- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005

In World War II and Korea, American fighter pilots compiled impressive “kill ratios” against the Germans and Japanese (8 to 1) and the Chinese and North Koreans (10 to 1). These successes came to an embarrassing halt over the skies of Vietnam in 1967. The North Vietnamese pilots found that they could defeat the larger, more complex and cumbersome American fighter aircraft by shooting them down with unsophisticated heat-seeking missiles and cannon fire. When kill ratios diminished to near parity, the American air services resolved to spare no expense to regain absolute dominance in the air.

For the next 40 years the Air Force and Navy spent literally trillions of dollars transforming how they fought in the air. They formed fighter schools such as Top Gun for the Navy and Red Flag for the Air Force to relearn the art of aerial combat. The services developed families of new fighters such as the F-15 and F-16 flown by the American and Israeli air forces and the Navy’s F-14 and F-18. The investment has paid off. Since Vietnam, Americans and Israelis flying American aircraft have achieved kill ratios of several hundred to one. No one can challenge us in air-to-air combat today.

On the ground, the news on kill ratios hasn’t been very good. The numbers are inexact, but recent experience suggests that Army and Marine ratios are at about six to one when engaging an enemy with help from artillery and air power. They compress to about parity when the enemy is able to draw our soldiers into the close fight in places like Fallujah.

So, what are we doing to gain dominance on the ground? There is some good news. One lesson relearned from Korea and Vietnam is that soldiers stand a far greater chance of surviving the close fight when mounted in armored vehicles. Both the Army and Marines have begun ambitious programs to develop a series of armored fighting vehicles such as the Future Combat System that will provide a decisive close- combat advantage. But recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan tells us that actions by the enemy compel our soldiers to leave their vehicles to fight on foot.

To increase the ratios in the dismounted fight, the Army and Marines have invested some money lately into purchasing body armor, new night-vision devices and off-the-shelf commercial radios. All of these improvements cost less than two B-2 bombers. To be sure, these efforts have (quite literally) stopped the bleeding for now. But, what about tomorrow? What are we doing to ensure that the ratios move more in our favor in future battles?

We have yet to commit to gaining dominance on the ground as we did in the air after Vietnam. The machine gun of choice in close combat in Iraq is the .50 caliber M-2, a World War I design. Over 97 percent of these guns were manufactured during World War II. Almost all have been rebuilt at least five times since. The standard rifle for the ground services is the M-16, a weapon designed in the 1950s and not much improved. Yet we are years away from fielding a new family of small arms.

Too many soldiers are dying because they lose contact with their leaders and each other in the close confines of cities. Yet production of the new tactical radio that will solve this problem will not be in soldiers’ hands for at least four more years.

Ammunition engineered to explode over the heads of enemy behind cover is the one new technology that offers the greatest killing advantage for soldiers in close combat. So, it’s no wonder that this “air burst ammunition” is on the chopping block for elimination. I can only conclude from these and other painful examples that no substantial scientific and industrial resources have been committed to substantial improvements in the fighting advantage we give to dismounted soldiers.

Increasing the kill ratios is too big a task for the ground services alone. Battles for the Iraqi cities should have sparked a “Sputnik moment” within the Department of Defense. That didn’t happen. We need to create a national effort to give our soldiers better tools to fight the dismounted battle. The effort should be championed by the secretary of defense. He should be the one to challenge the scientific community for a solution. The challenge should be reinforced with an open checkbook. Perhaps some day funding to keep soldiers and Marines alive might approach a fraction of the money dedicated to gaining dominance in the air. But so far I see no evidence that this is happening. In fact, virtually all of the money for new soldier systems is buried in “supplemental” appropriations to this year’s defense bill that will evaporate very soon.

Following the money and resource trail leads a cynic to conclude that that this administration values the lives of its pilots more than its soldiers and Marines. I speak for a generation of former ground soldiers who believe that those who do virtually all of the fighting and dying in this war should receive more attention from those who are paying for it. I sincerely hope they are listening.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales is a former commander of the Army War College.

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