Could swarms of low-cost expendable systems change how militaries fight? Last November, Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall asked the Defense Science Board to examine a radical idea: “the use of large numbers of simple, low cost (i.e. ‘disposable’) objects vs. small numbers of complex (multi-functional) objects.” This concept is starkly at odds with decades-long trends in defense acquisitions toward smaller numbers of ever-more expensive, exquisite assets. As costs have risen, the number of fighting platforms in the U.S. inventory has steadily declined, even in spite of budget growth. For example, from 2001 to 2008, the U.S. Navy and Air Force base (non-war) budgets grew by 22% and 27% percent, respectively, adjusted for inflation. Yet the number of ships in the U.S. military inventory decreased by 10% and the number of aircraft by 20%. The result is ever-diminishing numbers of assets, placing even more demands on the few platforms remaining, a vicious spiral that rises costs even further and pushes numbers even lower.
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