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June 02, 2010

Defense Notes....Of Nukes, Future Fighters And Budgets

One of the things that bothers me about the whole DADT debate is that it takes up what little attention most people pay to real defense related issues.

The public's imagination may never be captured by discussions about nuclear warhead procurement but perhaps it should. You see, while Obama is running around cutting our nuclear inventory, it turns out a lot of the weapons we already have are getting old and are in need of replacement. Unfortunately, there is no appetite for that from this President or Congress.

Still, John Noonan writing at the Weekly Standard makes the case for "New Nukes".

The need for modernization is pressing. Though most of the details about Americaís warhead stockpiles are highly classified, there are a few key points well known to close observers. Most of our nuclear warheads are 20-30 years old. The last weapon was constructed in 1991 and the last test detonation of a bomb occurred in 1992. The average age of an operational bomb is slightly over 30 years old, meaning many of our deployed warheads were built before President Reagan took office. Scientists who specialize in warhead construction and sustainment are aging and retiring at an alarming rate. By 2008, over half the nuclear specialists at our national laboratories were over the age of 50, and very few of those under 50 have the technical know-how to produce and sustain functional weapons. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates estimated that within a few years, roughly three-fourths of our nuclear technicians will be at retirement age. The National Nuclear Security Administration, a Department of Energy subagency responsible for the security and health of our stockpile, has lost over a quarter of its workforce since the end of the Cold War. Components in our warheads are aging just as fast. We no longer possess the capacity or ability to construct certain parts required in our bomb designs.

Nuclear weapons are different from conventional munitions, which can sometimes detonate decades after they roll off the assembly lines. Nukes have a limited shelf life, and are constructed using parts that decay and corrode. Warheads must be constantly maintained and serviced to be considered credible. But along with the exodus of critical lab technicians, so went the industry that supported our national laboratories with key bomb-making components. Older weapons are now cannibalized to service the active force.

As you cut down the numbers of nuclear weapons (as this administration is dedicated to), their reliability, more importantly how reliable your potential adversaries think they are, takes on a greater importance.

As we lose critical nuclear weapon infrastructure, including people, things actually can become more dangerous not less.

Too many liberals engage in wishful thinking, that if only these horrible weapons (and they are that) would go away everything would be better. Well, the world isn't that simple. Never has been, never will be.

Any serious debate about our strategic security simply has to include an upgrade of our nuclear stockpile.

A second story not getting much attention is the over budget and behind schedule F-35 JSF program.

This plane is supposed to be work horse of the future (at least until UCAVs are ready). The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps are each getting their own version and many of our allies have signed up for it as well.

Turns out things aren't going so well.


The projected cost of Lockheed Martin Corp.ís F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive U.S. weapons program, is now $382 billion, 65 percent higher than the $232 billion estimated when the program started in 2002, according to a government official.

This projection from independent Pentagon analysts is being sent to Congress today.

The Pentagonís cost-analysis office reports that the price per plane -- including research, development and construction costs -- is now $112.4 million, the official said. Thatís about 81 percent over the original estimate of $62 million.

The production cost alone of each plane is estimated at $92.4 million, almost 85 percent higher than the $50 million projected when the program began in 2002, the Pentagon will tell Congress.

...The program is already four years behind schedule on key milestones, including completing the development phase and combat testing, beginning full-scale production and then declaring the first Air Force and Navy units ready for combat.

Oops.

The delays have forced the Navy to enter into a multi-year program buy of F/A-18 Hornets.

Good thing we canceled the really expensive F-22. We didn't need that because the Chinese aren't going to have a 5th generation fighter anytime soon.

Oops again!

We are faced with shrinking defense spending at a time when a lot of bills are coming due after close to a decade of 2 wars, ships built during the 80' and early 90's coming up for retirement and an Air Force with some really old airframes.

The need for the US military to be ready and engaged around the world isn't going to decrease anytime soon but the resources available to meet those missions may not be there in the future. These challenges and choices are the kind of priority setting people need to talk about because political support is going to have to be marshaled to avoid some real disasters.

Building a military on future projections is a losing game, the unexpected will always win. That's why you can't ever build 'just enough' because no one knows what that means. It's expensive being a superpower but it beats the alternative.

Now that I think about it, I can see why many people would rather talk about DADT. Compared the real challenges we are facing, that's pretty simple stuff.


(FTR- My annoyance at the disproportional coverage DADT gets over real defense issues has nothing to do with my stand on it. I don't think I have one actually beyond a firm belief the men and women of the military will deal with whatever hand the politicians deal them.

To my mind, it's simply an issue that gets way to much coverage compared to its actual importance.)

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posted by DrewM. at 02:42 PM

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