Murphy's Law: January 5, 2002


Where Have All the Smart Bombs Gone?- Even though smart bombs have been an outstanding success since the 1991 Gulf War, we keep running out of them. During the 1991 Gulf War, four percent of the bombs dropped were smart bombs. The smart bombs took out over half the targets and were actually a lot cheaper than dumb bombs because the bombers had to fly a lot less. These new weapons cost $32,000 each, compared to $2,100 each for the dumb bombs. Despite the success of guided bombs during the Gulf War, and the all weather fighter bombers that carried them, there was still a reluctance to buy a lot of the new bombs for a future war. Although it takes 12 to 20 times as many old fashioned "dumb" bombs to hit a target as it does when using guided ("smart") bombs, there was no rush to buy a lot of new bombs. After the Gulf War, some 95 percent of the U.S. bomb inventory still consisted of dumb bombs. The explanation given was that there is not enough money to do everything and that, rather than increase the number of smart bombs in the inventory, it is seen as more prudent to spend the money on developing even smarter, and cheaper, bombs. This meant JDAM and JSOW, the smart bombs using GPS for guidance. This makes some sense, but it means that the older smart bombs lie unused, providing some military spokesman with the ability to lie with a straight face; "we have plenty of munitions."

Eight years later, smart bombs were called on once more to bomb Kosovo. This time, most of the weapons used were smart bombs, and again their was a shortage. Fortunately, the Kosovo bombing campaign was only one fourth the size of the Gulf War operation. But still there was a shortage.

Two years later comes the war in Afghanistan. This time over 80 percent of the bombs dropped were smart bombs. Stocks were still being rebuilt and the U.S. Navy has to ask the U.S. Air Force for smart bomb kits after the sailors used up all of theirs. At first, the air force refused. And they had good reason to say no, for the air force was working with an inadequate supply of smart bombs as well. The navy has had a severe shortage of smart bombs for the last few years. Few smart bombs are used in training, and the navy had other shortages as well, of spare parts and sailors. The army was in worse trouble with ammunition, even though they don't even use smart bombs. The army ammo shortfall was $14 billion, with $3.3 billion shortage of critical items like missiles and cluster munitions. 

Part of the reason was a decision by the Department of Defense, after the Gulf War, to try and maintain smaller "just enough" stocks of munitions rather than stockpile large "just in case" quantities. This approach, which implied that someone in charge could accurately predict what "just enough" would be in a future war. And then it got worse, as the decision was made to establish larger supplies of munitions in potential hot spots (Persian Gulf, Korea, and so on.) It was more difficult to move ammo from these places to anyplace where a new war cropped up. Although the army reduced it's combat units by about 40 percent, it cut it's total munitions stockpile by 78 percent (from 2.5 million tons to 540,000 tons.) This, in turn, caused a reduction in munitions manufacturing capability, as not enough new ammo was being used up to keep a lot of factories going. This meant that, in case of a war, new factories would not get going until after the fighting was over (unless it was a long war.)

In September 2000 and 2001, Congress held hearings to ask the brass why they kept running out of ammunition. This was a rather pointless exercise, as the real reason was Congress itself. Congress had long used the peacetime defense budget as a major source of patronage. Military spending went to where it would get the most votes. This is why it's such a political hassle to close unneeded military bases. But it also means that money is spent on what is more likely to get a politician re-elected, not to buy what the troops needed. Like the military bases, once you start a major project to build a new weapon, it's political suicide to kill the project (and all the jobs in someone's congressional district.) So through the 1990s, the military was stuck with a lot of Cold War era weapons projects they no longer needed. The new weapons were necessary when there was still an arms race going on with the Soviet Union. But in 1991 the Soviet Union disappeared, along with the arms race. But the race to keep pork barrel projects alive continues in Congress. That's one reason the U.S. defense budget dropped only 30 percent from it's Cold War peak (in 1988), and has been rising again since 1997. When you add in a lot of new peacekeeping missions, without any new money to pay for them, the military has to take the money from something else. They can't touch the high profile patronage projects (mostly aircraft), so it's taken from less visible things like ammo stocks. Shortages here only get noticed when there's a war. But the cuts in ammo were so severe in the late 1990s that there wasn't enough bullets for the troops to train with their M-16s, and the complaints of the soldiers even made some waves in the media. 

The current flap will be quickly covered up and Congress will get back to the business of pork. Since our last three wars have had ammunition shortages, what makes you think the next won't as well? 


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