more numerous or better equipped foes is no longer working. Not because American weapons and professional troops are no longer the most effective, but because the U.S. is running out of money and the ability to make the money count. The main problems are bureaucratic inertia and political corruption. For example, in wartime new weapons can be developed in weeks or months. This still works, and has worked numerous times in the last two decades, and especially in the last decade of combat. But too many weapons are still being developed under peace-time rules (like the Comanche helicopter, Crusader self-propelled artillery, the DDG-1000 destroyed, F-22 fighter, and many more). As a result, the U.S. Navy and Air Force are faced with a crisis, they cannot afford the new weapons planned to replace existing ones. When advised to “think cheap and lean” American military leaders, politicians, and weapons developers find that they cannot. Or at least they cannot without some fundamental changes in the way they do business.

The U.S. has long been accused of having an unfair advantage in war because of the American tendency to throw more material and money than manpower into the fight. This was most notable during World War II, when German prisoners often complained (when debriefed) about it. To the Germans (or Japanese), American artillery, aircraft, and tanks seemed to be everywhere, all the time, and in unbelievable quantity. Should the enemy launch an attack every American gun within range would, as if by magic, begin firing on the advancing troops. The result was that both the Japanese and Germans were surprised, and usually pulverized, when they encountered the artillery support that accompanied U.S. ground units. The Germans thought this massive artillery support was somewhat "unfair" (if only because the Americans had it and they didn't), while the Japanese found yet another way to die nobly. The Germans also complained about the ever-present swarms of American warplanes always in the air, often making it impossible for German units to move by road during the day. At sea, both Germans and Japanese complained of the huge number of American ships and aircraft.

The U.S. was not the only nation to use this technique. In World War II both Britain and Russia employed larger quantities of armored vehicles than their German opponents. To paraphrase an old Russian saying, "quantity has a quality all its own," but only up to a point. The Russians also expended soldiers at a tremendous rate. While the United States lost .3 percent of their population fighting World War II, Russia lost 18 percent (a third of that troops, the rest civilians).

After World War II quantity became even less effective. At that point, atomic bombs and a lot of other high tech weapons and equipment made large armies less useful. Just sacrificing people was no longer as great an advantage. By the end of the 20th century it was obvious to all that an army of professional soldiers was far more effective than one that contained a lot of conscripts, even if armed with lots of tanks and other weapons.

Other nations have found that just trying to catch up with the American military tech is too expensive and surpassing the U.S. is extremely difficult. China is the latest major power to give it a go and they have fallen back on a strategy of searching for new ways of fighting to compensate for the American tech advantage (asymmetric warfare). This is why the Chinese have been so aggressive in the use of Internet based espionage and the concept of Cyber War in general. This is a new technology area and it’s possible for the Chinese to steal a lot of the American tech and even leap ahead. This is a big gamble but the Chinese are not getting ready for World War 3, they are just trying to even the odds in case things do go sideways and they find themselves at war with those clever and lavishly equipped yanks.

Meanwhile, the United States is being forced to reconsider how it equips and operates its armed forces. The money is not there, it is not going to be there, and prices for new warships and aircraft will only come down if cheaper models are bought or the development process adopts some wartime practices. That is unlikely as long as politicians see the defense budget as a source of campaign assistance. 


 

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