For a brief period after the Gulf War, the legions of defense critics who have long maintained that U.S. weapon systems would not work were shamed into silence. The Abrams M-1 main battle tank, the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, the Apache attack helicopter, the Tomahawk cruise missile and the Patriot missile, among others, thoroughly debunked the naysayers’ claims that such weapons were unreliable, militarily ineffective and/or fatally vulnerable to enemy counterfire.
No Pain, No High Tech Gain: To be sure, at some point in their development each of these systems experienced varying degrees of technical problems — including in most of cases missed milestones and even outright test failures — that were seized upon by the critics. In their frenzied efforts to argue for prompt termination of research and development on or the cancellation of procurement of such weapons, however, these partisans frequently missed one essential point: Fielding state-of-the-art technologies that often determine whether U.S. forces will enjoy a decisive qualitative edge over their adversaries requires taking some risks. With those risks, inevitably, goes the chance of failure in the test program and the need to adapt designs, build work-arounds and make modifications to subsequent production articles.
The F-117: As the attached editorial by the director of the Center for Security Policy, Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., published in the 20-22 September edition of USA Today makes clear, the value of such a trial-and-error approach is particularly evident in the history of the F-117A Stealth fighter-bomber. In the war with Iraq, this aircraft was used with devastating effect to neutralize Saddam Hussein’s air defense system and to lead precision attacks against well-defended, high priority targets.
It took nearly a decade of development effort and operational experience to bring the F-117 to such a level of performance. Had the early problems it experienced — fatal crashes, shortfalls in initial radar cross-section performance and other design problems — been made public at the time, the naysayers might have succeeded in preventing the United States from having a Stealth fighter-bomber in the arsenal when it was needed.
Protecting the Technological Seed Corn: Fortunately, in the case of the F-117 and to an even greater degree with the aforementioned systems whose problems were more in the public domain, the secretary of Defense presiding at the time (and others in the executive branch) engaged directly with the Congress to muster and maintain the necessary support from Capitol Hill. They recognized that such programs were the technological seed-corn for the future, the means by which American security would be safeguarded and our interests protected down the road. Had they failed in these efforts — or, worse yet, shirked from entering the fray — it is quite possible that U.S. casualties in the war with Iraq would have been far higher; conceivably, even the ultimate outcome might have been affected.
While the war with Iraq fully vindicated such a stalwart posture, today the critics are back. Once again, they are contending that the next generation of U.S. weapon systems is technically flawed and are demanding that program after program be terminated forthwith. The Seawolf submarine, the C-17 transport aircraft, several different air-to-ground and air-to-air missiles are in the cross-hairs. Arguably, the system most in jeopardy, however, is a cousin of the F-117 — the B-2 Stealth bomber.
‘A-12-itis’: Today, in what appears to be a hypersensitive over-reaction to the fiasco earlier this year involving the Navy’s A-12 attack aircraft, minor and anticipated developmental challenges in the B-2 program are being treated as major and cataclysmic problems. Luddite harpies and other critics of the B-2 are pouncing upon grossly exaggerated and misleading information about such technical "problems" to insist that no more than the presently budgeted 15 B-2s be built.
The Center for Security Policy has long believed that the B-2 represents for the future what the weapons that acquitted themselves so well in the Gulf constitute today: the difference between a decisive military capability necessary to meet long-term, global American security requirements and one that is wholly inadequate to that task. The Center calls upon Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and others — including President Bush — to rise to the present challenge as their predecessors did in the past. They must make it clear at once that the United States simply cannot afford to forego fielding the B-2 and that they will accept nothing less than a large, robust deployment of these aircraft.