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#12 - The Quality of Quantity - Preparation for War
数量 - Shu4 Liang4 - Quantity
US military forces are woefully underprepared to fight and win a modern conventional conflict. The war in Ukraine has underlined that it's quite hard to determine where the next conflict will be. US military forces should be built around a two major combat operation planning principle, with the standing force ready to deter and if necessary, fight and win in Europe and Asia simultaneously. While the US Defense Department has made progress developing and fielding new technologies, the Pentagon is neglecting real war-fighting requirements for a single war, let alone two simultaneous wars. This post breaks down only some of the currently neglected aspects of US defense.
Though Pentagon planners have done a good job of creating new high-tech platforms across the military services, too few of these weapons are procured. The problem is not capability, but capacity. In 2022, the healthiest example is the US air superiority fleet, composed of the F-22 and F-35 (both fifth generation fighters). Considering maintenance time, possible retirement of the earliest block 20 models, and airframes set aside for training, there will only be 58 F-22s available at any given time for operations (roughly 5 squadrons). By comparison, using the same readiness measure, there were roughly 400 operational F-15 fighters available during the height of the Cold War. The air superiority fleet today is composed of the F-22 as well as F-35, but there were still only roughly 400 F-35 aircraft across all services in 2021. With a readiness rate of barely 60%, this means that only about 240 F-35 and 58 F-22 airframes (298 in total) are available for combat.
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As the war in Ukraine has shown, flying fourth generation airframes on the modern battlefield is a struggle and is likely to be too risky for US pilots in the future. The US fleet of about 298 fifth generation air superiority fighters must cover down against both the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, not to mention maintaining a reserve or resourcing other contingencies that may arise. Even if the total fleet is able to build up towards 400 or 500 airframes, aircraft today are far more vulnerable to missile threats during flight, parked on the ground, or packed aboard aircraft carriers than they ever were during the Cold War.
The above challenges will be compounded by the small and shrinking quantity of future aircraft purchases (by both the Air Force and Navy), not even to mention the fact that Chinese-made parts are still ending up in the most advanced aircraft, including the F-35. Congress should require the Air Force and Navy to actually work together to figure out future air superiority, perhaps by using cheaper drones or a less sophisticated and less expensive version of the F-35 to increase capacity.
In worse shape than the US air fleet is the ground component. Reviewing the tentative lessons learned from Ukraine, both Moscow and Kyiv are struggling to field properly trained ground units and keep these units at high strength with replacement troops. The Russians in particular have been operationally hamstrung by a lack of good infantry, something that has plagued the Russian Armed Forces for years. On the Ukrainian side, an emergency program for the UK to train Ukrainian infantry is on-going.
For the United States, realistic estimates of ground fighting capacity for a single major conflict are 21 Army brigade combat teams (BCTs) and 15 Marine battalions (roughly 5 regimental combat teams [RCTs]). The current structure of 31 combat-ready Army BCTs and 21 Marine battalions (7 RCTs) leaves the force underprepared, even without considering the possibility of very high casualties, something both sides are experiencing in the Ukraine war.
The solution is to create a large reserve force of highly trained infantry battalions in both the Army and Marines. Administrative burdens on troops both active and reserve should be severely curtailed, leaving the reserve infantry forces to focus solely on METL (mission essential task list) training. This large reserve of infantry combat power would cost less in the reserves and be more easily absorbed into the active component on a per-battalion or per-regiment/brigade basis.
The force in the most dilapidated shape is likely the US Navy. With multiple failures in warship design (including the Zumwalt Destroyer, Littoral Combat Ship, and Ford-class Carrier) accumulating over decades, the Navy is doing a disservice to the country. While this subject is worthy of its own post here at Vermilion, the best path ahead should focus on rebuilding the fleet at the small vessel level first, with basic frigates capable of shooting large volumes of advanced missiles.
The Navy should also restart active drilling reserve forces which man newly produced ships. The frigate program is the perfect place to start. Multiple reserve crews should be assigned to a single frigate, allowing for the training of multiple crews sequentially while fully utilizing the platform. Additionally, the purchase order for the new Constellation-class frigate only encompasses 20 hulls which is a good start but likely not nearly enough. To give the problem some scope without going into detail, the US Navy operated 6,768 ships in 1945. Today, the force is composed of 290 ships with no rapid ship construction capability.
Ammunition expenditure rates from the Ukraine war have also revealed that most countries' munitions stocks are embarrassingly inadequate. Just for a single munition, the 155mm artillery shell, the Ukrainian military fires as many 155mm shells in two weeks as the United States produces in an entire year. If Washington is to deter PRC aggression, the US must field military forces ready to “fight tonight.”
Continuing to field a force that will run out of ammunition (especially missiles) quickly in a war with the PRC sends a signal that the United States will either not fight or not have the resources to sustain anything other than an operation which rapidly culminates.
The US government must commit to re-establishing the national military industrial base. Small arms and artillery ammunition production is a basic necessity which DoD may be lacking. While fixing this gap is a good start, there are far more complex industrial processes which also need ramping up. These include high rate production for advanced missiles, establishing and maintaining forward supply dumps, and rapid repair and replacement capability for engines, ground vehicles, aircraft, and vessels.
During WWII, the War Department operated the Alabama Army Ammunition Plant (ALAAP), which had a peak production capacity of 40 million pounds of assorted ammunition per month. Pentagon planners should remember that the US industrial base will be responsible for the vast supply expenditure of the US military as well as shoring up the supplies (sometimes the wholesale equipping) of allied and partnered forces across the globe.
Even the logistics capacity to move all of the required troops and supplies is virtually non-existent. As noted in Vermilion’s Implementing a Strategy of Denial, the US may lack the capability to provide the shipping for a major combat operation. The US Merchant Marine fleet has shrunk from 1,288 vessels in 1951 to 81 vessels as of 2018. It is the Merchant Marine that delivers US troops and supplies to their destinations. In fact, the service transforms into an auxiliary organization of the US Navy during wartime. During World War II, merchant mariners suffered a per capita casualty rate greater than those of any other US military service.
Fielding a force that is unable to move throughout the Pacific not only weakens deterrence, but increases the value of a first strike. Slowly moving or stationary US troops are more vulnerable to missile fire as well as more likely to be isolated at the outset of conflict. The Merchant Marine must be reinvigorated and placed under the Department of the Navy during peacetime for close coordination before the outbreak of war.
If there are limited means to move troops around the Pacific theater, there are even less existing measures to protect them. Our troops are not in the right places to win wars or deter them from happening. Quite the opposite, most large bases in the Pacific are unhardened, lightly defended, linked to vulnerable local infrastructure, sited on flat land with no terrain protection, and lack adequate missile defense. Hardened facilities are few and far between mostly due to negligence but also the high cost of island construction and the limited area in which to site protected facilities. US planners must also keep in mind two PRC focus areas. The first is that the PRC has spent decades hardening facilities, especially aircraft hangers, on the mainland. It will be difficult to prosecute a joint fires campaign against PLA targets. Secondly, the PLARF missile inventory is larger than the US force’s missile magazine and continues to grow. Hardened shelters are a basic requirement within at least 4000km of the Chinese mainland, and very little progress if any has been made in the past twenty years.
Hardening is only one answer, just as important is dispersal. This extends to US soil on Guam, Saipan, Tinian, and Hawaii. US and allied forces require multiple basing options in order to frustrate PRC targeting efforts and deplete the PLARF missile inventory. Since the 1991 closing of Naval Base Subic Bay, Philippines, US basing structure on domestic soil in the Pacific has continued a precipitous decline. Multiple rounds of the congressional base realignment and closure (BRAC) committee have shut down Ship Repair Facility Guam, Naval Air Facility Adak, Elmendorf Air Force Base, Naval Air Station Barbers Point, Naval Air Facility Midway Island, and Naval Air Station Agana. While the domestic BRAC process was axing away bases, US foreign base structure and overseas force structure has also dwindled since the 90s, severely limiting Washington’s options for response during conflict. For just one example, almost one of every three US Army troops were stationed overseas in 1985. Yet in 2015, that figure fell to just 9%.
The US Senate should establish a Pacific basing committee that is not limited to a single domestic lens. The committee should look at both international and domestic bases throughout the Indo-Pacific and make the necessary recommendations to get basing structure on the right footing. This committee would be able to act as a political focal point of effort for the difficult discussions surrounding new bases in allied and partner countries, including Taiwan, Japan, Philippines, Federated States of Micronesia, Australia, and others.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
Through an enormous cost in blood and treasure, Washington and her allies have the option of forward defense along the first island chain (SCS-Philippines-Taiwan-Ryukyu chain-Japan home islands). Losing parts of this chain will lead to the re-emergence of a predatory great power quite happy to employ unjustified military force. By not maintaining a combat credible military, the US invites PRC aggression and places American service member’s lives at unacceptable risk.
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