Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight

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Tulsi Gabbard’s promotion to major

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump attended a high school military academy.  But when the Vietnam War came calling, he developed heel spurs that kept him out of the military.  In the case of Joe Biden, it was asthma that kept him on the sidelines of that war.  Dick Cheney had multiple student deferments and “higher priorities” than serving, as he put it.  George W. Bush got a safe spot in the Texas Air National Guard.  John Kerry, ironically, did serve in the military during Vietnam but famously turned against that war.  His service was “Swift-boated” into infamy even as Bush/Cheney were being applauded by some for their alleged toughness.

When it comes to service in the military, U.S. politicians typically vote with their feet, meaning they double-time away from joining the ranks.  This is nothing new, of course.  During the U.S. Civil War, the rich could pay for substitutes if they were drafted.  When it comes to war, it’s very often a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.

Interestingly, there are two Democratic candidates who are veterans of America’s most recent wars: Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.  According to his website, Mayor Pete “served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve and took an unpaid seven-month leave during his mayoral term to deploy to Afghanistan. For his counterterrorism work, he earned the Joint Service Commendation Medal.”  Sounds impressive, yet a “joint service commendation medal” is a standard-issue medal for any company-grade officer who completes such an assignment without screwing up in a major way.  It’s a little like a participation trophy in a Little League tournament.

Despite Mayor Pete’s fairly limited military experience, his web site boasts that if he’s elected president, he’ll take office with the most military experience since George H.W. Bush, who served in the U.S. Navy in combat during World War II.

Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s military record is far more extensive than Mayor Pete’s.  She joined the Army National Guard soon after 9/11 and deployed to Iraq during some of the most bitter fighting in that country.  She’s currently a major in the Guard and has spoken extensively about how her military service informs her positions against wasteful, regime-change, wars.  According to her web site, “Having experienced first-hand the true cost of war, Tulsi made a personal vow to find a way to ensure that our country doesn’t continue repeating the mistakes of the past, sending our troops into war without a clear mission, strategy, or purpose.”

Tonight, there’s yet another Democratic debate featuring Mayor Pete as well as Congresswoman Gabbard.  It will be interesting to see if they’re called on specifically for their views on military issues, such as Trump’s recent decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria.

In fact, I’d like to hear the views of all twelve Democrats on that stage tonight on the question of America’s forever wars, and why these wars have illustrated that old story of war being in the service of the rich even as the poor pay the ultimate price.  Given America’s supine Congress, our presidents have enormous power over life and death in making war across the globe.  When are we going to rein that power in?  When are we going to stop fighting foolish and destructive wars that have nothing to do with safeguarding America?

Until we honestly — even ruthlessly — address these questions, America will continue to witness generational wars for the rich fought by the poor.

With Syria, the Senate Neocons Are at It Again

U.S. Army soldiers from the 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, watch helicopters at Combat Outpost Terra Nova
A scene from America’s endless war in Afghanistan (Council on Foreign Relations)

Ronald Enzweiler

The current brouhaha in the U.S. Senate (and the larger neocon community) over President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria is a repeat performance of the passion play that the same actors performed earlier this year when Trump first announced his intention to make good on his campaign promise to get our country out of its endless wars.  In the leading role for the neocons last time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a speech on the Senate floor on January 19, 2019 excoriating Trump for doing what he told the electorate he would do if he was elected president.

Having been an interloper in our country’s national security state, I know how things work in Washington and the tactics the pro-war political establishment uses to sell the public on its interventionist foreign policy and endless wars.  I wrote a book (When Will We Ever Learn?) on this subject based on my personal experiences.

As this drama plays out again, I’ve excerpted passages from my book that reveal the modus operandi the neocons used last time for overruling President Trump in determining U.S. military policy.  My critique of Senator McConnell’s speech is as pertinent now in exposing the fallacious thinking underlying the neocons’ current “stay forever” battle cry for Syria as it was in the brawl Trump lost to the neocons earlier this year when he wanted to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan after 18 years.  Let’s hope the president learned from that defeat.

It’s now “game on” in round two of this battle.  The same players are back.  Senator McConnell is even using the word “precipitous” again.  Get your popcorn out and let’s see who wins this round in this heavyweight bout.

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We’ve already seen [earlier in my book] how the national security state sandbagged a Democrat president in his role as Commander-in-Chief in the conduct of the Afghan war.  Let’s now see how Washington elites are trying to sandbag a Republican president in his attempt to end this 18-year long war – despite President Trump’s vow in his presidential campaign and strong public support in the polls for getting all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.

The neocon foreign policy establishment used three of its most prominent members to maintain their control over national security matters: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; President of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Richard Haass; and James Dobbins, Senior Fellow at the Rand Corporation.  Mr. Dobbins was the lead author of the 15-page Rand Report dated January 7, 2019, Consequences of a Precipitous U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan.  (Take note of the word “precipitous” in this title.)

For those who don’t recognize the name, Rand Corporation is a charter member of the national security state insiders’ club.  Military history buffs might recall Rand wrote the Pentagon Papers for the DoD in the late 1960s.  They were the War State’s obvious go-to think-tank for this important assignment on Afghan war policy.

First, let’s see what Senator McConnell had to say about President Trump’s decision to start pulling U.S troops out of Afghanistan and Syria.  Below are remarks Senator McConnell made on the Senate floor on January 31, 2019.

“Simply put, while it is tempting to retreat to the comfort and security of our own shores, there is still a great deal of work to be done,” McConnell said. “And we know that left untended these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities.”

The United States is not the “world’s policeman,” it is the “leader of the free world” and must continue to lead a global coalition against terrorism and stand by allies engaged in the fight. He also stressed the importance of coordination between the White House and Congress to “develop long-term strategies in both nations, including a thorough accounting of the risks of withdrawing too hastily.”

“My amendment would acknowledge the plain fact that al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their affiliates in Syria and Afghanistan continue to pose a serious threat to our nation.” McConnell said his amendment “would recognize the danger of a precipitous withdrawal from either conflict and highlights the need for diplomatic engagement and political solutions to the underlying conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan.”

Notice the word “precipitous” in the Leader’s remarks.  Do you think it’s a coincidence that the title of the Rand Report is Consequences of a Precipitous U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan?  Obviously, Mitch got the memo from neocon headquarters.

He even got in the “we’re not the world’s policeman” line.  In Washington-speak, this is called “a non-denial denial.”  It translates to: “I’m really doing what I say I am not doing, but I can’t admit it, or you would catch on to how duplicitous I am.”  I’ve hung around with Washington swamp creatures too long to know that this professed denial is really an affirmation.

The line “we know that left untended these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities” is also classic neocon-speak.  It’s meant to scare the public.  But what it really does is reveal the flawed logic in their interventionist foreign policy doctrine.  The U.S. builds military bases around the world, starts wars, deposes governments, and occupies other countries – this is the interventionist foreign policy Senator McConnell champions as the head neocon in the U.S. Senate.  But the local nationals affected by this U.S. militarism don’t like a foreign power meddling in their part of the world, changing their governments, and interfering with their way of life.  (Who would?)

The obvious way to avoid blowback “in our cities” is for the U.S. to stop intervening in centuries-old ethnic, religious and territorial disputes in other parts of the world.  Not realizing this cause and effect (or simply ignoring it), Senator McConnell’s solution is to “stay the course.”  In neocon-speak, this means sending in more troops, intensifying bombing, and increasing extrajudicial drone killings.  These actions only worsen the conflicts, causing the U.S. to sink deeper into quagmires.

Predictably, Senator McConnell’s amendment passed the Senate on a 63-28 non-binding vote, proving that bipartisanship isn’t dead in Washington when it comes to authorizing endless wars.  This vote just shows how out of touch our elected officials are with the electorate as well as the power of the pro-military and pro-war lobby in Washington.

The other character on the neocon’s tag-team to undercut the President on his Afghan exit plan is Richard Haass, CFR President.  Mr. Haass was a senior State Department official in the first term of the Bush administration when the Iraq war began.  He’s one of several media savvy spokespersons for the national security state who apparently was charged with getting the word out on the Rand Report and endorsing its conclusion.

On the day after the report came out, Mr. Haass tweeted to his 150,000 followers:

“This report has it right: winning is not an option in Afghanistan (nor is peace) but losing (and renewed terrorism) is if we pull out U.S. forces any time soon.  We should stay with smaller numbers and reduced level of activity.”  Twitter, January 18, 2019.

In sum, even though there’s no chance of winning, America needs to keep fighting.  How do they sell this nonsense?

This was a three-step process.  First, the “let’s stay in Afghanistan forever” doctrine was composed by Mr. Dobbins in the Rand Report.  It was next preached by CFR President Haass. And finally, it was ordained by Senate Majority Leader McConnell in his speech on the Senate floor with the hallelujah chorus being the 63 “yes” votes for his resolution.

Picking up the trio’s “let’s stay in Afghanistan forever” cue, guest op-eds and editorial board columns appeared in the usual pro-War State newspapers advocating the neocon position. Media talking heads – as semiofficial spokespersons for the Washington national security state – echoed the neocons’ talking points on this issue.

This modius operandi for keeping the national security state in charge of foreign and military policy – and its untouchable $1-trillion-plus/year War State budget– has been going on since the Kennedy presidency.  Michael Swanson documents how this takeover evolved in his  book War State.  Most times, the story being sold (e.g., keep U.S. troops in Syria; stay in NATO after it became obsolete; continue the DoD’s $300-billion unworkable missile-defense program) is a front for the national security state’s real objectives (e.g., maintain U.S. influence in the Middle East to keep Israel’s supporters happy; keep the Cold War alive with Russia as an adversary; and fund make-work projects for defense contractors).

This duplicity is how business is done in Washington.  It’s an insiders’ game where what’s good for the American people and U.S. national security is, at best, a secondary consideration.  Among the Washington ruling class, what counts most is retaining power by keeping big donors happy.  And if that means endless wars, so be it.

Mr. Enzweiler, who served in the US Air Force in the 1970s, has lived and worked extensively in the Middle East, serving seven years (2007-2014) as a field-level civilian advisor for the US government in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Now retired, he has written a book (When Will We Ever Learn?) that critiques US foreign and military policy.

Trump and the Generals

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W.J. Astore

There’s a new article at The Atlantic by Mark Bowden that cites America’s generals to condemn Donald Trump’s leadership of the military.  Here’s how the article begins:

For most of the past two decades, American troops have been deployed all over the world—to about 150 countries. During that time, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have experienced combat, and a generation of officers have come of age dealing with the practical realities of war. They possess a deep well of knowledge and experience. For the past three years, these highly trained professionals have been commanded by Donald Trump.

That’s quite the opening.  A few comments:

  1. It’s not a good thing that American troops have been deployed to nearly 150 countries over the last 20 years.  Indeed, it points to the scattershot nature of U.S. strategy, such as it is, in the “global war on terror.”
  2. Hundreds of thousands of troops have “experienced combat” — and this is a good thing?  What wars have they won?  What about the dead and wounded?  What about the enormous monetary cost of these wars?
  3. Dealing with “the practical realities of war” — Please tell me, again, how Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc., have played out?
  4. “Highly trained professionals” with “a deep well of knowledge and experience.”  Again, tell me which wars America has clearly won.

The gist of Bowden’s article is that Trump is capricious, vain, contrary, and ignorant.  But his biggest sin is that he doesn’t listen to the experts in the military and the intelligence community, whereas George W. Bush and Barack Obama did.

Aha!  Tell me again how things worked out for Bush and Obama.  Bush led the USA disastrously into Afghanistan and Iraq; Obama “surged” in Afghanistan (a failure), created a disaster in Libya, and oversaw an expansion of Bush’s wars against terror.  And these men did all this while listening to the experts, those “highly trained professionals” with those allegedly “deep” wells of knowledge and experience.

Given this record, can one blame Trump for claiming he’s smarter than the generals?  Can one fault him for trying to end needless wars?  He was elected, after all, on a platform of ending costly and foolish wars.  Is he not trying, however inconsistently or confusingly, to fulfill that platform?

The point here is not to praise Donald Trump, who as commander-in-chief is indeed capricious and ignorant and too convinced of his own brilliance.  The point is to question Bowden’s implied faith in the generals and their supposed “deep well” of expertise.  For if you judge them by their works, and not by their words, this expertise has failed to produce anything approaching victory at a sustainable cost.

Bowden’s article concludes with this warning: In the most crucial areas, the generals said, the military’s experienced leaders have steered Trump away from disaster. So far.

“The hard part,” one general said, “is that he may be president for another five years.”

The generals “have steered Trump away from disaster.”  Really.  Tell me who’s going to steer the generals away from their disasters — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, the list goes on.

Bowden, it must be said, makes valid points about Trump’s weaknesses and blind spots.  But in embracing and even celebrating the generals, Bowden reveals a major blind spot of his own.

The Dangerous Myth of Patriotism

Richard Sahn

For most Americans, patriotism means love of country.  But I’d like to suggest this “love” is misplaced for three reasons.  First, I’d like to suggest that “country” is an imaginary construct.  Two, I’d like to show how patriotism is misused and abused by the powerful, most infamously by President Donald Trump.  And three, I’d like to suggest a new form of patriotism, the love of the tangible, and by this I mean our fellow human beings.

“Country” as an imaginary construct

“Imagine there’s no countries,” John Lennon wrote nearly fifty years ago. Generally, citizens of a given country insist they love their nation. But can one truly “love America,” or any other country or nation? For that matter can you love any state, city, town, or sports team?

In general semantics, a branch of linguistics which is itself a branch of philosophy, the word is not the thing, the map is not the territory. Canada, France, the Red Sox are only names, concepts, phenomena of consciousness. Or a neurological system in the brain if you adhere to the Western materialist worldview.

Think about it: You can’t see, touch, feel, hear, or taste “France.” But you can taste a French pastry made in “France” and see and touch the Eiffel Tower. ”Vive La France” does not mean that French people collectively are going to live a long life. In fact, the concept of France vanishes if there are no longer any human beings left after, say, France is devastated by a massive nuclear attack.

Now, one can literally love the beauty of the land that comprises the legal territory of a given country. I love the mountains and the deserts of the Western U.S., the woods of northern Maine, the seacoasts of California.  I love Fourth of July celebrations, the fireworks and cookouts. I even love the old Frank Sinatra song, “The House I Live In” because it names things in America that you can put your hands on, such as the line “the ‘howdy’ and the handshake.” And then the concluding lyric, “that’s America to me.” (Notice there is no insinuation there is an America out there, only the symbolic meaning of the phrase.)

Love of country, in short, is nonsensical because a country, a nation, is an abstraction, a conceptual phenomenon, a byproduct of mental processes, that has no existence in the material universe.  Perhaps Lennon’s dream of “imagine there’s no countries” will only become reality when we no longer perceive people as enemies or opponents merely because they live elsewhere or look different.

The misuse and abuse of patriotism

Politicians and journalists tend to affirm, for obvious reasons, that it’s important to state how much you love America. Not to do so could easily result in your career or ambitions heading south. Still, proclaiming your love of country, whatever country that is, all too often has undesirable and destructive consequences. For instance, it becomes easier to support a government taking the country to war.  Or colossal military budgets in the name of “defending” the “country.”

To an unreflective patriot the country is not seen as the sum of its parts but as a reality sui generis, perhaps symbolized by a father figure like Uncle Sam.

us
You know Uncle Sam isn’t real, right?

If I can make a sweeping generalization, among rural chauvinists “country” is part of the “God, Country, and Guns” trinity.  This idea is well captured by the Merle Haggard song from 1970 that “When they’re runnin’ down our country, man/They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”

President Trump’s recent call for members of the so-called squad, the four progressive Congresswomen of color, to “go back”  to where they came from (a takeoff of “love it or leave it”) is one step away from “I will hurt you if I see you  again.” Obviously, there is no place natural-born U.S. citizens can go back to. And even if they were not citizens by birth, why should they have to leave after having become U.S. citizens?  Trump’s “patriotism” is racist nationalism – and shamelessly so.

Patriotism, in the narrow Trumpian usage of that word, demands opponents, sides, an “us versus them” mentality.  And that’s a mentality calculated for division, distraction, and destruction.

Real patriotism

We humans can’t see national borders from space, but we do see our planet.  Our real “homeland.”  Nevertheless, the false choice of “America: love it or leave it” has recently been revived from the days when protesters against the Vietnam War were denounced as unpatriotic. In truth, they were performing the most patriotic act imaginable, if patriotism is properly defined as love of one’s fellow human beings. In that sense, real patriotism is humanitarianism.  It’s focused on humans and the home where we live, not on constructs that are insensible.

False patriotism may remain “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” as Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British social philosopher, observed.  Even so, a literal belief in “my country, right or wrong” could still do us all in some sunny day.  A dangerous myth, indeed.

Richard Sahn is a retired professor of sociology.  You may also wish to read his article on sports and reification.

Trump’s Impeachment

4000
Happier days for Trump

W.J. Astore

President Donald Trump, it now seems clear, pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate a political rival, Joe Biden.  He exerted this pressure by withholding military aid to Ukraine approved by Congress, and by calling Ukraine’s president and asking him for a “favor,” the said favor being the investigation of Biden and his son, Hunter.  The White House apparently acted to “lock down” transcripts of the phone call, but a whistleblower came forward backed by an inspector general.

And my first reaction was: Can Trump be impeached for stupidity?

Joe Biden is a weak candidate for the presidency.  It’s questionable whether he’ll win the nomination next year.  Why bother going after him in such an egregiously illegal way when Biden is very likely to implode as a candidate on his own?

I can’t answer that question, but I can guess.  Trump, to put it mildly, has never been a public servant, and I include his term as president in this statement.  Trump is always about himself; the world revolves around him, or so he thinks.  He has no conception of following laws simply because he believes he is above them.  Furthermore, Biden may be a weak rival, but rival he is nonetheless.  And Trump, operating from his experience in the take-no-prisoners world of New York real estate, casino management, and similar escapades, knows what to do with a rival: you search for any edge you can get, including pressuring those who are dependent on you to dig up dirt on said rival.

Put bluntly, in this case Trump simply did what he regularly does.  The only difference is that a whistleblower wouldn’t play the game of “nothing to see here, move along.”

If only Trump had done what he promised as a candidate.  If only he’d acted to drain the swamp; if only he’d worked hard to end America’s forever wars; if only he’d truly put America first by rebuilding our country’s infrastructure and cutting taxes for workers.  Instead, he hired the swamp; he refueled those forever wars; he abandoned infrastructure along with meaningful tax cuts for workers.

Trump lacks integrity.  In short, he’s just another self-interested politician.  More than this, however, is Trump’s complete lack of respect for the law.  It’s time for him to go.

Update (9/27/19)

A few comments in passing:

1. Investigating Trump, on credible charges, is not an example of Trump Derangement Syndrome.
2. Saying that Biden is also corrupt, or that Democrats are corrupt, in no way exonerates Trump. For my money, let’s prosecute all corruption everywhere.
3. Often, the cover-up is worse than the crime. That may well be the case here.
4. Trump, as is his wont, is making matters worse, suggesting the whistleblower’s sources acted like spies and suggesting execution would be appropriate. (Please don’t say he was vague; we all know what he meant.)
5. Readers of this blog know that I voted third party in 2016. If you examine my articles, you’ll find I’m critical of both Democrats and Republicans.
6. Justice should not be partisan, even as it’s inevitably influenced by it.
7. I don’t care if the Republican-controlled Senate chooses not to convict Trump. Our lawmakers will have to go on the record, as they should, History will render the final verdict.
8. I don’t know if impeachment will make Trump stronger or weaker, and I don’t care. What it will do, assuming the evidence is sufficient, is to make justice in America stronger. No man should be above the law.

Global Strikes, Global Warming, Global Change

Thunberg
And a teenager shall lead them: Greta Thunberg

W.J. Astore

Today, Friday September 20th, is a global strike day to address global warming/climate change.

It’s hard to believe we need a teenager from another country, Greta Thunberg, to remind Congress and the American people to listen to scientists on the subject of climate change, but that’s the sad reality in the Land of Greedica.  We all know the world is getting hotter, storms are getting more intense, birds and insects are dying in large numbers, coral reefs are dying off due to bleaching — the list goes on.  And we also know human actions are contributing to global warming.

But we also know there are trillions of dollars of fossil fuels still in the ground, or under our oceans, or in rapidly melting arctic regions, and that fossil fuel companies want the profits from the extraction, production, and sale of the same.  And those companies buy as many politicians as they can, they control as much of the media as they can, they even buy scientists to present “contrary” evidence about global warming, all in the cause of greed and power.

They get away with it in part because we’ve been trained to think in the short term.  We keep daily and even hourly calendars.  The business cycle is quarterly and yearly.  Even those long Communist plans of the past dealt with five-year cycles.  We humans simply aren’t used to thinking in terms of generations, nor are we encouraged to.

The process of global warming has been occurring slowly, gradually, over the last few generations, but it’s beginning to pick up speed, with major changes occurring faster than many scientists predicted.

Speaking of generational changes, it’s interesting that the Pentagon and its generals easily think in generational terms when it comes to America’s wars, and encourage Americans to do the same, but we’re not encouraged at all to work persistently and patiently to win the “war” on climate change.  (As an aside, the fossil-fuel-driven U.S. military is obviously not helping the cause of ameliorating the impact of global warming, though the Pentagon is planning for global disruptions to be caused by climate change.  With military budgets approaching a trillion a year, I’d say they’re winning, even as the planet loses.)

As Tom Engelhardt noted this week at TomDispatch.com, we humans need to stop empowering the pyromaniacs who’d prefer to see the earth burn as long as they’re making money off of it.  We need to act globally to protect our planet from irreversible harm, or we’re pretty much screwed as a species.

Trillions for Warplanes: The Case of the F-35

f-35b-lightning-ii_010
F-35 Costs: Up, Up, and Away!

W.J. Astore

My latest article for TomDispatch.com focuses on the F-35 stealth fighter, which is estimated to cost $1.5 trillion over the life of the program.  I hope you can read all of the article here; what follows is an extended excerpt on the history of the program.  Did you ever notice how Congress never asks where the money is coming from for these incredibly expensive weapons?  But ask for money for education, environmental protection, infrastructure, and especially for poor people and Congress starts screaming about the deficit, which is booming under Trump.  But there’s always money for weapons!  We need to remember that “government” money is our money, and we need to start spending it on priorities that matter to us, not to defense contractors and generals.

A Brief History of the F-35 Program

I first heard of what would become the F-35 in 1995. I was then a captain in the Air Force, working on flight-planning software. I was told that a new Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF, was being developed.  The “joint” meant that the Air Force, Navy, and Marines would all use it. Its big selling point at the time was the striking level of anticipated savings expected due to the commonality of the design, of spare parts, and of everything else. (Those in the know then, however, remembered the Pentagon’s previous shot at “jointness,” the TFX program in the 1960s; the resulting plane, the F-111, would be rejected by the Navy and unloved by the Air Force.)

The new JSF was advertised as offering the highest-tech possible at the lowest price imaginable, a fighter that would replace legacy aircraft like the Air Force’s F-16s and A-10s and the Navy’s F-18s. Winning the competition to develop the plane was weapons giant Lockheed Martin and a prototype F-35 Lightning II first took to the skies in 2006, by which time I was already retired from the Air Force. In the 13 years since then, the F-35 has gone through a mind-boggling series of major program delays and setbacks, burning money all the way.

In 2014, the plane’s woeful record finally caught the eye of CBS’s 60 Minutes, which documented how the program was seven years behind schedule and already $163 billion over budget. The Pentagon, however, simply plunged ahead. Its current plan: to buy more than 2,600 F-35s by 2037, with the assumption that their service lives will possibly extend to 2070. In Pentagon terms, think of it as a multi-generational warplane for America’s multi-generational wars.

Five years after that 60 Minutes exposé and 13 years after its first flight, the F-35 unsurprisingly remains mired in controversyHarper’s Andrew Cockburn recently used it to illustrate what he termed “the Pentagon Syndrome,” the practice of expending enormous sums on weapons of marginal utility.  The F-35, he noted, “first saw combat [in 2018], seventeen years after the program began. The Marines sent just six of them on their first deployment to the Middle East, and over several months only managed to fly, on average, one combat sortie per plane every three days. According to the Pentagon’s former chief testing official, had there been opposition, these ‘fighters’ could not have survived without protection from other planes.” 

So far, in other words, the F-35 has had an abysmally low rate of availability. Technically speaking, it remains in “initial operational testing and evaluation,” during which, as defense journalist Dan Grazier has noted, it achieved a “fully mission capable rate” of just 11% in its combat testing phase. (The desired goal before going into full production is 80%, which is, in a sense, all you need to know about the “success” of that aircraft so many years later.) Compounding those dreadful percentages is another grim reality: the F-35’s design isn’t stable and its maintenance software has been a buggy nightmare, meaning the testers are, in a sense, trying to evaluate a moving and messy target.

These and similar problems led President Trump and former acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to push possible alternatives to the F-35 as a way of pressuring Lockheed Martin to improve its performance.  In December 2016, before he even entered the Oval Office, for example, Trump tweeted about building F-18 Super Hornets in place of the F-35. Later, Shanahan advocated for an updated version of the venerable F-15 Eagle, made by Boeing, a company for which he had only recently been a senior executive. But the president’s tweets have moved on, as has Shanahan, and Lockheed Martin continues to hold all the cards. For the Pentagon, it’s still the F-35 or bust.

Unsurprisingly, the president has changed his tune, enthusing that the F-35 is invisible (“You literally can’t see it”) rather than merely difficult to detect on radar. (He has also referred to Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, as Marillyn Lockheed.)  The main selling point of the F-35 is indeed its stealth technology, marking it as a “fifth generation” fighter when compared to the older F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, and A-10s, which are decidedly unstealthy and radar detectable. Primarily because of such technology, the Pentagon argues that the F-35 will prove far more “survivable” than previous warplanes in any future conflict with Russia, China, or some other country equipped with sophisticated radars and surface-to-air missiles.

Yet such stealthiness comes at a real cost and not just in monetary terms. To maintain its stealthy profile, the F-35 must carry its weaponry internally, limiting its load and destructive power compared to “fourth generation” planes like the A-10 and F-15. It must also rely on an internal fuel system, which will limit its range in battle, while its agility in air-to-air combat seems poor compared to older fighters like the F-16. (The Pentagon counters, unconvincingly, that the F-35 wasn’t designed for such dogfighting.)

As a former Air Force project engineer and historian of technology and warfare, here’s my take on the F-35 program today: in trying to build an aircraft to meet the diverse requirements of three services, Lockheed Martin has produced a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none albatross. Each military service piled requirements onto the F-35, as ever more esoteric features were added, including that stealth capability; special software featuring eight million lines of code; unique (and wildly expensive) helmets for its pilots; and vertical landing/short takeoff capacity for the Marines, which led to an airframe design that made it ever less maneuverable for the Air Force and Navy. The result: perhaps the classic example of a plane that is far less than the sum of its staggeringly expensive parts.

To get more specific, consider the mission of close air support, or CAS, which means supporting troops in or near combat. The best and most survivable plane for such a role remains the one specifically designed for it: the unglamorous A-10 Warthog, which ground troops love but Air Force officialdom hates (because it was designed in response to Army, not Air Force, needs). By comparison, the F-35, which is supposed to fill the A-10’s role, simply isn’t designed for such a mission.  It’s too fast, meaning its loiter time over targets is severely limited; its weapons load is inadequate; it has only one engine, making it more vulnerable to ground fire; and its (malfunctioning) gun lacks punch. (It also costs twice as much to fly.) Despite all this, the Air Force continues to advocate for the F-35 in a CAS role, even as it grudgingly re-wings A-10s to extend their lives.

And keep in mind as well that, if you want an attack platform that can loiter for hours, while removing all risk to pilots, why not just use already existing drones like the military’s Reapers?  Who even needs an expensive F-35 stealth fighter?  To these and similar criticisms the Pentagon responds that it’s fifth generation! It’s new! It’s stealthy! It’s a game-changer! It scares the Russians and Chinese! And if those answers don’t work, there’s always that old standby: tell me why you hate our troops!

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin’s profits are soaring as that company and the Pentagon sell the F-35 to allies around the world. Despite its delays, cost overruns, and performance issues, it’s still being promoted as America’s latest and greatest.  Foreign military sales have the added benefit of driving down per-unit costs for the Pentagon, even as politicians tout the F-35 as a huge job creator. In short, with no alternative in sight, Lockheed Martin remains top gun in the Pentagon’s cockpit (Eat your heart out, Tom Cruise!), with virtually guaranteed profits for the next half-century.

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