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The 21st-Century Conundrum

What good is the best fighter jet if you can't afford to fly it?

| December 14, 2012
The F-35 takes off


Trade-offs between quality and quantity are not new at all to those making the decisions about what to buy for their country’s armed forces.  Some militaries focus on numbers, others focus on maximizing the technological advantage.  “Guns versus butter” is the classic depiction of trade-offs in economics, but even within the military budget, it is not just “guns versus boats versus planes” – it is “ more guns versus better guns.”  Most clearly, these days, the trade-off is between having too few F-35s or having more planes that are less advanced technologically.

When you talk to members of the Canadian or American armed forces about this, the conversation usually turns to this question: Would you rather go to war with less than the best possible equipment?  Leaving aside the question of whether the F-35 is actually the best plane for Canada, sure, I would want pilots to have the best planes, sailors to have the best ships, soldiers to have the best vehicles, and so on.  But the procurement processes of the advanced democracies have become sufficiently problematic that having the very, very best is now very, very expensive.  In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, then U.S. secretary of defence, cancelled the Crusader artillery system (not the best name to use in wars of the 21st century) because it had become so expensive that it threatened one of the key principles of artillery – having plenty of guns.  I am no fan of Rumsfeld, but this was one of his better decisions.

Even without fiscal crises, the escalating costs of the best weapons systems raises a dramatic challenge: How many planes/boats/tanks are sufficient?  Because as we buy more expensive stuff, we also have to buy less of it.  For Canada, how many fighter planes are enough to protect the entire country?  Before the F-35 became so expensive, the number given was 65.  Now, the number cited may be 55 or less.  We see the same effect in the U.S.: In the past 10 years, the U.S. armed forces has spent far more money, but now has fewer planes, ships, and so on.  This is not the canard that Mitt Romney raised in the presidential campaign about the numbers today versus those in 1914. Rather, the question raised is, are we getting the equipment needed to meet the commitments countries are making?

The real dilemma of 21st-century defence planning is not finessing quality versus quantity so much as it is accepting or ignoring the existence of such trade-offs.  Choices have to be made, but governments are unwilling to face them head on.  So, you end up getting stuck with less than you need, but more than you can afford.  The F-35 will not only be expensive to buy, but also to operate. This may result in less quality flying from Canadian pilots, because they may not be able to afford to fly that much in the future. 

Canada, the United States, and other advanced democracies have to consider what they need to do and what they can afford, and then figure out how to manage the tradeoffs.  If you ask most military officers today about combat, they will say that it is about managing risk, not avoiding risk.  Well, the same applies to the civilians who make the big decisions: They need to manage the trade-offs, accepting some risks.  For instance, perhaps Canada would like to have a stealthy airplane, but does not need it.  Choosing not to purchase the F-35s would raise the risk that Canada would not be able to participate in the first attacks of a multilateral military operation. However, that is less dangerous than having so few, and so expensive, planes that can be flown rarely (due to higher operating and maintenance costs) that Canadian pilots might lose their edge due to the lack of practice.

Again, it is about weighing risks and making the most informed choices.  Transparency might help with that – being clear to oneself and to one’s public is the first step toward realizing that a trade-off exists, that difficult choices must be made, and that managing risks is part of the game.  Perhaps buying fewer of a weapons system is OK, because the superiority of its technology means that the improved effectiveness compensates for having only a few.  If the politicians and bureaucrats in the departments managing the modern militaries were actually assessing the trade-off in that way, that would be acceptable.

Unfortunately, the past several years of denials and confusion suggest that there is little clear-headed thinking about these trade-offs, so I have little confidence that the superior quality of any troubled, expensive weapons system compensates for the declining numbers to be purchased.

  • Eric Morse

    Affordability of ‘the best’ has always been a problem of nation states, it has never been really solved, and the current aviation race is merely the current iteration.

    In about 85 AD Julius Frontinus expressed the view that artillery technology had advanced to the exploitable limit and there were no further advances to be made. Barring gunpowder, which he can be forgiven for not having foreseen, he was right. Artillery technology of his time hung on for another century or two, then began an inexorable slide as socio-economic conditions collapsed. Archaeology tells us that, although concept and design were efficiently impressive, Imperial Roman military manufacturing worked at the ‘good enough to win’ level. Artillery was more impressive from a quality point of view – only because it had to be.

    A more telling Classical analogy is naval technology. It had peaked around the 4th century BC with the Hellenistic and Carthaginian fleet technologies, reached ridiculous extravagances with assorted powers building super-dreadnoughts they were unable to maintain (but that lasted longer than the equivalent class of the 20th century) and finally stabilized on the quinquereme. This was the backbone of the Roman Civil War fleets (50 – 31 BC). But the most telling parallel is the construction of massive naval installations by Octavian in Italy in the late ’30s at an equivalent cost of billions. All of which were scrapped as soon as Octavian took control of the entire Mediterranean, having had a service life of about six years maximum.

    While that control lasted (500 years), Rome never again had a war-fleet worth mentioning, with the British Fleet being the one (occasionally) significant exception. Octavian/Augustus calculated that a force of thirty legions was necessary and sufficient, and that major naval strength was not. Classical naval technology never recovered.

    The modern era has been far more prolific in military technologies that died of economic strangulation – but we are by no means the first.