Much has been made of the need to "transform" the military services to fight the next generation of wars -- wars which are more likely to be against rogue nations supporting terrorists, rather than against another super power as we were positioned to do during the Cold War.
When we think of the legacy systems, we think of ICBM's, bombers, fighter aircraft, aircraft carriers, tanks and heavy armor.
When we think of transformation systems, we think of satellite systems, sophisticated sensor systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, precision guided munitions and land warrior systems relying on high-tech computer imagery.
Our legacy systems date to the Cold War days of the 1950s through the early 1990s. Most of these systems were designed to defend against the Soviet Union's nuclear threat to our nation. They are still being used today.
The B-52 bomber is 50 years old... that's right, 50 years old. And the B-52 is projected to be in the Air Force combat inventory for another 35 to 40 years. Of course, there are also newer bombers such as the B-1 and stealthy B-2. But they are few in numbers and they reflect 20-year-old technology.
There is no new bomber under development, yet there is a transformation that has been under way for years. Bombers, such as the B-1. B-2 and B-52, designed to drop nuclear weapons now drop dozens of high-tech conventional precision guided bombs or launch precision guided cruise missiles at very specific targets within close proximity to our friendly forces on the ground.
Ten years ago we would never have dropped 2,000 pound bombs from above the clouds at 35,000 feet to a designated target within a half a mile of our own friendly forces on the ground. We are doing that today in Afghanistan.
In Desert Storm, a decade ago, about 10 percent of the weapons dropped were precision guided; the rest were "dumb" bombs. In Afghanistan nearly three out of four weapons were precision guided munitions (PGM).
During Desert Storm we deployed over a half a million service members to the Gulf Region. We had heavy armor, tanks, aircraft carriers, fighters, bombers and divisions of soldiers engaged against Saddam Hussein's army.
In the battle against terrorism we have deployed about 70,000 forces on the land or on the sea in the region of Afghanistan. Only about 10 percent of that number are in Afghanistan. The United States and the coalition forces have relied on small numbers of very highly-trained Special Operations forces combined with incredibly accurate firepower from the air. Of course, the enemy forces within Afghanistan are in no way similar to the forces of Iraq during the Gulf War
In reality there has been an ongoing "transformation" of weapon systems within the United States Air Force over the past decade. While the "platforms" have not changed, their specific uses have been transformed.
Bombers, modified with sophisticated avionic suites, were converted to carry incredibly accurate weapons guided by laser designator or global positioning systems.
Vietnam and Desert Storm vintage dumb bombs were modified to provide for precise targeting. By simply adding an inexpensive tail kit with global positioning system guidance, a dumb bomb was converted into a "smart" bomb. That too is transformation.
During the past decade, considerable research, development and testing of unmanned vehicles have occurred. It paid off in spades in our fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's) can stay over the target areas for long periods of time; they can relay real-time data to the controllers hundreds of miles away; they create no risk for pilot losses; and they are relatively cheap. And most recently, some have been configured to fire missiles at targets as soon as the targets are acquired.
There is considerable controversy as to whether or not the Department of Defense should spend money on new fighters or on new long range artillery pieces for that matter. The debate centers on the threat. What country possesses the means to counter existing systems such as the F-14, F-15 and F-16 for example? That may just be the wrong question.
The more correct question may be: what nation may possess systems to counter our technology a decade from now? Who knows? Who predicted that commercial airliners would be hijacked and rammed into large buildings killing thousands?
Russia, China and the European nations are capable of, and are, building sophisticated weapon systems. Just as America does, these nations also sell their high-tech weapons to lesser nations -- nations such as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq for example. How much risk are we willing to take?
A very important piece of the legacy/transformation systems is too often overlooked. The mobility forces, such as airlift and air refueling, are in dire need of upgrading and additional aircraft purchase. The bulk of the aerial tankers are 1950s vintage Boeing 707's converted for the tanker role. These aircraft are tired and demand heavy and expensive maintenance with about one-third in depot maintenance at any time.
The C-17 airlifter for troop and cargo hauling has proved its mettle in the war against terror. But there simply are not enough of them to handle the demands around the globe. The ongoing retirement of the C-141 airlift fleet has left a major void in the flexibility available to handle all the cargo on a global scale. More C-17's are critical if we are to properly support all of the war-fighting CINC's across the globe.
Which will it be -- legacy systems or transformational systems? My take is that we need both. We need to modernize our legacy systems to serve us now and to bridge the gap for the next decade. During that decade transformational systems, such as dramatically improved UAV's, space based sensor platforms, improved command and control systems, and the Army's Land Warrior system can be fielded and made available for combat.
It will not be cheap. It will be necessary.
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