I was thinking today about my old service branch’s core values. No — not “more fighters, more bombers, more missiles” or “put bombs on target” or “jet noise is the sound of freedom” or “show me the money!” or that old Strategic Air Command classic, “peace is our profession.” No — the core values all airmen are supposed to uphold — integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do, in that order, sometimes abbreviated as integrity, service, excellence. How’s the Air Force doing here?
Not well, I’m afraid. Think of “integrity,” which I think of as truth-telling. Over the last 20 years, and indeed over the life of the service, going back to 1947 and before, the Air Force has consistently overestimated the accuracy of its bombing and consistently underestimated the number of civilians and non-combatants killed by that bombing. And that’s putting it charitably. In reality, the Air Force has conspired to advance an image of airpower as surgical and precise when it clearly isn’t, and indeed never has been. My old service branch advances this image because it’s good for the Air Force. It’s really that simple. Such image-making, i.e. lying, may be good for the Air Force budget, but it isn’t good for integrity. Nor is it good for America or those unfortunates on the receiving end of U.S. munitions.
Turning to “service before self,” I think of a system that when I served often stressed and rewarded self before service. For example, the promotion system in the military was structured to reward the hard-chargers, the overachievers, Type-A personalities, the thrusters and the true believers. Perhaps this is true of most bureaucracies, but the emphasis on ticket-punching and hoop-jumping in the Air Force was conducive to a narrow form of achievement in which “service” played second fiddle, when it played at all. Another way of putting it is that a certain kind of personal selfishness is more than acceptable as long as it advances institutional goals and agendas — a quite narrow form of service, if one is again being charitable.
And now we come to “excellence in all we do,” which brings to mind all kinds of disasters, such as drone strikes that kill innocents, or wayward generals, or cheating nuclear missile crews, and so on. But I’d like to focus on recent procurement practices, such as the lamentable F-35 jet fighter, which was supposed to be a fairly low-cost, high-availability fighter but which even the Air Force Chief of Staff now compares to a Ferrari, i.e. super-expensive and often in the shop. From tankers that can’t refuel to fighter planes that can’t shoot straight to nuclear bombers and missiles that the country (and, for that matter, humanity) simply doesn’t need, the Air Force’s record of excellence is spotty indeed.
What are we to do with a service that is so unwilling or unable to live up to its core values? Well, as usual, accountability and punishment are out of the question. I guess we’ll just have to give the Air Force more money while hoping it’ll reform itself, because you know that strategy always works.
It’s Super Bowl Sunday — time to gather together and party responsibly, i.e. don’t turn your party into a Covid super-spreader event.
You can always learn a lot about America by watching the Super Bowl — and I’m not talking about football. Pregame ceremonies are telling, as are the elaborate halftime shows. This year, I noted how the Air Force is selling the story of a female pilot, Captain Sarah Kociuba, who will pilot a B-2 stealth bomber to open the festivities. She’ll be joined by a B-1B Lancer and a B-52 Stratofortress. The message, of course, is “pride” in America.
And I thought only the quarterbacks would be throwing bombs.
Seriously, these bombers are all about mass destruction. Possibly even nuclear mass destruction. Why I should feel “pride” in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is beyond me.
Look! Up in the sky! It’s American-made WMD. Led by a highly-qualified female pilot. Diversity! America!
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 controversy. Harper’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.
Last week while getting new tires, I came across the latest Air Force recruiting brochure. Its first line: “The Air Force dominates the sky with speed, precision and air power.”
It’s fascinating to me this emphasis on global domination. During the Cold War, the goal was not to dominate but to deter the Soviet Union, China, and similar rivals. Deterrence suggests rough equality — and some reasonable cap to defense spending. Domination, however, suggests something far different. As Michael Klare has noted, it suggests we must “overmatch” potential rivals; we must be capable of obliterating them, not just deterring and defeating them.
Domination makes perfect sense, of course, if your goal is to maximize “defense” spending. If the U.S. only intended to deter a (much weaker) Russia and (a mainly economic power) China, we could probably do that at half the cost we’re paying now. Imagine saving $350 billion a year and applying it to education, health care, infrastructure, and similar places of need in the USA.
But when the operative word is dominate, your budget is almost open-ended. You can always find (or imagine) a weakness somewhere, a place where we must boost spending. A Space Force, perhaps? Not even the sky is a limit to “dominant” defense spending.
This linguistic turn, from deterrence to dominance, doesn’t get enough attention in our media and culture. Those seeking dominance, no matter what they claim, are much more likely to breed war than to find peace.
Of course, the Air Force recruiting brochure I picked up at the auto shop showed no scenes of war: no bombs being dropped, no missiles being launched, no cities turned to rubble, and of course no casualties. Somehow America’s airmen are supposed to dominate the sky in a bloodless manner, or so our slick recruiting brochures suggest.
Not surprisingly, recruiting brochures don’t show the horrific realities of war. But what they do proudly announce is the U.S. military’s goal of total dominance. Never mind the cost, whether to ourselves or others.
Space, the “final frontier,” isn’t what it used to be. In the 1960s and early 1970s I grew up a fan of NASA as well as Star Trek with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. NASA was (and is) a civilian space agency, even though its corps of astronauts was originally drawn from the ranks of military test pilots. Star Trekoffered a vision of a “federation” of planets in the future, united by a vision “to explore strange new worlds,” venturing forth boldly in the cause of peace. Within the US military, space itself was considered to be the new “high ground,” admittedly a great place for spy satellites (which helped to keep the peace) but a disastrous place for war. (Of course, that didn’t prevent the military from proposing crazy ideas, like building a military base on the moon armed with nuclear-tipped missiles.)
Attracted to the space mission, my first assignment as a military officer was to Air Force Space Command. I helped to support the Space Surveillance Center in Cheyenne Mountain Complex, which kept track of all objects in earth orbit, from satellites to space junk. (You don’t want a lost hammer or other space junk colliding with your billion-dollar satellite at a speed of roughly 17,000 miles per hour.) In the mid-1980s, when I was in AFSPACECOM, an offensive space force to “dominate” space was a vision shared by very few people. I had a small role to play in supporting tests of an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile launched from F-15s, but those tests were curtailed and later cancelled as the Soviet Union, considered as America’s main rival for control of space, began to collapse in the late 1980s.
But that was then, and this is now, and the “now” of the moment is a new US military service, an offensive space force, proposed by the Trump administration as essential to US national security. At TomDispatch.com, William Hartung provides the details of Trump’s new space force in this fine article. As I read Hartung’s article, a thought flashed through my mind: We’re not the peaceful Federation of Star Trek. We’re much more like the Klingon Empire.
In the original Star Trek, the Klingons were a highly aggressive and thoroughly militaristic species that was dedicated to dominating space. They were proudly imperial and driven by conquest. Trump, who with his bombast and barking and boasting would make a great Klingon, sees a “space force” that’s all military: that’s all about domination through aggressive action and better offensive weaponry.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying: Everywhere we go, there we are. Increasingly for America, that saying means: Everywhere we go, there our military and weapons are. Even in space.
The “final frontier” of space, which in my youth was largely a realm of peaceful exploration, whether by NASA in the real-world or in the imaginary future of Star Trek, is now under Trump an increasingly militarized place. This is so because our minds, perhaps humanity’s true “final frontier,” have also been thoroughly militarized.
A war-driven people will bring war with them wherever they go. If the Vulcans (like Mr. Spock, who was half-Vulcan) are smart, they won’t reach out to humans if and when we find a “warp” drive that allows us to travel much faster than the speed of light. Logical and peaceful beings that they are, perhaps they’ll quarantine earth and humanity instead. Maybe with the Vulcan equivalent of a big, fat, beautiful wall?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Ourland-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.