Thursday, April 30, 2009

“When you grow up on a farm in Georgia, your first girlfriend is a mule."

“When you grow up on a farm in Georgia, your first girlfriend is a mule."

Neal Horsley, a 65-year-old resident of Bremen, Georgia had sex with a mule when he was eleven years old. You can read about it here. God forgave him.

Fortunately for Neal, that is not his most significant accomplishment. Born and raised on a farm in rural Georgia, Neal served in the US Air Force, did a stint as a hippie in San Francisco followed by a stint in jail for narcotics possession, was ‘born again,’ graduated from the Presbyterian-run Westminster Theological Seminary in 1985, and became deeply involved in the antiabortion movement. Neal was a longtime friend of Paul Jennings Hill, the former Presbyterian pastor who was executed in 2003 after killing two people at an abortion clinic in 1994. From 1995 until 2002, Horsley ran a website, The Nuremberg Files, that published addresses and other information for abortion providers in Washington State. This website likened doctors who provided abortions to Nazi war criminals, and kept track of doctors who were murdered, injured, or driven out of business.

Neal, a born-again fundamentalist Christian, is now once again running for the office of Governor in the State of Georgia, under the banner of the Creator’s Rights Party, which he founded. He does not think the mule incident, or the subsequent watermelon incident, will get in his way. He’s more concerned about religion and politics.

Partly due to his connections to controversial figures like Paul Jennings Hill and the militant organization calling itself the Army of God (which advocates violence as a means to end abortion), and partly due to his repeated campaigns for elected office, Horsley appeared on a number of right-wing talk shows during the Bush years, including Hannity & Colmes and The Big Story. During the course of these interviews he held forth about his religious and political views, including how useful it would be if states retained the right to secede from the country or, at least, to nullify federal laws, in order to force the federal government to recognize Christian principles in criminalizing abortion.

Horsley also talked about the mule incident in a 2005 appearance on Hannity & Colmes, summing it up with the immortal line "You experiment with anything that moves when you are growing up sexually. You're naive. You know better than that... If it's warm and it's damp and it vibrates you might in fact have sex with it." Many politicians would use the genteel euphemism ‘youthful indiscretion,’ but Neal beats them on forthright honesty there. He also claimed that Jesus cleansed him of the sin.

One of the questions Neal’s story (the big picture, not just the mule thing) raised for me was the issue of antinomianism. It’s a big and elaborate-sounding word, but the essential theological issue it addresses is whether or not the supposed divine law totally supersedes human law, to the extent that obedience to human law isn’t necessary for one’s salvation since (in the view of most Protestant churches) salvation is by faith alone, or sola fide.

The original case studies on antinomianism come from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, including the Book of Daniel, in which the Jews refused to acknowledge Hellenic law imposed by the regional-overlords-of-the-week, and the Acts of the Apostles, when the apostles disputed whether or not it was necessary for Christians to follow Jewish religious laws for food, circumcision, the Sabbath, and so on. This ‘Council of Jerusalem’ was probably one of the most important points in splitting and distinguishing Christianity from Judaism. It should be no surprise, then, that the apostle who was most influential in Protestant traditions, Paul of Tarsus, was one of those who fought most strongly against requiring Christians to obey Jewish law, arguing that the new covenant issued through Jesus superseded all that Torah stuff.

Breaking a civil or criminal law usually (in most Christian traditions, at least) equates to some sort of sin, in the usual litany of ‘thou shalt not kill, steal, covet, lie, etc.’ If you come from a religious tradition where certain things which are illegal are not sins, or where sin can be voided or rendered moot by divine grace, however (for example, killing an adulteress [Leviticus 20:10], traitor [1 Kings 21:13], witch [Exodus 22:1], or someone of another religion [Exodus 22:19]), things can be different. Obedience to God’s law over other law (whether the decrees of Antiochus Epiphanes, Roman law, or the United States Code), in fact, became one of the quicker roads to martyrdom.

In the case of Paul Jennings Hill, he asserted that he was perfectly justified (in both senses) in killing two people because God’s law (which in Hill’s mind endorsed killing abortion providers) supposedly superseded civil and criminal law that forbid murder. Horsley and many of the more militant people in the Army of God and other similar organizations accordingly treat Hill as a martyr to the cause, a role Hill apparently enjoyed.

By contrast to Hill, Horsley’s exorcising of his pubescent hormones at the expense of a mule (in exchange for an ear of corn) is small change, though the mule may well have thought differently at the time. Pulling a knife on his own son during a discussion as to whether or not abortion should, like slavery, be the cause of secession and civil war…well, that’s a different matter.

This is a familiar enough idiom—after all, the United States has seen any number of public figures, many of them religious, first exalt themselves as God’s favorite (holier-than-thou antinomianism) and then wrap themselves in the fleece of the lamb in a theatrical auto da fe of repentance. In the former case, the idea is that God’s chosen are (or should be) exempt from the laws of man (including those pesky laws about fraud and embezzling), and that forgiveness by God should somehow count in the courts of law and public opinion.

A short list of these could include Jimmy Swaggart, James Bakker, Ted Haggard, Pope Alexander VI, and George W. Bush, all of whom at one point believed (or at least acted as if) the law did not apply to them. Bakker and Swaggart both embezzled vast sums from their congregations, as well as carrying on torrid affairs and hiring prostitutes. Ted Haggard apparently had no difficulty functioning in the dual roles of outspoken religious figure and methamphetamine-addicted patron of male prostitutes. Pope Alexander VI almost destroyed the Catholic Church singlehandedly, through sheer venality on an unprecedented scale. The most egregious of the lot, the former President Bush, is on record as having claimed that ‘God wants me to be President,’ starting on false premises a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, and ordering abhorrent acts of torture and domestic espionage in the name of national interests. Nor is this a uniquely Christian phenomenon—Michael Jackson, for instance, publicly embraced the Nation of Islam during his pedophilia troubles.

Speaking as one who is an outsider looking in, this sort of example is the root of the stereotype of the outspoken Christian (or whatever faith) as a sanctimonious hypocrite, a stereotype which has a significant degree of currency among people who take their religion with more equanimity. The antinomian self-exaltation is perceived as sheer arrogance or a rationalization of greed, and the repentance appears as a shallow and laughable publicity stunt, regardless of whether another Christian might take it at face value. Embezzling, soliciting a prostitute, or sex with a mule—it’s all the same.

The more serious problem is that this antinomian idea that the divine law supersedes civil law (and that, for example, militant Presbyterians are governed only by the will of God, who apparently says that murdering abortionists is perfectly legitimate) is, shall we say, at odds with the law of the land. Whether or not God gave you permission to do it or wiped out the sin of it, the 9th Circuit Court is still going to put you in jail for a very long time. This is not the Ottoman Empire, where the sultans let Jews and Christians live under their own laws, for all that there is a sizeable fringe element in this country, such as the Army of God and the Westboro Baptist Church, who apparently wish to dispense with civil law altogether and make divine revelation the law of the land.

Religion does not make one exempt from civil or criminal law. Richard Nixon earned the eternal contempt of the western world for suggesting that “when the President does it, it’s not illegal.” Now mentally replace “President” with the words Christian, Muslim, Orthodox Jew, Rasta, pastor, imam, locksmith, bishop, or civil engineer and revel in the cognitive dissonance. Should it be legal for a Presbyterian to kill a Unitarian, or a Muslim to rob a Catholic, or for a Baptist pharmacist to refuse to perform his duties in filling a morning-after pill prescription for a college student who was date-raped? Each faith could certainly find scriptural justification and historical precedent for these actions.

There are any number of reasons for this irrelevance of religious belief to law—the separation of church and state, centuries of legal precedent, and the inherent intangibility and unquantifiability of religion. How can you prove beyond a reasonable doubt that God really does give you the freedom to kill people whose actions offend you? Religion's outward manifestation is the testimony of those who believe it--it cannot be empirically proven, which is what makes it a matter of faith and religion in the first place, rather than geology and astrophysics-- and therefore the Abrahamic god has as the same legal standing as The Flying Spaghetti Monster, Cthulhu, Optimus Prime, and Scientology. If we accept that the Abrahamic god exists, based on the testimony of a Christian, then the testimony of a Pastafarian as to the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster meets the same standard of proof and we must also accept Pastafarianism as a legal truth.

We are a nation of laws, not of men, and always have been, and the divine law of whichever God or sect is popular at a time should not be allowed to inform the civil law which governs those in our boundlessly diverse society who do not espouse the dominant religion—e.g. the awkward position of Roman Catholics living under the state-run Church of England. That basic argument extends back at least to 1689 and John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration.

One of my favorite summaries of the relationship between religion and politics in the post-Depression United States comes from the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, best known for Starship Troopers and Stranger In A Strange Land. It was published as a postscript to his story If This Goes On, which discusses the overthrow of a theocratic tyranny in the United States in the year 2100.

As for the second notion, the idea that we could lose our freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria, I am sorry to say that I consider it possible. I hope that it is not probable. But there is a latent deep strain of religious fanaticism in this, our culture; it is rooted in our history and it has broken out many times in the past. It is with us now; there has been a sharp rise in strongly evangelical sects in this country in recent years, some of which hold beliefs theocratic in the extreme, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-libertarian.

It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. This is equally true whether the faith is Communism or Holy-Rollerism; indeed it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.

Nevertheless this business of legislating religious beliefs into law has never been more than sporadically successful in this country – Sunday closing laws here and there, birth control legislation in spots, the Prohibition experiment, temporary enclaves of theocracy such as Voliva’s Zion, Smith’s Nauvoo, a few others. The country is split up into such a variety of faiths and sects that a degree of uneasy tolerance now exists from expedient compromise; the minorities constitute a majority of opposition against each other.

Could it be otherwise here? Could any one sect obtain a working majority at the polls and take over the country? Perhaps not – but a combination of a dynamic evangelist, television, enough money, and modern techniques of advertising and propaganda might make Billy Sunday’s efforts look like a corner store compared to Sears Roebuck. Throw in a depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negroism, and a good large dose of anti-“furriners” in general and anti-intellectuals here at home and the result might be something quite frightening – particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington.

From Concerning Stories Never Written: Postscript in Revolt in 2100
Robert A. Heinlein
Colorado Springs, Colorado
October 1952

And with that, I should end this post because it’s already four pages long.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Littoral Combat Ship

In view of Secretary of Defense Gates’ announced plans to reallocate a large chunk of the Pentagon’s procurement budget, as well as the pirate attack on MV Maersk Alabama off the Somali coast earlier this week, I thought I would discuss a matter I’ve been following for some time. The US Navy wants (for a certain value of ‘wants’) a new small, relatively expensive ship for use in low-intensity operations like pirate-hunting, known as the Littoral Combat Ship. It’s certainly a worthwhile project, when weighed against some of the Cold War dinosaur projects that are still carried on the books, but the important question is, will the Navy actually get what it needs? On the other hand, are the defense contractors telling the Pentagon what weapons the military needs?

The current defense procurement system is thick with economic and intellectual hazards. Almost fifty years ago, President Eisenhower delivered a farewell speech that coined the phrase “military-industrial complex,” presciently warning that the US was in danger of developing a symbiotic relationship between the manufacturers of weapons and the consumers of them. Actually, one of the little-known secrets of that speech is that Ike’s original draft read ‘military-industrial-Congressional complex,’ in reference to the practice of Congressmen treating military bases and projects as pork-barrel products for their home districts. For example, why were so many US Navy ships built in Pascagoula, MS during the 1980s and 1990s? The answer is: powerhouse Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi.

It is no secret that military hardware is big, big money, and loaded with waste, inefficiency, cost overruns, cronyism, and peculation.

Defense procurement has changed markedly over the past century. Until the Second World War, much of the actual design and bench-testing work for developing new weapons, whether rifles or battleships, was done in government labs by government employees, such as the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts (where most of the Army’s small arms were developed until the late 1950s) the Navy’s various design bureaus. The Bureau of Ships would, for example, prepare a design and specifications in-house, solicit bids from private shipyards to build the ship, and rigorously test the ship before accepting it for service. Since the Second World War, however, matters have steadily grown more privatized, a process which may have been driven by the increasing technological complexity of weapons such as jet fighters, radars, or ballistic missiles. One of the hallmarks of this privatization was the closing of the Springfield Armory by order of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in 1966.

The weapons design and procurement branch of the military-industrial-congressional congress currently depends on an ever-shrinking pool of firms—for example, in the 1950s, over a dozen aircraft manufacturers would present designs to the Air Force for a new type of fighter plane. There are currently only three major suppliers for military aircraft—Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, and Northrop-Grumman. Due to the shrunken ‘gene pool,’ there is very little competition or incentive to keep prices down and schedules on-time, especially when both firms can mobilize high-echelon political help like Senator John McCain to keep evil foreign competitors like Airbus out of the bidding pool for US defense contracts.

More to the point, Lockheed-Martin is the largest defense contractor in the world, with a 2007 annual revenue of over $38 billion, 92% of which came from defense contracts from the US government. The second-largest defense conglomerate, Boeing, earned $32 billion in the same year, 48% of which was from defense contracts, while the fourth, fifth, and sixth largest contractors, Northrop-Grumman, General Dynamics, and Raytheon, each derived 75%-93% of their income from defense contracts. The third largest contractor, BAE Systems, is based in the United Kingdom and works mostly in European-oriented markets. While a hundred billion dollars might seem small in comparison to the vast amount of money shoveled into the banking and financial service industry over the past year, it is still serious money, and is even more serious when it’s shared among only four competitors. All major defense contractors, including Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and General Dynamics, make a practice of hiring large numbers of retired high-ranking officers, including many of the people who, while in uniform, oversaw defense procurement.

Many projects are fought over like children screaming over the last cookie, or handed off to ‘joint ventures’ set up by a couple of conglomerates working together to share the pie. Whatever benefits there might be of having all the production concentrated in one place, political meddling (uniformed and otherwise) ensures that any project is spread piecemeal over the whole country. Fabrication, assembly, and testing of the F-22 Raptor fighter plane, for example, is currently parceled out over 44 of the 50 states. In the particularly egregious case of the forthcoming $3.3-billion dollar Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyers, the largest single line item in the US Navy’s budget, virtually every major defense contractor in the United States has carved out a slice of the pie.

The primary economic hazard is that, tor all that the business community touts itself as the manifestation of the benefits of capitalism, in reality, there is very little of the principal capitalist virtues of thrift, efficiency, and incentive to innovate about it. Rather than capitalism, the whole system reeks of the sort of bloated graft, inefficiency, and cronyism that strangled the Soviet Union’s entire economy during the latter decades of the Cold War. Even when Raytheon loses a bid to design a new warship, the odds are very good that it will receive some piece of the pie eventually—a ship designed by General Dynamics will likely be armed with missiles manufactured by Raytheon. In the case of the Zumwalt class, BAE Systems designed the weapons, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman collaborated on hull design and machinery, L-3 Communications designed the electronics, and Raytheon is charge with ‘systems integration,’ meaning that it gets to make sure all the innovative and unproven technologies going into the Zumwalt cooperate with each other. Of the two ships under construction, Lockheed Martin is building one at Bath Iron Works in Maine, and Northrop-Grumman is building the other in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

The increased privatization of the US military’s service and support functions during the late 1990s and early 2000s essentially poured ever-increasing amounts of money into a black hole that produced ever-decreasing returns. In the case of the Coast Guard’s ‘Deepwater’ program, which was supposed to provide replacements for elderly ships and aircraft as part of the post-9/11 Homeland Security boom, private contractors such as Lockheed Martin were given the freedom to make purchasing and design decisions on behalf of the federal government—in short, Lockheed could write checks on Washington’s bank account. It is thus no surprise at all that the Deepwater program’s price tag exploded from $17 billion to $26 billion over just four years (2002-2006), and made so little progress that by 2007 the Coast Guard had dropped most of the planned acquisitions from the program. Even that left the Coast Guard with fewer ships than it started with, because eight ships rebuilt under the program turned out not to be safe to operate, and had to be taken out of service. The Coast Guard, which typically gets by on a miniscule fraction of the resources afforded to most government agencies or services, is currently suing several shipyards and defense contractors in an attempt to recover costs and damages.

The current paradigm is a design/build contract, where a firm such as Lockheed presents a conceptual design to the Pentagon, wins out over its competitors, and is then awarded the contract to prepare a final design and ultimately build the ship, vehicle, or whatever. In theory, this model works. The reality is that projects tend to get stuck somewhere between the awarding of a contract for a final design, and the construction of the ship—this is how the Raptor and the Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor transport aircraft ($110 million per aircraft) came to exist only on the drawing board or prototype stage for over a decade and a half.

The problem is, there is little oversight over construction to verify that the contractor is doing his job properly and on schedule, which is why budgets and timelines both stretch far beyond the expected limits. Quality can suffer, too—the two Coast Guard cutters launched under the Lockheed-run Deepwater program were found to have been built with vulnerable unshielded electrical wiring instead of the shielded wiring which Lockheed’s own design required, and whistleblowers asserted that Lockheed’s project manager knew about the substitution but did nothing about it. The difference is crucial—unshielded wiring would have left the ship vulnerable to electromagnetic effects that could have shut down her electronics and left her blind, deaf, and dumb, or left her unable to use her radios because of the interference created by her own radar.

The ultimate result of this privatization and deregulation is that twenty-three years after the program was launched, the F-22 Raptor has just barely entered production, the Air Force has only 135 of them as yet, and the program as a whole has cost over $65 billion dollars, an order of magnitude higher than the original worst-case cost estimates. A significant chunk of that money has gone into periodically redesigning the prototype to keep pace with the new aircraft that have entered operational service during the Raptor’s quarter-century gestation period. That’s right. Stuff designed after the Raptor project started has entered full-scale service before the Raptor got past the prototype stage, and Lockheed had to redesign the thing because the new stuff (for example, the Saab Gripen or Eurofighter 2000) outclassed that iteration of the Raptor design.

As vast and bloated as the Raptor project is, however, there are only a few projects of that type going on at any one time, so the military is forced effectively to subsidize contractors by padding contracts to tide their suppliers through lean times in order to keep the machinery running, so to speak. After all, if Boeing should go under, where would the Air Force get cargo planes? This is part of the reason that projects like the Raptor and the Osprey are spread out in small-batch production over many years—the Osprey is currently rolling off the assembly line at the rate of eleven aircraft per year, although the military hopes to see a rate of 48 per year by 2012. The eventual requirement is for about 460 Ospreys.

The attempts by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to transform the military into a leaner and more streamlined entity by privatizing progressively larger chunks of the military’s traditional sphere of needs (to the point of using Chilean mercenaries as security personnel for US government officials and Pakistani peasants as truck drivers and cooks) foundered on the sclerotic, complacent, and corrupt nature of the system which it tried to capitalize (no pun intended) upon. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether contractors supplied by Halliburton can peel potatoes cheaper than an Army private fresh out of basic training—privates are expensive to train and equip, yes, but they don’t expect to maximize quarterly earnings the way Halliburton does. Businesses exist to make money. Admittedly, privates are in short supply, but that might be because they are paid so little—many military families rely on food stamps to survive. What would be the cost/benefit analysis of better-paid privates peeling potatoes on salary versus Halliburton, who expects to turn a profit on the arrangement.

The primary economic and technical hazard created by the procurement system is that it doesn’t always deliver to the military what it needs at a particular moment—Secretary Rumsfeld’s bon mot that “you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want” resonates here. As the US military found to its’ distress during the Iraq occupation, under the current system it can take years to get an urgently-needed item into production even when using proven and relatively off-the shelf technology such as mine-resistant trucks, which are old hat in South Africa and the Third World. Regardless of how badly the military needs life-saving but mundane goods like body armor or mine-resistant trucks, however, it is essentially locked into spending money on gear like the Raptor, which was originally designed with the Cold War in mind, and which is almost completely useless in the ‘war on terror,’ and the allotment for the Raptor takes precedence over the allotment for body armor.

Asymmetrical warfare is the most common type of warfare in the modern world (well, all warfare is asymmetrical, really), but it’s the least ‘fun.’ It’s not fighter pilots trading shots with Soviet jets over central Germany—it’s leg infantry doing foot patrols out of a base in the Sunni Triangle or the Pamir Mountains. It’s not glamorous, doesn’t make the news unless something goes horribly wrong, and generally requires a dusty mine-resistant truck and a mundane assault rifle instead of flashy, high-tech, expensive, and therefore prestigious toys like the F-22 Raptor, which even earned an appearance in the 2007 ‘Iron Man’ movie.

The Raptor is unfortunately not unique, but emblematic of a long-standing problem. Defense dollars are consistently misspent by funding expensive and possibly unnecessary things like the Raptor at the expense of unglamorous but necessary stuff like body armor for soldiers. If you’re hunting the Taliban in the Afghan mountains, you don’t need a supersonic jet plane that’s invisible to radar, because the Taliban don’t have radar. You need two guys in a Piper Cub to FIND the Taliban, at which point basically anything with wings can drop a bomb on them. Unfortunately there isn’t much money in manufacturing Piper Cubs, so they get little attention, political wooing, or money. Raptors, however, have put any number of Lockheed employees’ children through college since the program was initiated in 1986.

The Navy has its own, similar procurement problem. Right now the US Navy has more big ships than anyone else on the planet—at last count, 11 aircraft carriers, 22 cruisers, 53 destroyers, 53 attack submarines, 18 ballistic-missile submarines, about thirty frigates, a dozen amphibious assault ships, and a horde of supply ships, landing ships, and others. Our smallest aircraft carrier is still 50% bigger than anyone else’s, and tremendously more powerful.

The problem is that we have lots of $100 bills but no small change; it’s like when you need two bucks for a cup of coffee the smallest you have is a $50 bill. Most of the ships in Reagan’s ‘600 ship navy’ at the end of the Cold War were aging, second-rate destroyers and frigates kept around because they would be useful as convoy escorts in the event of World War III, or for ‘showing the flag’ in low-priority areas. With the reductions in strength during the 1990s, the older and smaller ships were the first to go, so that by 2000 we had a much smaller fleet composed overwhelmingly of modern ships.

The problem is, now we need what we haven’t got-- a lot of small, cheap ships suitable for gofer duties, hunting submarines in shallow water like the Persian Gulf, and running down Somali pirates. During WWII, a destroyer was a 2,000-ton, relatively expendable ship that could be built by the dozen. These days, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer like the USS Bainbridge, which participated in the Maersk Alabama incident, is a 9,000-ton major fleet warship, one not to be risked without serious consideration of career prospects and budgets. Given the reduced size of the fleet compared to a decade ago, each task given a ship must be weighed against other needs for that same ship.

The Navy’s situation is partly an intellectual hazard like that mentioned above. For most of the last sixty years, the Navy has been run mostly by men wedded to the idea of the aircraft carrier as the ultimate Big Stick, to such an extent that virtually every other kind of ship in the fleet was conceptualized as a way of supporting the aircraft carrier—cruisers became air-defense ships that shot down enemy airplanes or cruise missiles, and destroyers and frigates became ships that sank enemy submarines. Either type was basically a defensive auxiliary to the aircraft carrier, and were ill-equipped for operating out of their intended roles, or even for the task of simply fighting other surface ships.

It was almost thirty years into the missile age that the US even had a purpose-designed antiship missile (the Harpoon), which is prima facie evidence that nobody expected surface warships to slug it out themselves, rather than protecting an aircraft carrier. Technically speaking, you could hit a ship with a surface-to-air missile like the Standard or the lumbering 1960s-vintage Talos, but that was a pretty weak sauce—you generally couldn’t hit anything that was over the radar horizon. By contrast, when the Russians (who didn’t have any aircraft carriers until the 1980s) started putting missiles on their warships, the first kind of missile they developed was an antiship missile, and they put them on LOTS of ships, as well as on airplanes, submarines, and bunkers on beaches.

Even the Aegis radar system was originally conceived as a means of protecting aircraft carriers from the Russians as part of a Butter Battle Book evolution. To the Soviet admirals, the best way to even the odds when you didn’t have aircraft carriers of your own (as was the case for the Soviet navy) was to use long-range missiles. The US Navy responded with missiles to shoot down the Soviet missiles. The Soviets simply one-upped and decided to use LOTS of missiles. The US responded with systems to shoot down LOTS of missiles, namely Aegis, which is essentially a radar and computer system designed to track lots of targets and guide lots of outgoing missiles simultaneously.

As a corollary to the emphasis on aircraft carriers, for many years the carrier-dominated Navy simply detested the idea of small ships, a category which came to include virtually everything smaller than a 5,000-ton guided-missile destroyer. The Navy complained that they were too limited in their abilities, couldn’t be upgraded with new weapons, required too many men and too much money, and so on, and that the money would be better spent on a smaller number of big ships. When the last Perry-class frigates were launched in the 1970s, a number of senior naval officers and defense analysts said that they would be the last frigates the US Navy would build. They had something of a point, especially after the end of the Cold War—without the need to perhaps send convoys across the Atlantic to Europe again, you didn’t need a swarm of small antisubmarine warships. Most of the US Navy’s frigates were accordingly sold or scrapped during the 1990s—of the 51 Perry-class ships, about half have been disposed of and the rest are being taken out of service a few at a time.

From a military perspective, the major intellectual (and ultimately tactical and strategic) hazard in structuring one’s military and planning for future wars or other needs lies in focusing so narrowly on your own strengths that you overlook your enemy’s strengths or leave yourself vulnerable to them. You could also wind up in a situation that you had never anticipated, and for which you were neither trained nor equipped. The classic modern example of this type of situation is the 1982 Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina. The Royal Navy had, since the 1950s, steadily retracted from its imperial power-projection operation into the role of antisubmarine warfare in the North Atlantic. When faced with the entirely unexpected need to launch an amphibious assault on a defended shore on the other side of the planet, the Royal Navy was faced with the grim fact that its resources were entirely inadequate, and that it would have to deal with a tactical and strategic situation that was entirely out of its core competencies. This extended from the macrocosm of the nature of the war to, in microcosm, the discovery that the Royal Navy’s Sea Dart surface to air missile, designed to cope with Soviet missiles on ballistic trajectories, was unable to track low-flying French-built Exocets like that which sank HMS Sheffield. The fact that the British triumphed at all is due primarily to their ability to improvise and adapt, rather than to any innate material advantage.

As a tactical hazard, if all your hitting power is concentrated in your dozen or so aircraft carriers, you’ve really put your eggs in one basket, and no matter how well-defended they are, aircraft carriers are big targets. Case in point—back during the 1990s, the US Navy was holding joint exercises with some Canadian warships, one of whom somehow managed to sneak past the carrier’s escorts and ‘hit’ the carrier with a missile before anyone knew the Canadian ship was there. This was a rather notorious incident in naval circles. Sure, the Red Banner Northern Fleet would have lost a number of ships knocking out one carrier, but their ships were cheaper and more numerous to start with—trade three or four submarines, destroyers, frigates, etc. or even cruisers for a carrier and you’d come out ahead.

Likewise, a crowded and cluttered area like the Persian Gulf would be ideal conditions for a frigate or a submarine to sneak in close to a carrier and land a shot on it. Submarines still make surface captains break out in a cold sweat, and two guys in a speedboat full of explosives blew a hole in the USS Cole in October 2000, killing 17 and wounding 39.

As powerful as they are, however, there are certain things aircraft carrier groups aren’t very good at, such as littoral operations involving confined spaces (launching and recovering aircraft requires lots of sea room), or anything involving being unobtrusive. For example, it’s a simple matter for Iran to find out how many US aircraft carriers are in the Persian Gulf or Arabian Sea. A Nimitz-class carrier is big enough to show up like a sore thumb on a satellite photo, and such photos are commercially available to anyone with cash. The ‘littoral’ is, in this context, the part of the sea which is within about 100 miles of the coast.

Now, I am not in the Navy or any other branch of the military, but it seems to me that if you want to use naval means to affect things on or close to land, be that D-Day scale assaults, battalion-strength Marine landings, interdicting coastal traffic or pirates, reconnaissance, or shoot-and-scoot artillery raids, this most likely involves being relatively close to the shore…..

So now we’re back to having a navy with a lot of big expensive ships, but very few small and cheap ones, going shopping while carrying nothing smaller than thousand-dollar bills in a mall where none of the stores give change.

Many of the environments in which the Navy is likely to be fighting in the next twenty years are coastal environments facing asymmetrical enemies, rather like what the US encountered in the Tanker War back in the 1980s, when the Iran-Iraq war spilled over into attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. What do you do when you have an asymmetric enemy fighting you in an adverse environment, and most of your own strengths are hindered? An Aegis-equipped guided missile cruiser isn’t going to do you much good in the cramped Straits of Hormuz, and all those nasty little mines and cheap Chinese-made antiship missiles leave an admiral disinclined to send expensive ships into confined spaces. The Perry class wouldn’t be much better—they were designed mostly as convoy escorts, and have really good antisubmarine capabilities and an outdated but usable air defense, but that’s about it—not a whole lot of slugging power.

A 1994 white paper from the US Navy, titled ‘Forward…From The Sea” identified the littoral environment as the most likely sphere for future naval operations in the post-Cold War world. Although the Navy was to an extent aware of the littoral warfare issue on an intellectual level, in a material respect the fleet is at least twenty years behind the times. Most of the littoral warfare programs the Navy embarked on during the 1980s or 1990s simply never materialized, or evolved into attempts to make existing assets such as special forces or helicopter units do double-duty.

Over the past five to seven years, however, the erstwhile Global War On Terror prompted the admirals to rediscover many jobs that the Navy either de-emphasized or simply forgot about during the Cold War, much like the Army and Marine Corps allegedly forgot everything learned in Vietnam and had to rediscover counterinsurgency and peacekeeping operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So what is needed is a ship you could use for all those things for which a cruiser or destroyer is overkill, too big, or just not suited to the mission. Chasing pirates off Somalia, landing Special Forces or peacekeepers in Haiti, or running down Pasdaran speedboats in the event of a war with Iran are rather silly things to try and do with a 9,000 ship designed to kill airplanes, missiles, and submarines from thirty miles away.

So the Navy clearly has a need to fill, and in the apparent absence of other means to fill it, the answer is something new, or rather something old with a new name. In this case, the old-but-new thing is a small warship, but the new name is the Littoral Combat Ship or LCS, probably because the traditional naval designations for smaller warships, such as ‘frigate’ or ‘corvette,’ don’t sound sufficiently technological. There are a few other concepts floating around in the prototype stage, such as the small but ultra-fast Sea Fighter, but the LCS is (or perhaps was) the most immediately workable concept.

The LCS would be, to quote Robert Fripp, a ‘small, mobile, intelligent unit,’ conceived as a fairly inexpensive (both to build and to operate) and versatile ship with a lot of teeth, and roughly a third the size of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. The overall concept is pretty clever—fast, shallow draft, capable of carrying and landing a detachment of Marines, and capable of being fitted out with modular weapons and gear depending on what mission it’s for. The Danes developed this approach back in the 1980s, a number of NATO countries have adopted it wholly or in part, and it’s a proven technology. It’s also probably the best single idea for a ship the Navy has produced since the fall of the Soviet Union.

If you need a ship-killer, you pull the LCS up to a naval base on Diego Garcia and load a module of Harpoon missiles. If you need a minesweeper, remove the Harpoons and install the minesweeping gear, etc. etc. The upshot is that for the price of a dozen ships plus the extra equipment modules, you get a dozen minesweepers, a dozen frigates, and a dozen fast commando carriers without having to build, man, and maintain three dozen ships, and foot the bill for frigates when all you need at the moment is minesweepers.

The basic problem is that the Pentagon—like any organ of government these days-- can’t seem to produce anything that is small, inexpensive, and easy to implement. There’s too much money for Lockheed and General Dynamics to gobble up simply through the inertia of the R&D and purchasing system. The last eight years of Republican misrule, pork, War On Terra, and Homeland Security paranoia has meant there is plenty of slop in the trough, and even in relatively lean times the Pentagon’s funding is lavish compared to most European countries. Rather than pick a simple design and go with it, the Pentagon spent years soliciting bids, eventually winding up with two designs, one by Lockheed Martin (who have never built ships of any sort before, but who bought out companies that did) and the other by General Dynamics.

Rather than pick one builder and upset the other, out of what could be either Solomonic wisdom or Republican profligacy, the Pentagon decided to build a couple of each design as prototypes, to be named USS Freedom (the Lockheed design) and USS Independence (the General Dynamics design). Both designs turned out to be bigger, fancier, and more expensive than initially desired, and in each case the Navy realized halfway through that as initially conceived, the ships would be too fragile and required extensive redesign work. Each also and took almost four years to build (announced in 2001, ordered in 2004, launched in 2006, and still not finished) even though the Pentagon fast-tracked the project (they wanted it in six years, rather than the usual twelve).

USS Freedom (General Dynamics design, planing monohull)

USS Independence (Lockheed Martin design, trimaran)

The last time the Congressional Research Service weighed in on the matter (late 2008), the cost of one LCS had bloated to more than twice the original projected cost. The final cost per ship will likely be in the range of 600 million dollars, three times the original budget. Although less than a fifth the cost of a Zumwalt, this is hardly the cheap and efficient ship the Navy wanted. I am very familiar with this trick— the contractor lowballs the original estimate in order to undercut the competition and get the project approved, and then runs up the bill with change orders and unforeseen costs. There’s no incentive not to, since the contracts for the projects stipulated that the government would reimburse General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin for any cost overruns.

The LCS project finally became so sclerotic that the Navy canceled the third and fourth ships in November 2007; part of the reason was that Lockheed would not agree to a new contract which would cut the government’s responsibility for cost overruns. The Navy currently plans a new bidding process with the for fiscal year 2010 for the next three littoral combat ships, assuming that Lockheed and General Dynamics will stay in the race, and with the winner building two ships and the loser only one ship. The new Democratic administration has also set a $460 million per ship spending cap.

At this point, the world being the way it is, we probably won’t get either design into serial production. At the same time, the Navy is still pouring money into new aircraft carriers, a new class of four-billion-dollar-each destroyers packed with experimental gear, and more submarines.

It’s really too bad that it’s so hard to get something we actually need.