Billions and Billions for the B-21 Stealth Bomber

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Conceptual drawing of the new B-21 stealth bomber

W.J. Astore

In a new article for TomDispatch.com. I tackle the Air Force’s latest stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider.  The project will likely cost $100 billion, and possibly much more than this over its lifetime.  Is this truly what we need for our national “defense”?

By their nature,  bombers are not defensive weapons. They’re designed to take the fight to the enemy with overwhelming destructive force. In other words, the B-21, strictly speaking, is not for national defense: it’s for national offense. That’s why the U.S. Air Force speaks so proudly of “global strike” against “any target.” It’s the empowerment as well as the enshrinement of a vision of violent and disruptive action by the U.S. military anytime, anywhere, on the planet. If we weren’t Americans, we’d recognize this vision for what it really is: a form of militarism gone mad.

Here is an excerpt from my article at TomDispatch.

The Air Force’s Strange Love for the New B-21 Bomber
The Military-Industrial Complex Strikes (Out) Again
By William J. Astore

Did you know the U.S. Air Force is working on a new stealth bomber? Don’t blame yourself if you didn’t, since the project is so secret that most members of Congress aren’t privy to the details. (Talk about stealthy!) Known as the B-21 Raider, after General Doolittle’s Raiders of World War II fame, it’s designed to carry thermonuclear weapons as well as conventional missiles and bombs. In conceptual drawings, it looks much like its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, all wing and no fuselage, a shape that should help it to penetrate and survive the most hostile air defense systems on Earth for the purposes of a “global strike.” (Think: nuclear Armageddon.)

As the Air Force acquires those future B-21s, the B-2s will be retired along with the older B-1B bomber, although the venerable B-52 (of the Cold War era), much modified, will remain in service for the foreseeable future. At $550 million per plane (before the inevitable cost overruns even kick in), the Air Force plans to buy as many as 200 B-21s. That’s more than $100 billion in procurement costs alone, a boon for Northrop Grumman, the plane’s primary contractor.

If history is any judge, however, a boon for Northrop Grumman is likely to prove a bust for the American taxpayer. As a start, the United States has no real need for a new, stealthy, super-expensive, nuclear-capable, deep-penetrating strategic bomber for use against “peer” rivals China and Russia …

Here’s the nightmarish reality of actually bringing such weapons systems online: when the U.S. military develops a capability, it seeks to use it, even in cases where it’s wildly inappropriate. (Again, think of the massive B-52 bombings in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in a counterinsurgency campaign classically meant to win “hearts and minds.”) Fielding a new strategic bomber for global strike, including potential thermonuclear attacks, will not so much enhance national security as potentially embolden future presidents to strike whenever and wherever they want in a fashion devastating to human life. The B-21 isn’t a force-multiplier. It’s an Armageddon-enabler.

Flying High in our B-21s

Having marketed himself as a savvy military critic, is there any possibility that Donald Trump will have the smarts of Jimmy Carter when it comes to the B-21 program? Will he save America at least $100 billion (and probably far more) while eliminating yet another redundant weapons system within the Department of Defense? Fat chance. Even if he wanted to, The Donald doesn’t stand a chance against the Pentagon these days.

Flush with billions and billions of new taxpayer dollars, including funds for those F-35s and for new nukes from a bipartisan coalition in an otherwise riven Congress, America’s military services will fight for any and all major weapons systems, the B-21 included. So, too, will Congress, especially if Northrop Grumman follows the production strategy first employed by Rockwell International with the B-1: spreading the plane’s subcontractors and parts suppliers to as many states and Congressional districts as possible. This would, of course, ensure that cuts to the B-21 program would impact jobs and so drive votes in Congress in its favor. After all, what congressional representative would be willing to vote against high-paying jobs in his or her own state or district in the name of American security?

So here’s my advice to young model-builders everywhere: don’t blow up your B-21s anytime soon. Rest assured that the real thing is coming. If the Air Force wants to ensure that it has a new bomber, in the name of blasting America’s enemies to oblivion, so be it. It worked (partially and at tremendous cost) in 1943 in the flak- and fighter-filled skies of Nazi Germany, so why shouldn’t it work in 2043 over the skies of who-knows-where-istan?

Why does “your” Air Force think this way? Not just because it loves big bombers, but also because its biggest rivals aren’t in Russia or China or some “rogue” state like Iran. They’re right here in “the homeland.” I’m talking, of course, about the other military services. Yes, interservice rivalries remain alive and well at the Pentagon. If the U.S. Navy can continue to build breathtakingly expensive nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (like the much-troubled USS Gerald R. Ford) and submarines, and if the Army can have all its tanks, helicopters, and associated toys, then, dammit, the Air Force can have what truly makes it special and unique: a new stealthy strategic bomber escorted by an even newer long-range stealthy fighter.

And don’t just blame the Air Force for such retrograde thinking. Its leaders know what’s easiest to sell Congress: big, splashy projects that entail decades of funding and create tens of thousands of jobs. As congressional representatives line up to push for their pieces of the action, military contractors are only too happy to oblige. As the lead contractor for the B-21, Northrop Grumman of Falls Church, Virginia, has the most to gain, but other winners will include United Technologies of East Hartford, Connecticut; BAE Systems of Nashua, New Hampshire; Spirit Aerosystems of Wichita, Kansas; Orbital ATK of Clearfield, Utah, and Dayton, Ohio; Rockwell Collins of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; GKN Aerospace of St Louis, Missouri; and Janicki Industries of Sedro-Woolley, Washington. And these are just the major suppliers for that aircraft; dozens of other parts suppliers will be needed, and they’ll be carefully allocated to as many Congressional districts as possible. Final assembly of the plane will likely take place in Palmdale, California, integrating components supplied from sea to shining sea. Who says America’s coastal enclaves can’t join with the heartland to get things done?

Even if President Trump wanted to cancel the B-21 — and given his recent speech to graduates of the Naval Academy, the odds are that there isn’t a weapons system anywhere he doesn’t want to bring to fruition — chances are that in today’s climate of militarism he would face enormous push-back. As a colleague who’s still on active duty in the Air Force puts it, “What makes today worse than the Carter days is our flag-humping, military-slobbering culture. We can’t even have a discussion of what the country’s needs are for fear of ‘offending’ or ‘disrespecting’ the troops. Today, Carter would be painted as disloyal to those troops he was consigning to an early death because every procurement decision centers on a ‘grave’ or ‘existential’ threat to national security with immediate and deadly consequences.”

And so the Air Force and its flyboy generals will win the fight for the B-21 and take the American taxpayer along for the ride — unless, that is, we somehow have the courage to pry the control sticks from the cold, dead hands of hidebound military tradition and lobbying firepower. Until we do, it’s off we go (yet again), into the wild blue yonder, flying high in our B-21s.

Read the entire article here at TomDispatch.com.

The End of Air Power?

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All they are sayin’ is give bombing a chance (U.S. Air Force photo)

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, which you can read in its entirety here, I tackle the American infatuation with air power and bombing.  Despite its enormous destructiveness and indecisive results in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, the Iraq invasion of 2003, and in the ongoing War on Terror, U.S. leaders persist in bombing as a means to victory, even against dispersed organizations such as ISIS and the Taliban that offer few targets.  As I put it in my article:

For all its promise of devastating power delivered against enemies with remarkable precision and quick victories at low cost (at least to Americans), air power has failed to deliver, not just in the ongoing war on terror but for decades before it.  If anything, by providing an illusion of results, it has helped keep the United States in unwinnable wars, while inflicting a heavy toll on innocent victims on our distant battlefields.  At the same time, the cult-like infatuation of American leaders, from the president on down, with the supposed ability of the U.S. military to deliver such results remains remarkably unchallenged in Washington.

Indeed, as Glenn Greenwald points out, Hillary Clinton’s presumptive Defense Secretary, Michele Flournoy, has already issued calls for more U.S. bombing and military interventions in the Middle East.  Talk about doubling down on a losing strategy.

Yet “strategy” isn’t really the right word.  Bombing is a method of war, not a strategy.  And in this case the method truly is the madness, with the end being perpetual war.

When will the madness end?  To be honest, I don’t see an end in the immediate future, so invested in bombing are America’s leaders and foreign “diplomats.”

Here’s the rest of my article for TomDispatch.com.

Yet despite this “asymmetric” advantage [America’s dominance of the air], despite all the bombing, missile strikes, and drone strikes, “progress” proved both “fragile” and endlessly “reversible” (to use words General David Petraeus applied to his “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan).  In fact, 12,000 or so strikes after Washington’s air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq began in August 2014, we now know that intelligence estimates of its success had to be deliberately exaggerated by the military to support a conclusion that bombing and missile strikes were effective ways to do in the Islamic State.

So here we are, in 2016, 25 years after Desert Storm and nearly a decade after the Petraeus “surge” in Iraq that purportedly produced that missing mission accomplished moment for Washington — and U.S. air assets are again in action in Iraqi and now Syrian skies.  They are, for instance, flying ground support missions for Iraqi forces as they attempt to retake Falluja, a city in al-Anbar Province that had already been “liberated” in 2004 at a high cost to U.S. ground troops and an even higher one to Iraqi civilians.  Thoroughly devastated back then, Falluja has again found itself on the receiving end of American air power.

If and when Iraqi forces do retake the city, they may inherit little more than bodies and rubble, as they did in taking the city of Ramadi last December.  About Ramadi, Patrick Cockburn noted last month that “more than 70% of its buildings are in ruins and the great majority of its 400,000 people are still displaced” (another way of saying, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”).  American drones, meanwhile, continue to soar over foreign skies, assassinating various terrorist “kingpins” to little permanent effect.

Tell Me How This Ends

Here’s the “hot wash”: something’s gone terribly wrong with Washington’s soaring dreams of air power and what it can accomplish.  And yet the urge to loose the planes only grows stronger among America’s political class.

Given the frustratingly indecisive results of U.S. air campaigns in these years, one might wonder why a self-professed smart guy like Ted Cruz, when still a presidential candidate, would have called for “carpet” bombing our way to victory over ISIS, and yet in these years he has been more the norm than the exception in his infatuation with air power.  Everyone from Donald Trump to Barack Obama has looked to the air for the master key to victory.  In 2014, even Petraeus, home from the wars, declared himself “all in” on more bombing as critical to victory (whatever that word might now mean) in Iraq. Only recently he also called for the loosing of American air power (yet again) in Afghanistan — not long after which President Obama did just that.

Even as air power keeps the U.S. military in the game, even as it shows results (terror leaders killed, weapons destroyed, oil shipments interdicted, and so on), even as it thrills politicians in Washington, that magical victory over the latest terror outfits remains elusive.  That is, in part, because air power by definition never occupies ground.  It can’t dig in.  It can’t swim like Mao Zedong’s proverbial fish in the sea of “the people.”  It can’t sustain persuasive force.  Its force is always staccato and episodic.

Its suasion, such as it is, comes from killing at a distance.  But its bombs and missiles, no matter how “smart,” often miss their intended targets.  Intelligence and technology regularly prove themselves imperfect or worse, which means that the deaths of innocents are inevitable.  This ensures new recruits for the very organizations the planes are intent on defeating and new cycles of revenge and violence amid the increasing vistas of rubble below.  Even when the bombs are on target, as happens often enough, and a terrorist leader or “lieutenant” is eliminated, what then?  You kill a dozen more?  As Petraeus said in a different context: tell me how this ends.

Recalling the Warbirds 

From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, dropping bombs and firing missiles has been the presidentially favored way of “doing something” against an enemy.  Air power is, in a sense, the easiest thing for a president to resort to and, in our world, has the added allure of the high-tech.  It looks good back home.  Not only does the president not risk the lives of American troops, he rarely risks retaliation of any kind.

Whether our presidents know it or not, however, air power always comes with hidden costs, starting with the increasingly commonplace blowback of retaliatory terrorist strikes on “soft” targets (meaning people) in cities like Paris or Madrid or London.  Strikes that target senior members of enemy armies or terrorist organizations often miss, simply stoking yet more of the sorts of violent behavior we are trying to eradicate with our own version of violence.  When they don’t miss and the leadership of terror groups is hit, as Andrew Cockburn has shown, the result is often the emergence of even more radical and brutal leaders and the further spread of such movements.  In addition, U.S. air power, especially the White House-run drone assassination program, is leading the way globally when it comes to degrading the sovereignty of national borders. (Witness the latest drone strike against the head of the Taliban in violation of Pakistani airspace.)  Right now, Washington couldn’t care less about this, but it is pioneering a future that, once taken up by other powers, may look far less palatable to American politicians.

Despite the sorry results delivered by air power over the last 65 years, the U.S. military continues to invest heavily in it — not only in drones but also in ultra-expensive fighters and bombers like the disappointing F-35 (projected total cost: $1.4 trillion) and the Air Force’s latest, already redundant long-range strike bomber (initial acquisition cost: $80 billion and rising).  Dismissing the frustratingly mixed and often destabilizing results that come from air strikes, disregarding the jaw-dropping prices of the latest fighters and bombers, America’s leaders continue to clamor for yet more warplanes and yet more bombing.

And isn’t there a paradox, if not a problem, in the very idea of winning a war on terror through what is in essence terror bombing?  Though it’s not something that, for obvious reasons, is much discussed in this country, given the historical record it’s hard to deny that bombing is terror.  After all, that’s why early aviators like Douhet and Mitchell embraced it.  They believed it would be so terrifyingly effective that future wars would be radically shortened to the advantage of those willing and able to bomb.

As it turned out, what air power provided was not victory, but carnage, terror, rubble — and resistance.

Americans should have a visceral understanding of why populations under our bombs and missiles resist.  They should know what it means to be attacked from the air, how it pisses you off, how it generates solidarity, how it leads to new resolve and vows of vengeance.  Forget Pearl Harbor, where my uncle, then in the Army, dodged Japanese bombs on December 7, 1941.  Think about 9/11.  On that awful day in 2001, Homeland USA was “bombed” by hijacked jet liners transformed into guided missiles.  Our skies became deadly.  A technology indelibly associated with American inventiveness and prowess was turned against us.  Colossally shocked, America vowed vengeance.

Are our enemies any less resolutely human than we are?  Like us, they’re not permanently swayed by bombing. They vow vengeance when friends, family members, associates of every sort are targeted.  When American “smart” bombs obliterate wedding parties and other gatherings overseas, do we think the friends and loved ones of the dead shrug and say, “That’s war”?  Here’s a hint: we didn’t.

Having largely overcome the trauma of 9/11, Americans today look to the sky with hope.  We watch the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds with a sense of awe, wonder, and pride.  Warplanes soar over our sports stadiums.  The sky is ourhigh ground.  We see evidence of America’s power and ingenuity there.  Yet people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere often pray for clouds and bad weather; for them, clear skies are associated with American-made death from above.

It’s time we allow other peoples to look skyward with that same sense of safety and hope as we normally do.  It’s time to recall the warbirds.  They haven’t provided solutions.  Indeed, the terror, destruction, and resentments they continue to spread are part of the problem.

Abolish the Air Force?

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W.J. Astore

Back in January, James Carroll had an op-ed in the Boston Globe that called for eliminating the Air Force as a separate service.  He claimed that the Air Force’s strategic components (its nuclear ICBMs and manned bombers) were now largely irrelevant, that the Air Force’s tactical mission could be folded into the Army and Navy, and that unmanned aerial vehicles or drones would soon largely replace manned surveillance and attack planes.

By folding the Air Force into its two older rivals, the Army and Navy, Carroll suggested the Pentagon would be forced to economize, the magic coming from reorganization.  I highly doubt that.

OK.  I’m a retired Air Force officer, so I’m biased.  But there are certain things the Air Force does, certain skills the Air Force has, that won’t be easily duplicated and probably will be lost in a bureaucratic war touched off by elimination and reorganization.  Here’s a quick list:

1.  The Air Force concentrates on air and space, just like the Army concentrates on land and the Navy on sea.  These are unique elements, requiring unique services with specialized mindsets.

2.  The Air Force is not just about fighter planes and nuclear missiles.  Much of the Air Force’s mission is in the less glorious aspects of air and space control.  Missions like cargo transport, tankers for aerial refueling, aerial and satellite reconnaissance, and the like.  Do we really believe the Army and Navy will adequately focus on and fund these vital missions?

3.  The U.S. Air Force was hardly the first independent air force in the world.  Great Britain saw the need for an independent air force in 1918 when the Royal Air Force was created.  (The USAF had to wait until 1947, i.e. after World War II.)  An independent air force reflects the technological revolution inaugurated by the Wright Brothers in 1903 and the inherent reach and power of aerial vehicles.  This is especially relevant to “island” nations such as Great Britain — and the United States.

4.  Related to (2), the Air Force has a wide range of missions, to include aerial intelligence-gathering, AWACS (airborne warning and control) and vital national command planes such as Air Force One.  Again, are these missions truly suited to the Army or Navy?

5.  In the chaos that is war, there’s something to be said for military continuity and tradition and experience.  Eliminating the Air Force and folding it into the Army and Navy will generate enormous internal friction within the Pentagon, possibly destabilizing a national defense system that is already less than optimal in its stability (as well as its wisdom).

The Air Force today certainly has its problems.  It’s the most top heavy of the services, with far too many colonels and generals.  It spends way too much on under-performing aircraft such as the F-35 Lightning II.  It’s always shied away from adequately funding the close air support mission, which is why the Army pursues its own fleet of attack helicopters.  Since its early days, it’s placed way too much faith in the efficacy of bombing, so much so that it’s generated its own Strangelovian caricatures, men like Curtis LeMay.

That said, the last thing we need is more internecine warfare in the Pentagon.  Eliminating the Air Force is not a recipe for cost-savings.  It’s a recipe for a bureaucratic bloodbath that will ultimately hurt rather than help America’s national defense.

The Temptations of Drone Warfare

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A recent article at NBC News is unusual in that it highlights the awfulness of war even when the killing is “surgical” and done by drones.  Brandon Bryant, a former drone operator for the Air Force, suffers from PTSD and feels that killing by drone caused him to lose respect for life, that he became like a sociopath.  Especially upsetting to Bryant was when his commander gave him a “diploma” (most likely an award citation) that stated he had contributed to the deaths of 1,626 people.

Drone strikes are basically extra-judicial death sentences from the sky.  For Americans, they seem unproblematic because we’re not exposed to them and because our government tells us only “militants” and evil-doers are being killed.

But the temptations of drone warfare are considerable, as I wrote in an article for Truthout in August 2012.  Here’s what I said back then:

What happens when we decouple war’s terrible nature from its intoxicating force? What happens when one side can kill with impunity in complete safety? General Robert E. Lee’s words suggest that a nation that decouples war from its terrors will likely grow too fond of it. The temptation to use deadly force will no longer be restrained by knowledge of the horrors unleashed by the same.

Such thoughts darken the reality of America’s growing fondness for drone warfare. Our land-based drone pilots patrol the skies of foreign lands like Afghanistan in complete safety. They unleash appropriately named Hellfire missiles to smite our enemies. The pilots see a video feed of the carnage they inflict; the American people see and experience nothing. In rare cases when ordinary Americans see drone footage on television, what they witness is something akin to a “Call of Duty” video game combined with a snuff film. War porn, if you will.

Many Americans seem happy that we can smite foreign “militants” at no risk to ourselves. They trust that our military (and the CIA) rarely misidentifies a terrorist, and that “collateral damage,” that mind-numbing euphemism that obscures the reality of innocent men, women, and children obliterated by missiles, is the regrettable price of keeping America safe.

But the reality is that sloppy intelligence and the fog and friction of war combine to make seemingly antiseptic drone warfare much like all other forms of war: bloody, wasteful, and terrible. Terrible, that is, for those on the receiving end of American firepower. Not terrible for us.

There is a real danger that today’s drone warfare has become the equivalent to the Dark Side of the Force as described by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back: a quicker, easier, more seductive form of terror. It is indeed seductive to deploy the technological equivalent of Darth Vader’s throat-constricting powers at a safe distance. We may even applaud ourselves for our prowess while doing so. We tell ourselves that we are killing only the bad people, and that the few innocents caught in the crosshairs constitute an accidental but nonetheless unavoidable price of keeping America safe.

In light of America’s growing affection for drone warfare combined with a disassociation from its terrible results, I submit to you a modified version of General Lee’s sentiment:

It is not well that war grows less terrible for us – for we are growing much too fond of it.

W. J. Astore