With the U.S. election around the corner and the economic impact of COVID-19 mounting, calls for defense spending cuts are on the rise. The practicality of reductions is questionable given the scale and scope of the threat environment, the reality that key elements of the military are decaying, and that defense jobs represent one bright spot in an otherwise bleak economy. If cuts are coming, it is crucial to execute them in a fashion that prioritizes the most effective, efficient and valuable capabilities within the Department of Defense. This requires a new approach to assessing weapon systems’ value.

Defense programs are traditionally measured in a service-centric fashion based primarily upon two metrics: unit cost, and individual operating and support costs. Think about this in the context of buying a car and expenses associated with gas and maintenance. However, not all vehicles are created equal, with a compact car far different than a large SUV. Relative capabilities are essential when understanding how to best meet mission goals effectively and efficiently. To this point, when it comes to military systems, a much more relevant determination of merit is “cost per effect” — measuring the expense associated with achieving desired mission results.

These sorts of comparisons are far from theoretical. On the first night of Desert Storm, it took 41 non-stealth aircraft to hit one target. At the same time, 20 F-117 stealth fighters struck 28 separate targets. Without the protection afforded by stealth, it took a large airborne team to protect the eight bomb-carrying aircraft striking one target. This gets to the crux of the cost-effectiveness challenge. Even though the non-stealth aircraft each cost less from an individual unit aircraft perspective, the F-117s yielded far more mission results at less risk for far less enterprise cost.

An F-117 Nighthawk flies over the Nevada desert. The single-seat F-117 provides combat capabilities and can employ a variety of weapons. (Staff Sgt. Aaron D. Allmon II/U.S. Air Force)
An F-117 Nighthawk flies over the Nevada desert. The single-seat F-117 provides combat capabilities and can employ a variety of weapons. (Staff Sgt. Aaron D. Allmon II/U.S. Air Force)

However, during the last few budget downturns, decision-makers too often cut weapon systems that appeared “expensive” on a spreadsheet but actually delivered far greater effects for less cost. This year saw the Air Force seeking to retire 17 of its B-1 bombers even though a single B-1 can deliver as much or more ordnance than an entire aircraft carrier air wing, depending on the operational realities of range and payload. Production lines for the B-2 and F-22 — respectively the most advanced and capable bomber and fighter ever built — were terminated well before their validated military requirement was filled. Cost-per-effect analysis would have yielded very different determinations.

These decisions continue to have very significant consequences. The security environment today is much more dangerous than at any time since the end of the Cold War, and U.S. forces are stretched thin. Smart investments are essential to yield necessary mission results. The U.S. military no longer has the capacity to bludgeon its way to victory through mass as it did in World War II.

This is exactly why military leaders are embracing the need to harness information in their future war-fighting construct. Joint All-Domain Command and Control centers around understanding the battlespace in a real-time fashion to seek favorable pathways to achieve mission objectives, minimize the dangers posed by enemy threats and collaboratively team weapon systems to yield enhanced results. This is an incredibly smart approach. However, it is also wholly incongruous, with analysis centered around unit cost and individual operating expenses. If victory is going to be secured through the sum of parts, then we need to stop focusing on unilateral analysis absent broader context.

Cost per effect can be applied to any mission area — the measurement points simply need to be tailored to relevant data sets. Accordingly, if we look at high-end air superiority and strike missions, it is important to consider the ability to net results in a precise fashion. This is simple — not only does “one bomb or missile, one target” save money, but it also frees up forces to execute other tasks.

It is also important to consider survivability. Large, self-protecting, non-stealth strike packages akin to the Desert Storm example are incredibly expensive. Replacing a plane and pilot is not cheap. Additionally, losses reduce the force employment options available to commanders.

Fifth-generation technology attributes are also crucial — the combination of stealth, sensors, processing power, fusion engines, and real-time command-and-control links to penetrate defended adversary regions and understand how best to attain desired effects, while minimizing vulnerability.

Finally, range and payload are also very important — a single aircraft able to fly farther and carry more missiles or bombs drives effectiveness and efficiency. Assessing these attributes — all of which are measurable — validate precisely why aircraft like the F-35 and B-21 are so important.

Nor should these assessments be restricted within a service. That is not how combat commanders fight. They focus on missions, not service ownership. If cuts to defense are coming, then it is crucial that the DoD maintain the most effective, efficient options, regardless of service.

If past DoD budget cuts are any indicator, DoD budget “experts” will once again resort to their traditional monetary spreadsheets focused on unit cost and service-focused budget columns. Leadership from the very highest levels is crucial to ensure the very best options are preserved and prioritized. Joint cost-per-effect analysis is what will ensure a given amount of money will yield the most value at a time when it matters the most.

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula is dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Power Studies. He has more than 3,000 flying hours under his belt, and he planned the Desert Storm air campaign and orchestrated air operations over Iraq and Afghanistan. Douglas A. Birkey is the executive director of the Mitchell Institute, where he researches issues relating to the future of aerospace and national security.