Monthly Archives: February 2013

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The F-35 Conundrum

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter during a test flight over Texas.

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter during a test flight over Texas.

The entire fleet of F-35 fighter jets was grounded last week  following the discovery of a cracked engine blade during a routine inspection at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The F-35 is the world’s most advanced fighter jet, and versions of the aircraft are flown by the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force.

When it was proposed, the F-35 was intended to be w joint weapons system that could meet the needs of all three branches. It was built as a stealth fighter with extensive ground strike capabilities. However, it has suffered from extensive cost overruns, quickly becoming the most expensive weapons program in the history of the United States, with a total cost of nearly $400 billion. And despite the cost, repeated revisions and setbacks have led to higher costs and a slower delivery schedule. While the United States plans to purchase more than 2,400 F-35s at $89 million each, to date, only 32 aircraft have been delivered at a cost of $207.6 million each (excluding the cost of research and development). The aircraft that have been delivered have not seen combat operations and have been grounded twice in the past year.

Further, the F-35 was developed in the 1990s as the next-generation stealth fighter designed to replace a wide range of aircraft currently in operation. For the Air Force, the F-35 is a strike fighter to replace the F-16 Falcon and A-10 Thunderbolt. For the navy, a short takeoff version of the F-35 will replace the F-18 Hornet attack fighter and the AV-8B Harrier jump fighter. The Marine Corp plans on using its vertical takeoff version of the F-35 to replace its Harrier jets.

This has led to several problems, though. In attempting to meet the often competing demands of the various branches, the F-35’s designer, Lockheed Martin, has had to sacrifice design elements that were desirable to other branches. The Air Force, for example, is dissatisfied with the short range of the jet, necessitated by structural reinforcements to make the aircraft capable of carrier operations, as required by the Navy.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the global environment for which the F-35 was designed has shifted as the program has developed. The use of drone aircraft was virtually unheard of when the program was developed in the 1990s. Today, drone operations are increasingly becoming the first option for U.S. air operations abroad. The F-35 was designed to sneak past and eliminate enemy radar, clearing the way for non-stealth aircraft to attack without opposition. The use of the F-117 Nighthawk in U.S. operations during the first Gulf War illustrates precisely this role.

But today, drones are viewed as a more cost-effective option to achieve this and other goals. With a cost of just $4 million per unit, the RQ-1 Predator Drone (and, with a $36.8 million per unit price tag, its admittedly more expensive MQ-9 Reaper sister) are able to accomplish many of the primary tasks of the F-35 at a fraction of the cost.

Given its high cost, slow delivery, challenging track record, and increasingly questionable purpose, why has the F-35 program not been shelved or more dramatically cut back?

That’s the real genus. The production line for the F-35 program is spread across 25 different states, employing workers in each. This makes the program difficult to cut, as Senators from each of those states (which comprise half of the U.S. Senate) are usually reluctant to just programs that employ people in their home districts. The exemplar of this was a request last year by the U.S. military to eliminate funding for a second engine for every F-35. The President wanted the cuts, the Pentagon said the engines were unnecessary.

Production Locations for the F-35.

Production Locations for the F-35.

But Congress refused to cut the second engine program. Indeed, several high ranking members of Congress sharply criticized the Pentagon after it ordered the shuttering of the program. The program was eventually shuttered despite opposition, but not before more than $3.5 billion in federal funding had been spent. Not a single engine was delivered.

What do you think? Does the F-35 joint strike fighter have an important role in maintaining American military readiness? Are its primary functions now performed by drone aircraft? Why has the program continued? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Pedagogy: The International Relations of Star Wars

The Battle of Hoth

The Battle of Hoth

Over the past week there has been an outstanding exchange at the Duck of Minerva blog exploring the international relations and military strategy of Star Wars.

It all started when Wired Magazine’s Spencer Ackerman explored the Battle for Hoth.  His analysis carried real world implications for counterinsurgency strategy, most notably observing that religious fanatics should never be placed in wartime command, and hegemonic powers tend to underestimating an insurgency’s ability to keep fighting.

The comments on Ackerman’s post are worth reading in their own right. One, for example, reads,

Have you even served with the Imperial forces? Sure it’s easy to take potshots from your military blog in some no-name star system while the fleet and its legions fight the rebel insurgents, but combined space/air/ground operations are a lot messier than any infographic could ever portray.

Even with the Empire’s full spectrum dominance of the battlespace, you can’t just leverage fleet assets which are optimized for ship-to-ship combat into a large scale ground invasion force. A Star Destroyer might have more firepower than the entire militaries of less advanced worlds but you still need a proper ground assault ship to support infantry landings.

Unfortunately, the do-nothing blowhards in Coruscant couldn’t get funding for the promising alternative designs from Sienar Fleet Systems and we ended up (as usual) with Kuat Drive Yards’ overpriced, overdue, and underperforming AT-AT mess.

Others continue in a similar vein. Then we get the Duck of Minerva’s responses.

First, we have Robert Kelly examined the five biggest strategic errors of the Empire, with a hat-tip to counterinsurgency strategy.

Then Steve Saideman considers the command structure of the Empire from the principal agent problem, drawing important lessons for Nato strategy in Afghanistan.

Finally we get Patrick Thaddeus Jackson examining the challenges post by the Empire’s command structure and the weakness of its military strategy against the Rebel Alliance. In doing so, he explores the tradeoff between material and ideological interests in foreign policy.

Outstanding stuff. Great fun, and an interesting way to use pop culture to think about global conflict.

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Water Wars

The Tigris River

The Tigris River. Photo by Charles Fred

A NASA study released earlier this week concluded that freshwater losses in the Middle East are increasing. Using satellite data, scientists confirmed that between 2003 and 2010, the Tigris and Euphrates river basins (an area that includes parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, lost 144 cubic kilometers of stored freshwater, an area about the same size as the Dead Sea. Most of the losses are associated with increasing levels of freshwater consumption from groundwater stores.

Blogging at Foreign Policy, Marya Hannun notes that the countries implicated in the study already suffer from a high level of instability, resulting from border disputes, conflicts over Kurdish minorities, and ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Could disputes over water resources add to that list of irretraceable disputes?

Concerns over resource wars have longed plagued foreign policy makers. Indeed, water itself has been implicated in several recent conflicts, though most observers have concluded that water conflicts tend to arise as a result of other, preexisting tensions, rather than serving as the primary or proximate cause itself. Nevertheless, some fear that increasing demand for water may intensify existing concerns. Already, more than 780 million people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water. The US Director of National Intelligence in 2012 concluded that the risk of conflict over water would continue to increase, as water demand would outstrip supply by 40 percent by 2030.  A United nations Report concluded that 47 percent of the world’s population would be living in areas of high water stress by 2030. The hardest hit regions would be in the developing world, and particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, where Egypt, Israel, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen could all face scarce supplies.

What do you think? Will future wars be fought primarily over water? Or will we find solutions to address the impending water crisis? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

North Korea’s Nuclear Test

South Korean Television covers the North Korean Nuclear Test

South Korean Television covers the North Korean Nuclear Test

On Monday North Korea tested a nuclear device, prompting sharp criticism from the Obama administration and provoking renewed discussions of expanded sanctions in the United Nations Security Council. The Central Intelligence Agency reported that Monday’s test was more powerful than previous nuclear tests conducted by the North Korean government in 2006 and 2009.

The test, conducted in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions, led North Korea’s closest ally, the People’s Republic of China, to summon the North Korean ambassador in protest. The North Korean government defended its action as an act of self-defense necessitated by “U.S. hostility,” and promised to continue its efforts if necessary. According to the United States and its allies, North Korea is operating in violation of its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT.

What does the NPT actually do? The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty spells out the obligations of signatory states under three separate areas. First, non-nuclear weapons states agree not to pursue the development or deployment of nuclear weapons. Second, recognized nuclear weapons states (under the NPT, these are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, who coincidently are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) agree to undertake efforts towards total nuclear disarmament. Finally, the right of all states to the peaceful use of nuclear power is guaranteed.  However, there are several nuclear weapons states which are not party to the treaty. India, Israel, and Pakistan—all of which are believed to possess nuclear weapons—are non-signatories and thus fall outside the obligations of the treaty. North Korea was a signatory but formally withdrew from the agreement in 2003. Iran remains a signatory to the treaty but is believed to be developing nuclear weapons in violation of its treaty obligations. South Africa developed nuclear weapons in the 1980s but decommissioned its nuclear stockpiles in the early 1990s, making it the only state ever to voluntarily decommission an existing nuclear weapons capability.

So is North Korea in violation of its obligations? The answer depends on who you ask. The United States’ position (generally supported by the international community) is that North Korea’s nuclear program violations its international obligations. North Korea, however, regularly asserts that it withdrew from the NPT and can therefore pursue a nuclear program in its self-defense.

This, of course, raises the broader question about the effectiveness of nuclear weapons as a deterrence. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction, popularized during the Cold War, suggests that the threat of total destruction associated with the use of nuclear weapons by two nuclear weapons powers renders the use of those weapons unfeasible, as no winning strategy could result. The use of nuclear weapons is essentially self-defeating. But the threat posed by possessing nuclear weapons—indeed, the prestige of nuclear weapons—is a powerful motivator for states to pursue such weapons, often even in the face of high social and political costs, as the cases of Iran and North Korea attest.

What do you think? Does North Korea’s nuclear program present a threat to the United States? Is North Korean nuclear policy best explained as a rational pursuit of the national interest? And how does international law help us understand the debate surrounding the North Korean nuclear program? Take the poll or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

The weekly quiz is now live. Good luck!