Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fewer Soldiers, More Robots: Pentagon Budgets For The Future

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has proposed the smallest United States military since 1940. It's also the most technologically advanced.


U-2 Reconnaissance Aircraft
The U-2 is a venerable workhorse spyplane of the Cold War. But the Global Hawk drone can fly for three times as long. 
U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds, via Wikimedia Commons 
The last time the U.S. Army was smaller than 450,000 troops, it was 1940 and the United States had yet to join World War II. Announced yesterday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's proposed budget would shrink the American military to the smallest it has been since right before the deadliest war in history. Yet this is not a return to the pre-war state of unreadiness. While the military Hagel proposes might be smaller than the one that precedes it, it will also remain the most technologically advanced military in history.

The proposed budget reflects several major changes since the start of 1940. Three of them in particular stand out: technology has improved, manpower is less important, and weapons are smarter. All of these mean a military that can do more, with fewer people, while remaining flexible for the future.

Improved Technology

For one key example, let's look at spy planes. The U-2 (pictured above) first flew in 1955, and was America's chief high-altitude spy plane for the entire Cold War. Giant film test patterns, made to calibrate the spy plane's original film cameras, still dot the American landscape, artifacts of time before satellite surveillance. U-2s cruise at 70,000 feet, and can do so for well over 10 hours. The chief constraint on a U-2 isn't the plane itself, but the need for an onboard pilot, who must be awake and seated for the entirety of that exhausting flight.

Hagel's budget wants to replace the venerable U-2 with the modern Global Hawk, a high altitude surveillance drone used in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because the Global Hawk's remote pilots are on the ground, they can swap out mid-flight, making sure a fresh and alert crew is always in charge of the aircraft. This is something that simply wasn't possible when the U-2 first started flying 59 years ago.

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