Just as candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump enter the home stretch of the 2016 presidential campaign, the U.S. Air Force is expected to proudly announce, after nearly 15 years of trying, that their new super fighter jet, the F-35 is certified for active service.
Congratulations. A mere $600 billion and counting for the most expensive and problem-plagued weapons program in the history of the nation is now ready to fly and fight.
But before we all go into our happy dance, allow me to reveal three very important numbers: 81-4-1.
Translation: In wars fought since the end of World War II, 81 percent of all Americans who died at the hands of the enemy have been infantry: not soldiers and Marines, but infantry, a force that comprises about 4 percent of all those who wear the uniform. Collectively, this tiny fraternity of (mostly) men includes Army and Marine infantrymen and special operators. They receive about 1 percent of the defense budget to pay for gear they use to train and fight.
From a humanitarian perspective, this makes no sense and from a national security perspective it make even less. Our enemies have always known that the best way to defeat Americans is to kill them in large numbers. They understand, in fact, that when fighting Americans, killing is not a means to and end but an end in itself. To paraphrase Ho Chi Minh’s laconic warning to the West: “You will kill 10 of our men, and we will kill 1 of yours, and in the end it will be you who tire of it.”
So just from a cold, calculated strategic perspective, wouldn’t it make sense for the Department of Defense to do all it can to keep alive those most likely to die?
The Russians certainly think so. Vladimir Putin’s mischief in the Crimea, Georgia and Ukraine is being accomplished by the “little green men,” mostly elite Spetsnaz, GRU, airborne and Marine infantrymen and Interior Ministry troops. These are infantry or infantry-like forces that comprise a small minority of Mr. Putin’s 800,000 man conscript army. He spends a large proportion of his budget equipping his infantry elite and he expects much from them.
Don’t get me wrong. Our infantrymen are better than theirs. But if America is so averse to dead Americans, why don’t we invest in making them much better? Compared to hundred-million-dollar fighters and twenty-billion-dollar aircraft carriers, a program to make our infantry dominant on future battlefields would be very cheap.
Coincidentally, the technological climate today favors small and cheap over huge and expensive. Thanks to Silicon Valley, the technology exists to allow infantry soldiers to carry shoulder-fired missiles capable of killing heavy, armored vehicles and aircraft with great precision. Internet technologies allow soldiers to stay connected to their buddies and leaders in the heat of combat. Most Americans in combat die by surprise in ambushes and from snipers or enemy hidden in urban clutter. These same technologies could provide infantrymen on patrol with wearable sensors that detect a hidden enemy out to a kilometer or more.
We have all seen on television how drones are employed globally against big-name terrorists. These same technologies can be miniaturized to form a constellation of tiny drones capable of finding, fixing and killing the enemy long before an infantry unit comes within the range of enemy weapons. New protective wearable materials will soon be available to stop even high-powered projectiles.
Too many infantrymen go into combat psychologically unprepared for the experience. Commercial and military pilots today train in virtual reality simulators that expose them to danger bloodlessly. Why can’t these same technologies be developed for young infantrymen to inure them to battle before real fight begins?
There is an old soldier saying that generals and admirals (and congressmen) are like bass. They’re drawn to bright, shiny objects. I implore both candidates to think beyond the legion of big-ticket weapons salesmen who are now lobbying them to buy bright, shiny objects. Instead, think about the young infantrymen who will do most of the killing and dying for them. Don’t our 4 percent deserve more than 1 percent?
• Robert Scales is a retired U.S. Army major general. His last assignment was commandant of the Army War College.