Two decades into the 21st century, far too much of the US military is made up of systems that were designed and originally manufactured in the late last century, and in many cases up until the late Cold War. While the United States and its allies face growing threats from China and Russia, much of the US armed forces have been worn down by the relentless pace of global operations over the past two decades.
For example, the U.S. Air Force inventory of fighter jets is lower than ever, while the age of key elements of the fighter fleet is higher than ever. There is an urgent need to improve US military capabilities that can no longer be addressed by just upgrading existing platforms. At the same time, the massive price associated with responding to COVID-19, along with the ongoing impact of the pandemic on the U.S. economy, threatens to blow a hole in future defense budget stability.
The House Armed Services Committee’s Future of Defense Task Force report argued that “Congress and the Department of Defense must identify, replace, and retire costly and ineffective legacy platforms” and a “tough and thorough review of legacy platforms. Systems, Platforms, and Missions ”loosely based on the Basic Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process of the 1990s. Successful design and implementation of a BRAC for legacy systems requires a clear definition of what constitutes a legacy system The age of a platform and the associated maintenance costs can seem like a simple criterion. It costs much more to maintain systems that are nearing the end of their life, so it is pragmatic to decommission them in favor of newer systems Services here are decidedly mixed and inconsistent, however.
One example is the U.S. Air Force’s efforts to cut or eliminate unmanned aerial systems like the MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk, despite their organic kill chain capabilities and mission flexibility, while programs are repeatedly delayed to avoid the venerable B. – to replace. 52 Stratofortress, which will now remain on duty until her 100th birthday.
Rather than focusing solely on age, assessing whether a system is nicknamed “legacy” must focus on its contribution to the competition for great powers and potentially major power conflicts, both immediate and short-term. A multi-faceted assessment of the platform’s contribution should take into account:
So what to do with legacy systems?
Some could be taken out of service and used for experiments. Historically, the 1950s and 1960s were a boon to Cold War military innovation, precisely because of the amount of surplus equipment from World War II that was available for experimentation without disrupting the emergency services. Other systems could be converted to unmanned variants and used as single-use platforms. Technological efforts have made this approach possible for years, with the QF-16 efforts being one example among many.
However, other systems could be decommissioned or decommissioned and transferred to key allies and partners as part of the Foreign Military Sales process. Many such platforms could meet the needs of allies and partners, especially during ongoing competition and for operations in their own backyards. US military planners can encourage allies and partners to take on more of the competitive effort while the US focuses on conflict preparedness.
Congress and the Department of Defense need a sophisticated approach to thinking about legacy systems that focuses on relevance to current competition and conflict. These efforts are key to ensuring that the United States is better prepared for the challenges of the next decade and beyond.
Thomas G. Mahnken is President and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He is also a Senior Research Professor at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Chris Bassler is a Senior Fellow at CSBA.