The weapons the U.S. needs for a war it doesn’t want

July 20, 2015
Fourth F-35 Lightning II arrives at Nellis Air Force Base

The fourth Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft arrives at the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, April 24, 2013, REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Daniel Hughes/Handout

Terrorism and Middle East insurgencies are not going away. Yet in the 21st century, the United States must understand it faces a return of a serious national-security concern that shaped the last century: the risk of great-power conflict.

The Defense Department’s new military strategy acknowledges this by noting the implications of the renewed rivalry with China and Russia. The possibility of a major war with great powers, like World Wars One and Two, is “growing,” according to the U.S. National Military Strategy released this month.

Consider, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is back on high alert after Russia’s land grab in Ukraine, while the United States and China are competing in an arms race over the Pacific Ocean. When the nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently testified before Congress about the most critical security threats, he led with Russia, not Islamic State.

Yet the U.S. defense establishment still has one foot in the past and only a tentative one in the future. The Pentagon talks the talk of military innovation to deal with this new mix of threats but doggedly pursues costly weapons programs anchored in dangerous past compromises. Not only are the weapon systems unlikely to deliver well in today’s conflicts, they also could become vulnerabilities exploited by America’s adversaries during wartime.


F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, January 20, 2012. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The risks of these old ways of thinking were highlighted recently when a test pilot’s report was leaked to the War Is Boring website. The report revealed that an F-16 fighter — with 40-year-old technology — had bested the Pentagon’s planned new warplane, an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, in simulated combat.

The F-35 being tested, according to the report, couldn’t hold its own in close-in dogfighting. The Pentagon and manufacturer didn’t challenge the story’s merits, but rather argued the test was unfair — because the plane wouldn’t need to fight up close.

What is fascinating is that the same argument was made almost 50 years ago about the F-4 Phantom, a twin-engine fighter designed for air superiority and reconnaissance. It was first sent into battle without an internal cannon — because of the Pentagon’s optimistic assumption that the new generation of air-to-air missiles made close-range air duels a thing of the past.

The result was that outdated North Vietnamese MiGs were able to shoot down these Phantoms in dogfights, which the Pentagon had planned not to have. So the Phantoms had to be equipped with the very guns once considered unneeded. The Navy then had to create the Top Gun program to teach what had become a lost art of aerial dogfighting.

No More “Fingers Crossed” Planning

This same problem of “fingers crossed” planning — hoping for the best — has played out repeatedly in Defense Department programs. The Navy, for example, is buying $479-million warships that its own testers have found would not be “survivable” in an actual battle. The Air Force’s new KC-46 aerial refueling tanker lacks defensive systems for anything above a “medium threat” environment. Here again, the Pentagon is  crossing fingers that ships or planes won’t be in a battle different from those planned for — as if the enemy never gets a vote in the matter.

fleet -- air tanker

KC-46A Pegasus aerial refueling tanker. Image courtesy of Boeing.

Though every weapons program is an exercise in tradeoffs among cost, capability and complexity, certain realities must be accounted for. Why does Washington continue to expect warfare to play out only as America wants it to?

The reasons are complex but understandable if you follow Washington’s defense machinations. Though the Pentagon may talk about disruption and innovation, the corollary to game-changing technological breakthroughs is chaos and uncertainty, two things the defense realm today is not comfortable with.

It will likely take a generational shift. Just ask a music-industry executive how the business has changed since iTunes. Or how it is changing again with personal music-streaming sites like Spotify and Pandora.

U.S. defense planning must always take into account the risks of the worst day happening — not merely crossed-fingers hoping for the best.


Workers on the moving line and forward fuselage assembly areas for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Lockheed Martin Corp’s factory in Fort Worth, Texas, October 13, 2011. REUTERS/Lockheed Martin/Randy A. Crites/Handout

Take the example of that simulated dogfight. The Pentagon said the failed test was not realistic because the F-35 did not have its full suite of sensors installed. Nor were its stealthy surfaces in perfect shape. But that is no defense, literally — and actually these claimed flaws might be the right test.

No technology or spin can change the certainty that there will be uncertainty in war. A jet’s components may not work as planned under the high-tempo, extreme battle conditions of a major-power conflict. Or American pilots might have only a fraction of their usual electronic wizardry, due to jamming and hacking by enemy forces. Sensitive stealthy aircraft will get roughed up flying through debris and operating from austere or damaged airfields.

This problem is not just caused by the idealized vision of warfare that Washington too often associates with new technology. It is also due to the very idea that new technologies can solve all problems for all people.

Think of this as the Pontiac Aztek problem of war. The Aztek, which debuted in 2001, was a car that tried to be everything — a sports car, a minivan and an SUV. Instead, it ended up overengineered, overpriced and overpromised.


Pontiac unveiled the production version of the Aztek, a cross between a minivan, a sedan and a sport utility, at the North American International Auto Show at Detroit’s Cobo Center, January 10, 2000. REUTERS/Archive

There is an array of Pentagon programs today with similar characteristics. Supporters originally claimed they would be good at all types of war, but they have turned out to be unequal to any. The danger is that inventory stuck on a dealer lot is not a matter of life and death, no matter what you think of car salesmen.

As the latest National Military Strategy stated, if American forces ever did have to fight against another great power’s military — as opposed to the lesser trained and equipped Taliban and Islamic States of the world, which have been challenging enough — “the consequences would be immense.”

These consequences are not merely the high stakes, but the possibility of extraordinary loss and perhaps failure. This puts even more weight on the shoulders of those developing the next generation of U.S. weapons systems. Preserving status-quo programs and status-quo thinking risks not just budget dollars, but also military losses of a kind well beyond the travails in today’s relatively small wars.

To give a historic parallel, it’s the difference between the British problems in places like Afghanistan in the last century versus the empire’s major stakes and losses of World War One.

Next-Generation Investments

Without change, Washington is headed toward a near future where adversaries like China will be able to fight on equal terms — or even achieve military superiority. The challenge for the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry is to rewrite the narrative. They must stop throwing good money after bad, and not let congressional politics dictate where a weapon is built because U.S. success or failure in a future war hinges on an ability to start fresh when needed.

In addition to investing in a new generation of unmanned aerial, ground and naval systems, the Pentagon must continue to push the development of potentially game-changing weapons. The naval electromagnetic railgun, able to fire a conventional projectile 100 miles, is one good example. As are new laser systems that are capable of offensive and defensive fire. Long-range air-to-air missiles and strike systems will be crucial against an adversary like China, which is likely to match U.S. forces in quality as well as quantity sooner than many anticipate.

As the United States pushes forward, Washington has to recognize that a new race is afoot. China is now testing not just three different long-range drone-strike programs but a massive new drone, the Soar Eagle, potentially able to ferret out stealthy aircraft that the Pentagon is investing in.

The issue, though, is not just one of pursuing new innovations in weaponry. Expecting modern warfare to play out the way the Pentagon plans is a risk that has to be addressed head-on. The Pentagon must plan for the worst day of war, not the best.

What current and future weapons programs need is a renewed analytical review to see if they can meet a standard of wartime resilience and peacetime affordability — a mix that Washington manages poorly right now.

Those two qualities are essential. Particularly as the Pentagon explores how it might develop the next-generation of military technology that will include unmanned systems in the air, on the ground and at sea. These drones can be smaller and even disposable without a human pilot. This can also open up new potential uses that would complicate planning for an enemy. But they will only be truly game-changing if they are affordable enough to be bought in sufficient number to make a difference. And are designed to be reliable on the worst day the Pentagon can plan for.

It is not just the risks of great power competition that are growing, but the stakes for getting Washington’s approach to planning right. In peacetime, a “fingers crossed” approach is designed to avoid bad headlines and blown budgets. In wartime, it risks the kind of failure that the United States cannot afford.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

two major problems with this article:

1. who made singer and cole experts in warfare? i read their last book, and there are a lot of flaws, for example when the zumwalt fires first at chinese targets at hawai. and the first shot is full on target. nice tale, but in reality there would be at least one shot to zoom in, remember, GPS is out.

2. the second assumption, that china will be the main enemy, is also way off. we have war, economic war, between europe on one side and the usa on the other. and china is firm in the us camp, in this fight.
russia is usually on european unions side, except, when this stupid schäuble isn`t trying to help his friend bush III to become the next president of the usa by pushing malaysian airplanes into the warzone in the ukraine.

and if this war will get hot, the fight will start around the european union, most likely in africa and the middle east. and this war will be fought with special forces, with speedy groud units (not tanks), with drones, with railguns from space, with lasers and laser deflecting materials, with magnetic shields (look at the research for the fusion reactor tokamac).
and not with dog fighst of war planes, this is as outdated aa the cavalry in the world war II.

Posted by much.faster | Report as abusive

The F-35 is the new Brewster Buffalo.

Posted by jbarton | Report as abusive

“Consider, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is back on high alert after Russia’s land grab in Ukraine…”

Yes, we can’t have Chernobyl falling into the hands of the Russians. Oh wait, everybody thought that was Russian anyway. Why do we care again?

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

You’re right. We allow politics to have too much say as to what gets built. Congress treats the defense budget as a jobs program. Also useful for influence peddling.

Posted by skyraider | Report as abusive

right we have to spend trillions upon trillions in case china takes an island or plane gets accidentally shot down over ukraine, in the mean time cancer/HIV/meningitis/organ failure/tissue degeneration is killing millions of “innocent Americans” every year and we can cure most of these diseases with a fraction of this money.

we have trillions of dollars of stolen money from single ppl to pay others having 20 babies, we have trillions for bums on welfare, we have money for another iraq war, we have money to prepare for “major power conflict”,
Buttttttttt we dont got 3 billion dollars for the 30 meter telescope. we dont got no money for the supercollider in texas.

we have money for studying the species in the bottom of the ocean but no money for nuclear fusion and solar panels…

ppl always do get the govt they deserve.

Posted by yobro_yobro88 | Report as abusive

Amazing – what a handful of misguided, paranoid minds calling themselves as defense strategists can cause havoc – as they did in – Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and the like. This traditional thinking is a plague to this nation that merely robs the precious US tax payer receipts away from the building of core competencies of the next generation and instead, funnel the resources in extraordinary sums to the fairly corrupt entities in the form of – defense, related medical and veteran care – that’s mostly unnecessary in the first place to the degree that these folks envision and do fear-mongering.

The reality of next generation weapons lies in far simpler technologies such as – inexpensive drones, high-energy lasers/EMF and the like – not so much the traditional hardware that’s mostly considered an antiquated form that’ll serve to drain resources in their ineffective form.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

we’ll see, but i think that in a decade or two, military experts will consider the f35 a worthwhile and successful program.

Posted by spartyb | Report as abusive

How do you stop congressional politics from influencing military decisions? Congress is the organization that controls the defense budget and neither soldiers or defense contractors are going to work for free.

Posted by Sewblon | Report as abusive

You would of thought we would have learned this lesson we took from Nam and these bozos have set us up for a fall and another chance to get our pilots KIA……

Posted by ONTIME | Report as abusive

Singer should stick to being the wired poster child for Call of Duty Black Ops.

Posted by CitizenCane | Report as abusive

” The possibility of a major war with great powers, like World Wars One and Two, is “growing,” according to the U.S. National Military Strategy released this month.”

That’s what happens when US leadership broadcasts foreign policy weakness as blatantly as this administration has. Our allies no longer trust us us to support them, and our enemies no longer believe we’ll respond to aggression except with words.

Posted by maddog2 | Report as abusive

I’m sympathetic with the general concept of the article, but I think that the examples given support the argument very poorly.

Yes, combat aircraft designers of the past were proved mistaken in their premise that “dogfighting” was obsolete. However, today’s air-to-air radar and missile technology reflect a half-century of technological progress. The West’s modern combat aircraft are extremely proficient at killing adversaries from long ranges. Since the Viet Nam War ended, encounters between fighters made in the US or Europe and those from the [former] communist bloc have been infrequent, but have consistently resulted in long-range missile kills of the adversary. To my knowledge, there has not been a single close-range turning duel. Combat losses of Western fighters are to ground fire, not enemy fighters.

Also, military forces reply on transport (hauling) planes for in-flight refueling and airlift, which have modest protection against enemy fire. In practice, this has not proved to be any kind of problem. These big transport planes are protected primarily by the ability to keep them away from hot zones, and can additionally be protected by fighter cover if needed.

A much better example to make the author’s case is the plan to retire the A-10 ground attack aircraft, which is inexpensive, lethal, and amazingly robust in surviving battle damage … in favor of the super-costly high-tech F-35. That’s a stupid trade that will harm combat capabilities, as is testified by many who know, including those whose lives have been saved by the unglamorous low-and-slow “Warthog”.

Posted by GAntrobus | Report as abusive

The Pentagon and the contracting schemes there, are the largest welfare boondoggle ever devised. TRILLIONS of dollars spent on weapons that will never be viable. It makes light-rail look cheap and smart.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Adversaries like China???…..really? China is most favored nation in trade for past 30 years plus center of our huge US capital transfer…either i have problem recognizing logic or there are idiots in international affairs strategy running office past 30 years.

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

“The possibility of a major war with great powers, like World Wars One and Two, is “growing,” according to the U.S. National Military Strategy released this month.”
Of course, in World War II the USA did not participate until Germany and Japan had been defeated by Russia and China. Actually FIGHTING a foe like Russia or China today is far beyond our capability. And they have zero desire to fight us. The entire consideration is nuts.

Posted by godfree | Report as abusive

If the U.S. supposedly “doesn’t want” a global war with Russia and/or China, then why are Obama, his Pentagon, and his neocon advisors provoking Russia and China by stationing U.S. military forces near their borders and off their shores?

Posted by REDPILLED | Report as abusive

in World War II the USA did not participate until Germany and Japan had been defeated by Russia and China@

Posted by onapthanh | Report as abusive

The fight against extremists with rifles and RPGs requires a trillion dollar stealth jet program? Get real dude. There isn’t going to be a conventional war with China or any other modern combatant. Why? It’s called the hydrogen bomb. You should look that up. It’s quite scary really. Total annihilation has a way of preventing wars. It either isn’t going to happen (likely) or will happen and no ridiculous fighter jet is going to save the planet.

Quit writing about nonsensical hypotheticals and do some work that requires thinking. A more intelligent article would be entitled, “why are we spending trillions of dollars on an airplane to fight people without an air force?” I’m not trying to be mean, but this kind of nonsense opinion journalism is ruining us.

Posted by Ohmythelaw | Report as abusive

Why America think only themselves to fight.Whatever is developed should be as a complimentary to the development of partners like Japan,Germany,France and UK.To prepare in isolation for war strategies is too much expensive and some time in duplication.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

The defense requirement of other countries is different.Say for example India and Pakistan.Some time new development of planes pays off to sale planes to other countries.Even war sounds are played for other countries to by modern planes.How many F16 are sold to India and Pakistan! A good revenue indeed.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive