In a recent interview, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten defined a key pillar underpinning the Department of Defense’s joint war-fighting concept: “In the future, there will be no lines on the battlefield. ... An Army capability can have on its own platform the ability to defend itself or the ability to strike deep into an adversary area of operations. A naval force can defend itself or strike deep. An air force can defend itself or strike deep. The Marines can defend itself or strike deep. ... Everybody.”
There is no question that Gen. Hyten’s ultimate objective is valid — multiplying the nation’s long-range strike capacity while diversifying attack methods. However, this proposed thinking risks yielding less striking power because the respective options available to the services have radically different price tags.
Not all capabilities are created equal, with many costing more and delivering fewer desired effects. This is a dangerous pathway to follow in an era where dynamic threats are on the rise and dollars will likely decline.
Here’s a quick example: A GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munition costs about $29,000. A Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile with extended range costs approximately $1.05 million. Desert Storm had over 40,000 aim points. A future conflict could have triple that or more. It does not take a math major to recognize that the GBU-32 yields more strikes for less money. There are many reasons why one munition is favorable over another given various mission requirements, but the fact remains that one costs a lot more.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, in the absence of an existential threat, approaches to DoD decision-making shifted to bureaucratic equities and notions of “fairness,” not necessarily best value. A case in point is the 2011 Budget Control Act, where cuts were issued absent an evaluation of cross-service combat effectiveness. This why the Air Force tried to divest the A-10, while the Army and Marine Corps were buying new attack helicopters. The A-10 is the superior close-air support platform. It has a larger radius of engagement, is faster, is more survivable, can deliver a greater volume and range of munitions, and can self-deploy on a global basis far faster than helicopters that must be shipped.
Yet, through the lens of fairness rather than combat effectiveness, the DoD proposed cutting the A-10, while still spending money on less-capable options. This same thinking can be seen in today’s budgets.
Long-range strike comes down to identifying nodes, upon which an adversary depends to prosecute combat operations. Whether command-and-control centers, lines of communication, production sites, or specific offensive and defensive capabilities, an enemy cannot fight effectively without these resources. Stealthy bomber aircraft that penetrate enemy airspace, aircraft standing off and firing missiles at range, and long-range, surface-based missiles are the general means by which these missions are executed. These capabilities generally do not yield equitable effects, and they certainly do not cost the same.
DoD leaders must pursue an ends-ways-means discussion regarding what options yield greatest war-fighting value, not one where every service gets to participate regardless of whether their long-range strike options are on the wrong side of the cost curve.
Critical analysis will amortize unit cost across the number of times a system can generate combat power. For a penetrating bomber that can attack dozens of targets on a single mission and stay in the operational inventory for decades, this yields a tremendously low cost-per-effect number.
For a missile, the cost-per-effect equation is reduced to one flight, one target. If range requirements dictate that a missile begins to look like a SpaceX rocket, then chances are that it will be an exceedingly expensive shot. In 2010, a study by the think tank Rand determined that if the nation expected to execute 20 days of strikes across a span of 30 years, “penetrating stealth bombers cost less than expendable missiles for similar missions.” Multimillion-dollar missile strikes add up to a big bill fast.
Added to this conversation are questions regarding operational concepts. What sort of logistical support, defensive measures, intelligence inputs, command and control, and basing requirements do each form of long-range power projection require? How fast can magazines be replenished? Can capabilities be repositioned rapidly in the face of evolving operational requirements?
The DoD should be commended for pursuing new war-fighting concepts. The nation faces serious challenges that require sincere change. However, fundamental to these decisions are hard conversations regarding what yields the most relevant combat power per dollar. Each capability must earn its way into the operational plan. This begins with cost-per-effect analysis — measuring what it takes to get the job done. It is not a time when the nation can afford to pursue “every kid gets a trophy” approach — nor will future defense budget constraints allow it.
Douglas Birkey is the executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, where he researches issues relating to the future of aerospace and national security. He previously served as the Air Force Association’s director of government relations.