Sunday, October 28, 2018

Expensive Plaything? Consider the Tribe, the Natives and the Other Side


When defending a nation whose first military defeat may be its last, is there no price too high to pay to stave off national extinction?

With vulnerability as the start point for any discussion on expensive war machines, dissenting voices face an uphill battle making their point.

High price tag and costly sustainability over its projected life cycle? The nation can pay for it. So, Buy.

The flipside of not buying? Apocalyptic, nightmarish scenarios where the nation will pay a far higher price if certain capabilities are absent. So, Buy.

One does not have to resort to scare mongering to drive the point home. And in situations where theoretical possibilities are discussed and nobody has the definitive answer, it is natural and expected that one should err on the side of caution. So, Buy.

Unique to certain nations, the acquisition of high-priced armaments exerts a dynamic that goes beyond superficial arguments of whether one is getting bang for buck. Performance data will often be used to debunk skeptics. Mind you, these data points use numbers that outsiders like you and I will be forced to take at face value because the data is often hard to verify as they concern operationally sensitive or commercially competitive matters. You will find it virtually impossible to apply Reagan's advice to "trust but verify" when it comes to establishing whether MTBF, life cycle cost or cost per flight hour are what they are made out to be.

The dynamic we are talking about concerns human factors that impact feelings in the tribe, among the natives and also how people on the other side of the border view any arms purchase.

The Tribe
If we agree that expensive war machines have shrugged off teething issues and work as advertised, one has to work through the difficult issue of who gets to use these silver bullets.

Peculiar to geographies where CEP does not simply refer to weapon accuracy but the current estimated potential of men and women who step forward to serve the armed forces, this is a tricky issue.

There have been past instances where book smarts does not equate street smarts. Add a complex environment where one has to fight in three dimensions and one gets to realise why individuals with the right stuff are so highly cherished in established air forces.

But if one is to treat a command tour as a tick in the box, then you have a problem when an expensive war machine is used like a stage prop, or worst, a crutch so that a high flier has something nice to show on the resume, whatever the shortcomings. It's been done before: Sunrays who are extinguished within the opening bouts of mock battles. CMIs who miss the datum by minutes when precision is expected/demanded. Highly esteemed leaders who need someone to countercheck every command call.

Among the Few, those hand-picked to operate expensive war machines will emerge primus inter pares. In a highly-competitive environment with many talented individuals to choose from, it is up to the system to demonstrate that they truly deserve their perch.

The Natives
While what goes on within the tribe (usually) stays within the tribe, people deserve to know what they are paying for.

There's usually something nice to write about new war machines, more so for expensive ones. You can count on the arms factory concerned to trot out an impressive list of war-winning attributes for its product.

With an eye-popping price tag, one should hope tax payers get what they pay for.

The flip side is what happens if and when the armament fails to deliver. Defence enthusiasts would probably have come across the statistic of a certain warplane with a combat record of a hundred plus victories with zero losses. It makes a useful factoid journalists are likely to use. But that same war machine fielded against a rag tag militia (with no air force worth talking about) has not only failed to quell the opposition but is said to have been clawed out of the sky by ground-based air defences. Did the much-touted warplane deter? No. Did it defeat the enemy decisively? No.

The shock effect of situations where the highly-acclaimed fall from grace is magnified for small nations, particularly those with net-savvy natives. This means one should mind those sound bites right from the get go and not get blown away with the hype in an attempt to justify cost.

The Other Side
While mindsets in places with a tame mainstream media can be managed with careful curation of information, how folks across the border view new armaments is beyond one's control.

If new weapon platforms and systems deter or at the very least impress, then this is a good outcome.

But if for all the hype and ballyhoo nothing stirs in their loins (i.e. balls shrink), then you have a problem.

In some armed forces, it is popular and even fashionable to study the success in battle of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The IDF's ability to bounce back from surprise attack from multiple foes, their conduct of a short war wrapped up in less than a week, their wielding of air and tank heavy forces with aplomb have won them acclaim and admiration from untested forces eager to emulate their mastery of the art and science of war.

Where Arab armies failed, a small force in Lebanon has proven otherwise. Combatants from Hezbollah have fought the IDF to bloody stalemates with no warplanes and no tanks. Their battle staff has been content to allow IDF complete air supremacy, knowing full well IDF warplanes are virtually useless once the rockets fly.

You can bet the neighbours will watch with interest whatever new kit is fielded.

Once can expect the difficult gestation for new platforms to be alluded to by observers on the other side. Snarky remarks are par for the course.

What's even more noteworthy and more difficult to discern - unless one makes the effort to know the neighbours better - is any pivot in their understanding of how warfare might be conducted if forced to decisive battle on their soil, and their confidence in emulating conditions that led to the IDF stalemate even if it means going to Paradise.

If the new playbook by the other side works, then you have a problem because the new, expensive war machine will fail to deter even before it arrives.

9 comments:

Anthony said...

Decision soon?

David Boey said...

Dunno *shrugs*
But check this out -->

https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/could-f35-replace-singapore-rsaf-f16-fighter-jet-comparison-10815958

Locust said...

Is there something wrong with the narrative? The f16s are currently undergoing upgrading to f16v. When the f35s arrive, they will be operating with the f16v and f15sgs. More like a replacement for the outgoing/retired f5s/ts (some or all) in the interim for initial orders of f35s. Subsequent orders of f35s will replace the f16s (some or all). F15sgs will then be replaced by a 6th generation jet.

sepecatgr1a said...

The first F35A was rolled out in 2006. The program has since been in development for 12 years.It is probably one of the costliest and most prolonged military equipment development programs in history.
Aside from its truly eye popping price tag, the cost of operating & maintaining the F35 over its life cycle appears to be equally eye popping.

The RSAF is reportedly interested in the F35B which is the most expensive variant. Fuel capacity and hence range has been sacrificed in this variant to accommodate the vertical flight system. Also, the F35B payload is further diminished for an already limited payload for the F35 series.
The F35B is also rated for I believe 7.5g while the A is rated for 9g. Although IOC ( with interim software & limited capabilities ) has been declared for the F35B STOVL variant in 2015 there are still many serious performance, reliability and sustainability issues yet to be resolved to achieve the F35’s promised full combat potential.

At about US$115 million each, the F35B will probably cost close to US$200 million a pop when weapons, Helmet Mounted Sight, spares, maintenance associated equipment, technical support, training etc etc. are included in the final package.

I also wonder how heavy maintenance of airframe, engines & avionics will be carried out - can it be performed locally or needs to be done overseas as most of the equipment are highly specialized and specific / unique to the F35B. Coupled to its limited deployed numbers compared to the F35A, one can also assume that maintenance costs will be even higher than the A variant.

But if the promises can be fulfilled, the F35 is a fantastic warplane. But like the F22, the F35’s very high cost will force users to limit the number that can be purchased.

However, the F35B can give the RSAF an asset unlike what an F16, F15 or for that matter a Typhoon or Rafale can offer. IMHO its STOVL feature is its biggest asset to runway stressed Singapore.
Theoretically, there will be many more alternatives for the dispersal of F35s in hardened shelters which need not be connected to long runways. Then there is also the possibility of F35Bs operating from the future Joint Multi Mission Ships in times of crisis to further complicate a potential enemy’s strike options.

IMHO the F35 is clearly not a silver bullet although it could give the RSAF further options to deter potential enemies. I see it as a highly specialized warplane to possibly complement the RSAF’s current F16s and F15s both of which are probably already highly advanced versions of these aircraft types. These aircraft can probably hold their own for at least another 15 to 20 years. A small number of F35Bs will probably be purchased ( l guess less than 20 ) - or maybe not at all - and these will probably replace some of the older F16s in the future. The F15s are comparatively newer and are extremely capable dual role aircraft. Perhaps more F16s can be purchased in the future as attrition replacements. Beyond the F35A/B I assume that the RSAF will look further to perhaps Gen 6 fighters as the options for Gen 5 is severely limited to only the F35.

Purchasing less F35Bs ( or none & maybe purchasing more F16s in future ) will free up the defence budget for other weapons or military infrastructure ( to further protect / harden our very expensive assets such as current warplanes, warships & submarines ) programs. Personally I think that our assets are extremely vulnerable & exposed to very low tech attacks such as long range rockets and special forces infiltration.

J LSA said...

It is not whether we want to buy this or buy that. Need to Q in advance... LM is trying to "close down" the F-16 assembly line and try to divest, choh choh india see if they want to set up or not ...?

it's about bottom line and share price...military-industrial-complex thingee, so F-16 likely will not be selling (LM trying to sell the F-35) kill off one product (or at least shift the production line to elsewhere) because maintaining two production lines "eat" into their profit?

Also, doesn't mean today buy tomorrow deliver...guess maybe will take a cautious approach... remember the initial F-16A/Bs approach? Not sure the LRIP Lotxx how many minimum one need to order though... need to take a Q-number and join the next LRIP?

Locust said...

I suppose you are referring to limited payload in the internal bomb bay. Why would you need full stealth after air dominance is obtained? Spiral upgrade information by lockmart shows that the f35 can carry as many as 6 amraams or amms internally. Why would this or even 4 amms carried internally not be enough? Who are going up against? Im not a fan of the brick but to say that this plane is plagued by problems is misleading when you do not have full information vis a vis other planes. Other planes do not have the media scrutiny of the f35. A case in point is the cancelled pak 50. As for numbers, i think Rsaf will maintain a 3 front line aircarft type array - in case any one type is grounded. 2 might be too risky. The f35 will simply replace the bulk of f16 and f5s/t in stages. At some point of time, a 6th gen aircarft will be introduced and the cycle is repeated. In terms of numbers, i think we will stick with 100 to 140 frames for frontline combat jets.

Unknown said...

When comparing the prices or operating costs of military equipment, it is vital to compare apples to apples. Costs follow a U-shape over the lifetime of a system.

Early in life during LRIP (low rate initial production), production costs are high because the production process is unrefined, there is little competition between subcontractors, and there are poor economies of scale. Operating costs are also high because maintenance procedures are unrefined, completely new sets of support equipment have to be bought, new cadre must be trained, and stockpiling of spares and consumables must be done. When a system becomes mature, costs fall as these issues go away, and then rise again when the system becomes worn out, parts become obsolete and hard to acquire, etc. The costs of a system can easily drop by half or more from early to mature phases of life.

When you want to compare the F-35 to other aircraft, you have to bear in mind that most of them are at the bottom of the U, while the F-35 is at the start. The cost of purchasing and running the F-35 have been falling very fast. The flyaway cost of the F-35 is already <$100M, the lowest among all new-build Western fighters like the Rafale or Typhoon and still falling. Only Gripen is cheaper and it has much poorer performance. (You should compare flyaway cost, because contract costs include all kinds of ancillaries like spares, training, documentation, insurance, etc that vary a lot depending on what the purchaser needs.) The CPFH is still high but also falling fast with plenty of potential for improvement based on past experience with other aircraft since it is so early in the operational life of the system.

It simply isn't accurate to say the the F-35 is expensive. It only looks like that because you are comparing apples to oranges. If you take into account the lifecycle stage different aircraft are in, the F-35 is living up to the promise of being the new F-16. It won't be as cheap as the F-16 in dollar terms, but it will still fit in the same position among Western fighters as one of the cheapest fighters and very good value for money.

Shawn C said...

Reckon the three ChannelnewsAsia pieces are either the government prepping the public about the upcoming buy or a LockMart advertorial campaign - I lean towards the latter,

Most informed Singaporeans know it’s a matter of when and which type of F-35 we are going to buy. I feel the decision has been delayed past the F-5 retirement (thus the RSAF is at least two fighter squadrons below its 2015 strength) because the governmental that commit until the aircraft is in full rate production, which is still a couple years away, no matter how LockMart tries to gloss over that. There’s absolutely no urgent reason to buy LRIP aircraft - our F-35 strength will be built up over the next two decades to replace the F-16.

Shawn C said...

CNA just ran another Mike Yeo commentary on the F-35.

https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/f35-singapore-next-fighter-jet-joint-strike-fighter-10873654

Also condolences to the family of the soldier who was killed in a training accident today. Sounds like a major TSR screwup.