The U.S. Military Is Obsolete

You read the subject line correctly. The U.S. military is obsolete.

You’re probably not used to seeing something like that, or thinking along those lines. It’s not common American wisdom.

But lend me your eyeballs for a few minutes, and I’ll explain.

I suspect that you’ll come away questioning at least a few things. Stand by…

U.S. politicians often brag about how great the country’s military is… “Best in the world,” yadda, yadda.  Or, “Our military is second to none,” yadda, yadda.

In movies and other media, we often see the absolute best of the U.S. military; from snipers to jet fighters to submarines. When there’s a shootout, the U.S. side wins. Our targeting is outstanding. We hit where we aim. Our equipment works great. Our guys and gals are well-trained and just plain fabulous.

American military power is a big part of the culture – and the economy – in which we live.

On a more personal level, most Americans admire and respect our troops and veterans. Of course, as a veteran – U.S. Navy – I’m pleased to see it.

But as I said above, the U.S. military is obsolete. It means outdated, outmoded, old fashioned. From the Latin word obsoletus; meaning aged and worn out.

I regret to say it, but… We have a military in which much equipment, planning and training is unsuitable for any major, future war. Much is not fit for purpose. Come the “next big war,” much of our expensive kit won’t work.

I’m telling you now, so you won’t be surprised when you read the newspapers on day two, three or four of the opening phases of the next real war. Assuming there’s still a newspaper

Here’s some history, to help illustrate the point…

Early in World War I, British and French armies staged large-scale infantry and cavalry assaults against coordinated German artillery fire and dug-in machine guns. It was obsolete doctrine and equipment up against a very real, but unrecognized, revolution in military affairs. Casualties were in the hundreds of thousands.

In the early 1950s, during the Korean War, U.S. piston-powered aircraft – World War II-era B-29s – went against first generation Soviet jet fighters in daylight bombing. It was a rout. The bombers were driven from the sky.

Or consider the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Early-on, Israeli tanks were blown off the battlefield by Egyptian troops using Soviet antitank missiles. And Israeli jets – U.S.-supplied – were shot down in droves by advanced Soviet antiair defenses, operated by Egyptians.

These are examples of obsolete equipment and doctrine up against revolutionary “new” levels of technology and operational thinking.

Of course, “new” doesn’t mean unknown. Some people knew what was out there; they just didn’t appreciate the effects.

When the First World War started, machine guns and coordinated artillery fire were reasonably well-known. The technologies and concepts dated back to the 1860s; the U.S. Civil War. It’s just that the generals didn’t recognize the threat.

Same thing in Korea. U.S. B-29 bombers worked well just a few years earlier, against Japan. But one day in Korea, on a daylight bombing mission, two-thirds of the aircraft launched in one raid were shot down by Soviet MiG-15 fighter planes.1

And Yom Kippur? Many people knew about Soviet antitank missiles. But Israel’s ground generals didn’t respect the problem they confronted. As for war in the sky, everybody knew about Soviet air defenses, too. Indeed, during the Vietnam conflict through the 1960s, Soviet antiair systems shot down over 2,000 U.S. airplanes. But even in 1973, Israeli planners thought that their Egyptian opponents couldn’t make those same systems work. And that sense of hubris almost cost Israel the war.

When I say that the U.S. military is obsolete, I’m not saying that the country lacks people and equipment with which to make war. The U.S. has many truly outstanding military professionals, and some totally awesome equipment.

Problem is that much of U.S. strategic, doctrinal and operational structure tends to focus on things that worked in past wars. Indeed, there’s a vast, stodgy, military-civilian bureaucracy within the Pentagon and outlying commands. Much of the bureaucracy spends its time looking in the rear-view mirror.

The bureaucratic complex is wedded to various “programs.” That’s another way of saying that the system is set up to buy/build more of what we used to buy/build, only with shinier, louder bells and whistles.

Within the military complex, we have innumerable ongoing programs focused on perpetuating legacy systems. Yet there are precious few people and/or places in the Pentagon that are dedicated to thinking about what won’t work anymore.

Here’s an example of a major system that has outlived itself; aircraft carriers.

Full disclosure; I’m an old carrier-guy. I served onboard ex-USS Constellation (CV-64), now long scrapped at the Brownsville, Texas ship-breaking yard. I also sailed across oceans aboard ex-USS Enterprise (CVN-65) and ex-USS Independence (CV-62) as well. I have fond memories of good old days on my beloved, long-gone bird farms…

The U.S. still builds aircraft carriers. They’re pricey; presently up around $13 billion each. The country has been building aircraft carriers since the 1920s. There’s a long legacy of successful operation and effective usage. We’re good at aircraft carriers.

The newest carrier is USS Gerald Ford (CVN-78).

USS Gerald Ford

At more than 100,000 tons, and over 1,100 feet long, Ford is massive. It carries the latest, greatest technology, from nuclear reactors with 25-year operating life, to electromagnetic catapults and more; with plenty of unsolved technical issues, by the way.

Meanwhile, Russia has a new, recently-deployed weapon. The device costs in the range of a few million dollars each. It’s the Kh-47M2 “Kinzhal” (“Dagger”) air-launched ballistic missile. Range is over 1,200 miles at hypersonic speed of Mach 10 – about two miles per second.


Kh-47M2 “Kinzhal” (“Dagger”), carried by Mig-31 aircraft.

Kinzhal is so fast as to be all but unstoppable. It skims along the upper edges of the atmosphere, and it’s maneuverable. Then it plunges down onto its target.

One hit from one of these new Russian missiles could cripple an aircraft carrier. A few hits could rip an aircraft carrier in half.

Meanwhile, Russian operational doctrine against aircraft carriers is no big secret. The idea is to “swarm” aircraft carriers, and by implication all nearby ships, with hypersonic missiles; Kinzhal and other fast missiles. A few incoming rounds will likely get shot down; the rest will find targets. That prediction is based on the “Salvo Combat Model,” developed at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Here’s the bottom line. We have literally tens of billions of dollars of Navy-related capital investment – and many thousands of Sailors on our ships – all at high risk. But now, the entire operational concept can be neutered by a few tens of millions of dollars’ worth of investment in missiles.

I could list numerous other examples of flawed and/or outdated weapon and doctrine concepts. But for now, let’s drill further into the true issue…

It gets back to politics. For many years, the U.S. has allocated funds towards outdated equipment and doctrines. The result is a lot of expensive, legacy military people, machinery and weapons. Not coincidentally, we also have way too many military systems and concepts that won’t measure up come the next real war.

It might seem strange to call the U.S. military obsolete. After all, the U.S. spends about $800 billion per year on its so-called “defense” budget.

You’d think for that amount of money everything would be just fine… The U.S. military would be totally cutting edge and utterly supreme. And you’d be wrong.

So, where’s the $800 billion going?

Good question. Let’s back up a step, though…

Ideally, budgeting and spending should follow some semblance of strategic thinking. That is, you marry-up your national interests and strategic goals with your available resources; it’s the very definition of implementing strategy.

Instead, the U.S. spend-spend-spending machine has transformed into a system where “strategy” – such as it is – follows budgeting. In other words, strategy follows the money. When it should be vice versa.

I’m sure you understand that in modern America, money goes where politics points. Eventually, as funds are paid to contractors and personnel, things get built and presented for use. Then, some abomination of strategy comes out the other end.

At the business end, U.S. warfighting is a Frankenstein monster; meaning a variety of parts – some of this, some of that – all cobbled together and deployed downrange to place warheads on foreheads. In essence, it’s a firepower model.

Up to now, in a world of third-rate opponents, the U.S. firepower model has worked. Not all the time; not all that well. But to date, the American firepower machine has hit many an aim point.

Looking ahead, though, the U.S. firepower model of warfighting is broken. Entirely new technical developments – in hypersonic airframes, electronic warfare, access to/denial of outer space and more – have caught many U.S. military planners, designers, contractors and users flat-footed.

There’s a revolution in military affairs out there – hypersonic weapons are just one example – and it has passed the U.S. by in many respects.

For all the big military machines in inventory, we’re in a mess. Many legacy systems – aircraft carriers and much more – can be countered by asymmetric means. In fact, the U.S. homeland has never been at more direct threat.

And it’s all happening in a world that’s becoming better-armed and more dangerous. How can we get out of it? Well, there’s a glimmer of hope.

At a recent defense conference, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin shocked a military-friendly crowd when he proposed a “thought experiment.” He asked:

“Which do you think the Chinese leadership would fear more: 2,000 conventional strike missiles possessed by the United States and its allies in the western Pacific capable of ranging Chinese targets, or one new carrier? Because those two things cost about the same amount of money. Those are the kinds of questions we need to be asking ourselves.” 2

Some people at the conference thought that Griffin was kidding. Those are NOT the kinds of questions that get asked in polite company within the Pentagon.

Pushback came fast. One example is a rejoinder from Michael O’Hanlon, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He believes that Griffin’s thought experiment “assumes a high-end fight to be already underway.”

According to O’Hanlon, “At that point (i.e., high-end fight), we are all in serious trouble. (But) more important is deterring the high-end fight or keeping any low-level skirmish at such a level and terminating it. For those cases, the carrier may be more relevant. That’s how we have to think. We can’t always go to the all-out scenario for decision-making purposes.” (Note: emphasis added.)

In other words, O’Hanlon is saying we shouldn’t “think” about things that we don’t want to happen.

Famous last words, those… And my reply is something we used to say when I was on the aircraft carrier; perhaps we’ll survive to discuss it when we’re in the life rafts.

Bottom line… Much current operational and strategic thinking behind U.S. military spending – and the weapons, training and doctrine – is obsolete. It barely works now; it’s unsuitable to the future. We spend big money on things that won’t work when their moment arrives.

There’s plenty more to say. I’ll address other angles on all of this in future articles.

On that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now…  Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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1 Earl McGill, Black Tuesday Over Namsi: B-29s vs MIGs—The Forgotten Air Battle of the Korean War, 23 October 1951
2 Will ground-based hypersonic missiles replace aircraft carriers in the defense budget? Defense News

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