The military must end its quest for “exquisite” weapon systems that are too costly, take years to design and build, and don’t reach troops fast enough, or in quantities large enough, to address ever-changing threats.

The critic here isn’t a Washington think tank or a beltway consultant but Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the U.S. military’s second highest ranking officer.

Cartwright recalled the wry observation made by some critics of current weapon-buying practices that, by 2015, America’s armed forces will have one airplane and one ship operating in the Pacific, one airplane and one ship in the Atlantic and a single space vehicle orbiting the Earth.

“What they’re really saying, in my mind, is we have gone overboard with exquisite” ships and aircraft, Cartwright said, and “that we have got to get back to scale [and] platforms that are adaptable and flexible.”

Cartwright made his comments at a military professional symposium held Nov. 17 in Arlington, Va., by the Military Officers Association of America.

The vice chairman, who is a fighter pilot himself, compared the capabilities of a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle to those of a piloted fighter aircraft, illustrating a better way to fight an illusive, dispersed enemy.

The UAV, he said, “costs about a third of what the fighter costs. It uses about a third of the fuel the fighter uses. Instead of being airborne for two hours, it’s airborne for 20 hours. It requires no tankers [to refuel]. It can be flown from any part of the Earth and you don’t have to be in that part of the Earth.” UAVs, Cartwright continued, can track an enemy, kill an enemy with missiles, and record whatever it does.

He said making better choices in buying weapon platforms becomes more critical when growth in defense budgets slows, as Cartwright believes it soon will. A slowdown shouldn’t be allowed to affect force quality or the military’s ability to operate in multiple theaters simultaneously. He suggested pressure will be on the military, Congress and industry to make smarter, more efficient choices in weapons procurement.

“Building platforms that can have multiple purposes, that can modify very quickly with software, that consume minimal amounts of energy for extended periods of time … are critical,” the vice chairman said.

Regarding worldwide threats, Cartwright said he and other members of the Joint Chiefs believe “we are entering an era of persistent conflict,” stirred by the world’s rising populations seeking shares of “finite resources” such as water, energy and irrigable land.

“Today, in any given minute in the United States, 40 babies are born. In China, it’s 160. In India, it’s 280. When you look at the population of age 18-to-35 males, there’s an explosion in southern Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa, in South America.” Persistent conflicts will be “broadly spread across the planet. So it’s not like we can go to one place, focus on a problem, solve it while the rest of the world waits for us to finish there and then move on.”

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