The Death Spiral and 'asymmetric' warfare

Most readers who didn't visit this place only because of a search engine result will know the death spiral of arms procurement:

The costs for a new generation of big ticket items (tanks, aircraft, helicopters and ships) rises quicker than the the nation's economic output. On top of this, military budgets even stagnate or shrink simply because of relaxed foreign relations and disaffection with military adventures due to poor results. The end result is that old systems don't get replaced 1:1. It's rather typical that 140 aircraft replace 500 aircraft.* The new systems are usually more capable**, but quantity's intrinsic 'quality' is lost.

This problem is old and has been recognised since the 1950's at least, when the expensive and often heavy first and second generations of supersonic aircraft led to light fighter concepts such as Gnat, Skyhawk and Freedom Fighter. Later during the 60's another lightweight fighter effort led to the F-16 and a bare bones approach led to the almost avionics-free A-10.
The same problem was also rampant in armies since the late 60's, when the excessively expensive MBT 70 project was cancelled and the first Chobham tank generation turned out to be more than twice as expensive as their predecessors (Leopard 2 started at DM 3.8 million, Leopard 1 versions ranged from DM 1 - 1.7 million). Battlefield air defences got an even worse shock when (multiple) radars were installed on vehicles to achieve a useful probability of hit against 1970's threats: More than DM 2.8-5.6 million for a single Gepard, following much less than a million for a M42.
Contrary to intuition, the quality difference between two generations of tanks is rather less important than the quality difference between well-trained and green crews, so an upgrade of hardware is usually a downgrade of capability for months to come.
The importance of training (which costs a lot in spares and fuel) is easily neglected when an armed bureaucracy squeezes the funds for a major hardware upgrade out of its budget. All-too often new high-end "95% solution" aircraft are purchased and then the pilots get much less than 200 flying hours per year and stay 'green' in comparison to a well-trained pilot.
Stocks of ammunition and spare parts suffer from the same neglect.

The concern that NATO could ruin itself and become grossly inferior in conventional warfare due to gutting itself with too expensive hardware was prominent during the 60's to 80's. It was unjustified for one simple reason: The Soviets weren't able to resist the expensive new hardware any better than the West. They suffered from the death spiral as well.
NATO dumped old hardware into Turkey and Greece, the Soviets dumped theirs into Siberian depots, assigned to reserve divisions on paper.***

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Other conflicts did not possess this symmetry; this became visible at first in Korea, where the motor-centric American divisions were less suitable than the light infantry-centric North Korean and later Chinese forces. The answer chosen was to throw more resources at the problem, and eventually a face-saving status quo ante ceasefire was reached.
Vietnam was less forgiving, first to the French who worked mostly with WW2 vintage hardware and later to the Americans and Australians, who spent extremely disproportionate resources on the problem (following the standard "If at first you fail, throw more resources at the problem!" approach). This time the unsuitability was even more obvious.

The war over Kuwait in 1991 was a best possible case, earlier generation hardware + poorly trained troops + poorly led troops + open terrain + mostly clear skies ... it gave a brief respite from the troubles of the death spiral. The later occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan weren't so nice. The issue there wasn't the procurement costs, but rather the extraordinarily long tail. The support required for major weapon systems and helicopters was huge. The occupation forces apparently required more (and different) fuel than the occupied country itself, for example. The ever-increasing ambitions in regard to how much supply troops deserve led to some bases having 80% base personnel and 20% personnel for actions 'outside the (barbed) wire'. And plenty of those 20% were for mobility enhancement (helicopters, road demining, convoy escort) or medical evacuation. The high-end approach of high cost, high support, high maintenance had defeated itself and turned into a sad self-parody.

The death spiral in its wider sense, going beyond mere procurement cost escalation, has long since become embarrassing, but it's probably not even an issue for collective security. Any power intent on attacking the alliance for real would likely suffer from the same symptoms. It would be nice if we didn't - for it would save much taxpayer's money, of course.

The real problem of this greater death spiral problem rooted in out-of-control ambitions of the armed bureaucracy itself is in the superfluous military adventure games played by politicians: Western military forces aren't as capable of great power games in underdeveloped places as they were a century ago. It's not only because it's nowadays not tolerable to massacre indigenous people in the hundred thousands.

They're also less capable because they're fat, sick, inefficient, self-defeating. Their efforts to adapt better to such missions only add fat (dedicated camp defences, more base infrastructure, MRAP, more fuel-guzzling hangar queen helicopters) because that's how the bureaucracy rolls and no political master forces it onto a different path.


*: Approximate relationship between Eurofighter and the replaced Tornado IDS + F-4F.
**: There are apparently exceptions; LCS and F-35 are a partial improvement, but also a partial step back.
***: Which scared the shit out of the CIA, which saw Soviet strengths where the Soviets were mediocre and was unaware of Soviet weaknesses. 

edit: I changed the Gepard price because I saw the lower price in a different source. I don't care which value is correct because both were very much greater than the predecessor's. I  think the 2.8 million figure doesn't even come close to program cost/vehicle.

1 comment:

  1. In terms of CIA appreciation of Soviet technologies, their intelligence failed under the fallacy of Mirror Imaging, where the CIA simply attributed American projections of technology to the Soviets. Mirror imaging is when you think the other guy is doing what you'd do or are trying to do yourself. That the Soviets had much better HUMINT contributed to the constancy of this problem for NATO as a whole. The KGB undoubtedly won the intelligence war, but to absolutely no avail in this particular instance, because in this case it probably only increased the speed of the Procurement Death Spiral: NATO was shitting themselves over Future Soviet Tank, developing high technology solutions such as Abrams, Challenger and Leopard 2 to defeat it, and then the Soviets had to counter NATO developments. They were simply unable to.

    Most Soviet technologies demonstrate very good design but fall down in terms of absolute quality of components. Modernizations of Soviet IADS are a major concern; new MILCOTS digitization packages installed into Soviet IADS networks radically improve their performance and reduce the probability of the West's favourite strategy, "bomb it for show," being the free ride it is perceived to be.

    As to Great Power Gaming: While it is true that we can't murder in the tens of thousands any longer, we can sustain low levels of violence for a long time. The ISTAR + Strike umbrella over most of Afghanistan + FATA demonstrates this, with the only objections being pulling up the most photogenic orphans and explaining how their parents/grandparents were killed in an airstrike. This, rather than a coherent objection based on how not only is it morally reprehensible, it serves no military purpose, is strategically counter-productive and simply a waste of resources of everything from political capital to man hours.