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US Military Programs Run Up Against Technological Barrier

The JSF STOVL version.
by Ilya Kramnik, military commentator
Moscow (RIA Novosti) Mar 26, 2010
Here is the problem: U.S. military programs are often over budget and behind schedule. For instance, the U.S. media is now engaged in a lively discussion of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. Although projected F-35 costs have doubled, deadlines are constantly being pushed back.

The problem began 20-30 years ago when the United States and other industrial countries began developing new weapons and equipment to replace Cold War-era hardware. It was clear even then that these next generation weapons would cost far more than their predecessors.

Although Russia withdrew from the arms race after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States continued unabated. Washington wanted to achieve global military supremacy, which combined with its political and economic influence would ensure U.S. domination for many decades to come.

However, Washington encountered problems almost immediately. Skyrocketing R and D costs did not guarantee that the new equipment would have improved combat capabilities, while cost-cutting measures proved ineffective.

In the late 1980s, the U.S. Navy was working hard to develop the Seawolf class attack submarine (SSN), the intended successor to the Los Angeles class submarine. Plans called for 30 of these new submarines to be built.

The U.S. Navy hoped that the new submarine would allow it to gain an advantage over the latest Soviet model, the Project 971 Shchuka-B (Akula) attack submarines.

The low-noise, heavily armed Seawolf could reach speeds exceeding 35 knots and dive 600 meters. Each submarine was to have cost $2.8 billion, which is four times more than the Los Angeles class submarines (over $700 million each) and almost three times more than upgrading these existing vessels at $1 billion apiece.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, both the number and price of the Seawolf class submarines were deemed unjustified. It was decided to build 12 such submarines instead, but the price tag was still too high. Ultimately, only three submarines were commissioned, costing $4.2 billion each.

I could cite example after example of this problem, but let's return to the aforementioned F-35 fighter, whose price has doubled. As I mentioned, the deadline for commissioning the jet is constantly being pushed back. Moreover, it is not clear that the F-35 would even be effective in combat. Some analysts claim that the expensive light fighter does not necessarily have an edge over the Sukhoi jet fighter family.

How can such failures be explained? Among other things, all leading weapons developers and manufacturers eventually run up against a technological barrier. The last time this happened was during World War II and in the immediate post-war period when the piston-engine aircraft became more and more difficult to improve. It was eventually superseded by the jet.

The major powers achieved a technological breakthrough "thanks" to World War II, which forced them to vastly increase investments in military R and D and fundamental engineering.

Virtually every industry now faces a new barrier, which has forced them to pay more and more for increasingly shorter steps along the path to progress. Often these are merely cosmetic changes.

Although the engineers and technicians working on the floor know all about this technological barrier, national defense ministries are growing increasingly detached from technical realities.

In its report "The Unseen Cost: Industrial Base Consequences of Defense Strategy Choices," the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) diagnoses the Pentagon with precisely this malady.

Leading AIA engineers are openly declaring that the Pentagon's plans to attain global technological supremacy are untenable in the absence of the necessary base of fundamental research.

The European Union and Japan are also running up against this barrier. Russia, which is now making up for the 15 years it lost after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., is rapidly approaching the barrier as well. Other industrial countries employing U.S., Russian and European engineering solutions (India, China, etc.) will also inevitably hit this barrier.

It is hard to see how this barrier will be overcome. Obviously, it will require decades of intensive work and enormous investments in fundamental research. In the past, wars made it possible to compress this process to a span of just a few years. But this is no longer possible. A major war today would more likely push the United States and other countries back decades from the barrier rather than help them to overcome it.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Source: RIA Novosti News Agency

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