Air Force One and Trump’s Vision of Military Power

President-elect Trump’s criticism of Boeing and the costs of the new Air Force One aircraft is, I believe, more than just political theater.  If there is anything his business experience has taught Mr. Trump, it’s that getting the most bang for the buck while meeting performance standards is paramount in any successful venture.  Trump has said he intends to make AF1 cheaper.  Consider that AF1 is essentially a flying command and control node.  If communications and other digitized systems are up to speed, then using more standard components in a proven aircraft would result in a significant cost savings while retaining a high percentage of performance.

In a larger sense, I think Trump is signaling his view of military power, that is, a robust industrial capability is the key component of our warfighting ability.  Here are a couple of examples.

One of the most prominent myths of WWII is that the Sherman tank was junk compared to Nazi Germany’s tanks.  This is because there are many aspects about tank warfare which have been misunderstood or deliberately exaggerated.*  When US planners and industry were gearing up for war, our forces had to be supported across a couple of oceans.  Certain decisions had to made in terms of capabilities, industrial capacity and supportability.  The conclusion reached was that the factors of RAM (Reliability, Availability, and Maintainability) were key in determining our logistical approach to the war and the development of our fighting vehicles.  And in this regard, the Sherman (50,000 produced) was head and shoulders above the German tanks.

Germany on the other hand, had a big advantage in tank development, as its forces fought and were supported over the European land mass without oceans to overcome (except North Africa).  Therefore, bigger, powerful tanks were more feasible.  Even so, Germany attempted to push the technological envelope with often questionable results.  In my opinion, the best overall German tank of the war was the Panther Mark V, G-variant.  But the Panthers’ (6500+ produced) technological edge was offset by tolerances that were too tight, while Germany’s attempt at mass production of cutting edge automotive features fell short.  For example, early Panther problems included overheating, connector rod failures, and fuel leaks resulting in engine fires.  These problems were eventually addressed, but by 1944 Panthers still had an operational ready rate of only 54 percent.  This was abysmal by US standards.

Therefore, over the course of the war in North Africa and Europe, more Shermans would show up for the battle in virtually every engagement.  There were exceptions of course, but not many.  An example is the 4th Armored Division’s 100-mile march to relieve Bastogne.  Then-Major Albin Irzyk’s 8th Tank Battalion started the march with 32 Shermans, and in some of the worst winter weather in a century made it to the initial attack position with all 32.  Also, the Shermans’ design didn't stand still.  With the long barrel 76mm gun and the high velocity armor piercing (HVAP) ammo, the newer Shermans could penetrate the frontal armor of a Tiger at 700 meters and a Panther at the max effective range of the gun.

It also didn’t help that Hitler was lured into poor production decisions by Nazi industrialists eager to get that next contract.  It seemed the Fuhrer didn’t meet a tank he didn’t like, but in reality he ended up diverting scarce production capacity for an increasing number of cockamamie schemes.

Concepts of standardization and commonality of parts have also been the hallmark of Russian evolutionary weapons development even to this day.  While conducting a foreign internal defense mission in a former Soviet republic, I encountered this first hand, and it might be something that President-elect Trump and his defense chief ought to consider.  The Russians have much experience in producing military equipment that makes use of existing technologies to meet requirements.  Nearly always, this is cheaper than the current acquisition nightmare the US is now experiencing.

For example, Soviet designed BTR-80 armored personnel carriers (APC) shared selected components with commercial cargo trucks.  If parts were not available in the military supply system, truck dealerships were in many cases able to provide the parts at a greatly reduced cost.  Also, the BMP-1 and 2 (mechanized infantry combat vehicles) are powered by the six- cylinder UTD (Unified Tank Diesel) -20, which because of aftermarket research, led to a family of high- speed multipurpose engines designed for installation on different commercial vehicles.  Like the BTR-80, this increases the density of repair parts and replacement engines.  The multi-purpose engine has been such a success that earlier this year, Russia concluded a deal with Armenia for not only weapons but for new engines, including the UTD-20.

I am not saying we should give up technological advantages, but the post-WWII superpower monopoly status we enjoyed led to a perfectionist approach where, like WWII Germany, we pushed the state of the art over mass production of solid, dependable systems.  This has resulted in leadership always focusing on the long lead time technological solutions rather than sound tactical employment of good equipment and the proper training of military units.

If Trump’s approach to AF1 is any indicator, the same principles could apply to our defense industry, which is in dire need of some business sense.  Currently, it is a group of patronage businesses in thrall to a military procurement system geared to satisfying the whims of politicians for home district jobs -- even if the weapon system is fragile in the field, flawed, unneeded, too costly, or all four.  This has resulted in too few near-perfect weapons systems (e.g., the F-35), manned by too few soldiers, which are be led by low, no-risk leaders for their never ending war.  It also enables lefty politicians to claim their pro-defense credentials (see John Murtha).

The uniformed military leadership shares responsibility for this situation.  Steeped in the false promises of fourth generation warfare and info dominance, it has substituted a bloated and rudderless intelligence apparatus and unproven technology for combined arms combat power.  If Donald Trump can refocus the industrial capacity of the US and change the current political and Pentagon mindset, it can give us the ability to have the armaments and the manpower to keep our overmatch advantage to fight and win a war.  Perhaps reining in the cost of AF1 is Trump’s opening move to do just that.

John Smith is the pen name of a former U.S. intelligence officer.

* I strongly recommend readers watch The Myths of American Armor on YouTube.  The many pop culture notions and misinformation about WWII US armor forces are dispelled in this informative video.