Blue gets its ass handed to it

Friday, September 13th, 2019

“In our games, when we fight Russia and China,” RAND analyst David Ochmanek explains, “blue gets its ass handed to it.”

How could this happen, when we spend over $700 billion a year on everything from thousand-foot-long nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to supersonic stealth fighters?


“In every case I know of,” said Robert Work, a former deputy secretary of defense with decades of wargaming experience, “the F-35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky, but it gets killed on the ground in large numbers.”

Even the hottest jet has to land somewhere. But big airbases on land and big aircraft carriers on the water turn out to be big targets for long-range precision-guided missiles. Once an American monopoly, such smart weapons are now a rapidly growing part of Russian and Chinese arsenals — as are the long-range sensors, communications networks, and command systems required to aim them.

So, as potential adversaries improve their technology, “things that rely on sophisticated base infrastructure like runways and fuel tanks are going to have a hard time,” Ochmanek said. “Things that sail on the surface of the sea are going to have a hard time.”

(That’s why the 2020 budget coming out next week retires the carrier USS Truman decades early and cuts two amphibious landing ships, as we’ve reported. It’s also why the Marine Corps is buying the jump-jet version of the F-35, which can take off and land from tiny, ad hoc airstrips, but how well they can maintain a high-tech aircraft in low-tech surroundings is an open question).

While the Air Force and Navy took most of the flak today at this afternoon’s Center for a New American Security panel on the need for “A New American Way of War.” the Army doesn’t look too great, either. Its huge supply bases go up in smoke as well, Work and Ochmanek said. Its tank brigades get shot up by cruise missiles, drones, and helicopters because the Army largely got rid of its mobile anti-aircraft troops, a shortfall it’s now hastening to correct. And its missile defense units get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of incoming fire.

The video gets going about 13 minutes in.


  1. Graham says:

    I have a hard time with the notion that the Truman retirement was motivated by hard nosed appraisal of these new realities, both because the US armed forces are not noted for doing that, they ARE noted for being in love with gee-whiz new stuff, they are also noted for often as not backing the wrong horse among the new stuff [hi tech, but prolonged, complicated and vulnerable, and often large], and they still went with the gee-whiz transformative yet still huge and vulnerable Ford class.

  2. Albion says:

    The attraction of big, shiny stuff isn’t going to go away but the more one looks at war the more one sees it is small, local decisions on the ground (mostly, but also on water and in the air) that turns engagements round. Small, independent units in the long term will be triumphant against big tech: neither the Chinese nor the Russians will want to use a large, expensive long range missile to try to take out a platoon of infantry or a low profile weapons system. Flexibility is often the key element in fights.

  3. Kirk says:

    In my personal opinion, we’re entering another transitional phase, or we’ve been in one without recognizing its reality around us. Just like the various national armies of the pre-WWI era, things have changed and the adaptations have not been made, or even recognized.

    I don’t know where we’re actually going–Nobody does. I think the era of “Big War” is essentially over, and what’s coming up is going to look a lot different. Mass and logistics are going to play a part, but the reality is that a chunk of that is now irrelevant.

    The first inklings of this came in Iraq: The “insurgents” were using things like washing machine timers, cell phones, and a bunch of other stuff they re-purposed from civilian industry. Nobody on our side recognized what was going on until well into the IED campaign, and the EOD guys were doing post-blast analysis on the IEDs themselves. We’d already let in ship loads of washing machine timers and such-like, thinking that they were being brought in to repair the backlog of consumer white goods that hadn’t been replaced. Literally enough timers were brought in that the Iraqis should have been running assembly lines for household appliances, which they weren’t. And, our guys down in Basra who were running customs had no clue…

    Things like that? Yeah; that’s the way war is going to be going for the next century-plus. On the one hand, we had all these guys in EOD going “Where the hell are they getting all these timers from…?”, and on the other, we had the guys in Basra monitoring the customs end going “Wow, that’s a lot of washing machine timers…”. Information known; pertinence and relevance not seen until too late to fix or do anything about.

    It’s just like small arms; I don’t see any “revolution in technology” coming along for the basics, like the weapons and cartridges. What’s going to be the game-changers are things like the Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence pieces, that the military terms “C3-I”. The problem is not the killing of the target, anymore, but the identification of it, and the direction of the fires at it. I wager that the 5.56mm/7.62mm combination we have at this time would be perfectly adequate going forward, it’s just that we need better sights and better coordination between our combatant elements.

    The fact that our “Big War” elements are increasingly vulnerable? Yeah, that’s a problem. But, the reality is that there’s an awful lot of stuff we could be doing down at the rubber-on-road level, and which need to be done. UAV assets integrated into the squads, and the whole host of enabling technologies need to be kept on top of and integrated as they come on-line. At some point, running an infantry squad is going to be as complex as what a fighter pilot does now, and will have about as many moving pieces. Mass armies at that point are going to become ridiculous and likely too damn expensive to procure for.

  4. Alrenous says:

    Surface ships, manned flight, and armoured vehicles are all obsolete. Could put the fuel tanks underground, though.

  5. Kirk says:

    “Obsolete” is going a bit far; I’d say more that they’re still relevant, just in different ways. The armored vehicle of the future is going to be more of a mobile command post/mother ship for unmanned assets more than it will be a direct-combat vehicle. Why put a gun on a great big target, then fire it so that you can’t possibly miss where it’s at…? Far smarter to run your autonomous vehicles from that thing, never unmask it, and use the tank to haul the RPV assets on long movements?

    Seriously–When you can direct your land mines to find and attack your enemy’s tanks, why bother with your own gun-armed expensive asset? Have the little creepy-crawlies wandering the battlefield, looking for targets, get approval, and then get comfortable under an enemy tank. Even smarter? Let the self-directed landmine go home with your enemy and wait to detonate until it’s in the middle of a refuel/rearm site or even the enemy motor pool…

  6. Lu An Li says:

    Of course USA forces are just standing there are and allowing themselves to have the crap beaten out of them without doing a thing.

    And the Chinese and Russian stuff works so well and 100 % of the time. They are ten feet tall as it was in the days of the Cold War and we the USA are weaklings.

  7. Bruce says:

    Thirty years ago Dean Ing looked at the future of drones and ended by quoting an unnamed expert- ‘Beware of those mosquitoes!’

  8. Bill says:

    Read Kill Decision, a 2012 novel by Daniel Suarez, to see where drone warfare is going. Very scary book, still prophetic, although this week’s drone attack on the Saudi oil fields has turned some of the book into reality.

  9. Paul from Canada says:

    What Kirk says about C3I is spot on. Until particle beams and so on get developed, there is not much new by way of weapons. Chemical explosives and projectiles are pretty much the same as they have been since WWII.

    Information (the correct amount at the correct time to the correct person) is the key.

    Heinz Guderian is called the father of Blitzkrieg and the German tank forces, but really, he cribbed off others and didn’t really invent the doctrine.

    What he DID do, as a former signals officer, was to ensure that as quickly as possible, all German tanks had a radio, and that as soon as possible, all tanks would have a transceiver, so as to not only receive orders, but pass information up the chain from the lowest level.

    During the battle of France, most of the German tanks were Panzer I and IIs, the French theoretically had superiority, but they had an exaggerated fear of interception and electronic warfare, and virtually prohibited the use of radio, which was a very large factor in their loss of the war.

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