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Debating Lend-Lease for the 21st century

Last week, in a column for World Politics Review, I floated the idea of setting up a 21st century version of Lend-Lease, to cope with the growing cap between the capabilities that countries around the world can field, especially in securing the global commons, and the security challenges which are out there.

I asked some of my colleagues at the U.S. Naval War College to react to this essay, which, as I noted, was an idea, not a fully-formed proposal. Here are some of the reactions. [My original column--and these responses--are all the personal opinions of the authors, none of us are speaking on behalf of the Navy or the U.S. government.]


Professor David T. Burbach noted:

Lend-lease is an interesting idea, but the problem is that the United States no longer has the sort of equipment the author suggests we loan out.

On the Navy side, we have been getting rid of anything smaller than destroyers and own almost nothing in the patrol craft / corvette range. Our smaller-ship inventory is 12 relatively new patrol craft which we use actively for maritime security (e.g., around bases in the Persian Gulf). Older small ships have already been given to foreign countries or scrapped, their production lines long since dismantled.

Turning to aviation, we are thinking of starting a new procurement program for a simple reconnaissance turboprop because we no longer have anything in inventory -- nor ready to manufacture -- that is suitable to hand to the Iraqis. The USAF today consists of high performance/high tech aircraft that are beyond their ability to fly, operate, and maintain. For similar reasons we are looking to purchase Russian Mi-17 helocipters for Afghanistan, though better high-altitude performance also factors into that decision.

Older doesn't necessarily translate into "cheap enough for allies to operate", either. For example, P3 Orions -- maritime surveillance aircraft -- are extremely expensive to fly since they require so much maintenance with hard to find spare parts. A cash-strapped ally would be better off buying new, like the business-jet based products sold by Embraer and Dassault, than being loaned an aged US military platform.

"Lend-lease" may be an attractive concept, but the US military -- and US defense contractors -- have gone so far down the road of fielding small numbers of very high end systems that the required surplus inventory and defense industrial base are no longer there.


Professor Robert H. Ducey commented:

Sounds like a very reasonable idea to me although I don't know the intricacies of foreign technology transfer policy or the FMS business. As they say: "Anything is possible when people have the desire to do something". I would imagine the defense contractors would view this as an opportunity to grow their international logistics support and training businesses, the U.S. Navy would get some additional help from folks that want to participate in securing the global commons with compatible equipment that they are familiar with, and the good will that would come with this might contribute to the growth of trust and confidence which as we all know can use some continual buttressing. Congressional support may be an issue if this entails losing ships and positions at local bases but if the idea includes backfilling with more modern equipment or new missions, their support might be easily gained. The biggest hurdle will be to make this as budget neutral as possible with the increasing pressure to constrain spending on federal programs. Also under the fiscal responsibility banner another possible hurdle will be to figure out where the "advisor" positions would come from as we usually send a small contingent of U.S. military personnel along with our equipment to assist with training at least for an initial period.


Lt. Col. Mark Solomons observed:

One of my (many) concerns with implementing such a program would be the second and third order effects. Maintenance of the equipment immediately comes to mind. I am of the opinion that logistics drives operations. Unfortunately, as has been observed in Iraq, the sustainment piece of the puzzle is broken.

We have lent (or rather given) millions of dollars worth of equipment and it is often used without effective maintenance until it runs down; and then sits unrepaired and unused (or is haphazardly patched back together, sometimes by Iraqis using their own personal resources). The idea has some merit, but details like this would need to be fleshed out.
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So it is perhaps not as feasible an idea as I had thought, at least in 2010. But it raises the question as to whether, over time, a market niche might develop. If the major defense contractors are focused on producing small numbers of high-end/high-tech systems, are there other industrial firms that might be retooled to producing the patrol craft, scout vehicles, and other items needed? Would they make the shift if there was a guaranteed market for these products?

It is interesting that in the effort to equip partner nations with some of these capabilities, it sounds as if the U.S. might have to turn to European and Russian firms to supply lower-tech, "hardier" equipment that has less of a maintenance problem.

 
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