Requirements and Wolf Stories

April 1, 1990

I have just reread “The Plane That Would Not Die” from The New Republic The article points with scorn to a military aircraft program that began as a strategic system but whose original mission was swept away by changing times. The Air Force, to the disgust of the author, tried to keep the aircraft alive on the pretext of utility in tactical theater operations.

The article castigates the expensive airplane as “unproven,” rushed through testing with shaky electronics. Contractors and the Pentagon are in cahoots with politicians from states where the procurement money is spent. The General Accounting Office urges that production be deferred and the program held in research and development status. “In spite of official protestations that this [defense budget] is a lean request, there are pouches of flab,” The New Republic says, and this airplane “is an obvious one.”

The language is tiresomely familiar of course, but the object of vilification is not the B-2 Stealth bomber or any system currently controversial. “The Plane That Would Not Die” was the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), and the article is dated April 13, 1974.

AWACS, of course, went on to become one of the most successful military aircraft of modern times. It is almost universally regarded as among the more valuable assets in existence for tactical or global contingency operations. The E-3 is the only aircraft that NATO has ever bought directly in the name of the entire alliance.

A number of yesterday’s controversies are flying today and performing very well. The C-5 airlifter and the F-111 fighter-bomber are two more examples of aircraft that survived savage criticism and later proved their merit in operational service. It seems faintly ridiculous that they were ever ridiculed as potential mistakes or that serious questions arose about whether a need existed for them.

The critics have since moved on, applying approximately the same questions and allegations to a different generation of weapon systems. Given the present determination to reduce the defense budget, there are plenty of listeners for the critics’ pitch, and almost every weapon program is on somebody’s hit list.

Defending systems in development is not easy. Most of them exhibit blemishes at this stage, so they are vulnerable to criticism. When budget pressures are this intense, any high-cost system is subject to cancellation unless the justification for it is ironclad.

It is tough to make a compelling case that any system, considered by itself, is indisputably, unequivocally, absolutely required. The critics can argue convincingly–and not always erroneously–that part of the mission can be laid off on another system or on some combination of other systems. They point to options that help compensate for the absence of this system. They cite ambiguity in relevant aspects of the threat.

Sports analogies are popular at times like this. A football team with a strong defense and a highly accurate field-goal kicker doesn’t need the leagues best running back. But how smart is it to begin wondering if the kicker might be expendable too

Some critics work themselves into approximately the same mindset about weapon systems. If a requirement, standing alone, cannot be demonstrated as absolute, it must not be a requirement. Nonrequirements should be canceled.

In “Tons for Guns” in the March 5, 1990, issue, for example, our old friend The New Republic wants to toss out the Peacekeeper missile, the B-2 bomber, and SDI strategic defenses. The Midgetman missile could be kept in R&D status (sixteen years just fly by, don’t they?). That would scrub nearly all of the nation’s strategic modernization programs.

Other cancellation enthusiasts are eyeing the Advanced Tactical Fighter, the C-l7 airlifter, readiness levels, and force structure. Who needs a kicker in a league this easy

Armed conflict is less predictable than football. It is not well understood by people who think of it as an academic exercise–or as a sports metaphor–rather than as something fought with bullets and blood. If combat requirements are figured short, the consequences can be very bad.

Can some reductions and cancellations be absorbed safely? The answer is probably yes. It depends on the compensating capabilities that remain–and, to some degree, on luck. Canceling weapons in big bunches is not a sensible proposition. It is, however, the approach toward which the nation is drifting.

The military, which will fight the wars if there are any, tends naturally to perceive requirements from a “worst case” perspective. The weapons-cutters think the military’s requirements list is bloated and its estimate of danger overstated. They believe the military is crying wolf.

Those who invoke that particular parable ought to remember the rest of it. The way the story played out, there indeed was a wolf–and in the end, he got the sheep.