As U.S. airplanes evacuated so many desperate people from Afghanistan, I got to thinking about all those drone strikes, assassinations by Hellfire missiles, and bombing runs that the U.S. did in Afghanistan over the last two decades (in a quest for peace, naturally). Much like Vietnam in the 1960s, air power kept U.S. forces in a lost war for far longer than they should have been, yet air power made no difference to the ultimate, disastrous outcome.
You simply can’t occupy and control a country from the air. What America’s dominance of the air emboldens it to do is to intervene on the cheap. Here “cheap” means fewer killed-in-action for America. It’s not cheap to those people on the receiving end of American air power, nor is it cheap to the American taxpayer.
Remember all those assassinations by drone of HVTs (high-value targets), of “key” Taliban figures and fighters? All for nothing. As in Vietnam, the U.S. military kept a body count that meant nothing.
A few statistics, courtesy of The Nation. There have been 14,000 confirmed drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2004. Roughly 90% of the more than 200 people killed in Afghanistan via drone strike during one five-month period of the Afghan War were not the intended targets. U.S. drone strikes have killed somewhere between 9000 and 17,000 people since 2004, with an estimated 2200 of these being children. And this is just “precision” drone strikes; the number of bombs dropped (including the MOAB, or mother of all bombs) has been staggering. All these bombs and missiles made war corporations richer, but they didn’t bring victory to America.
If America’s troops had lacked air support in Afghanistan (and this is also true of Vietnam), they probably would have left the war far sooner, which would have been a very good thing for all concerned.
But technology and firepower are seductive. U.S. troops in Afghanistan could call on A-10 and F-16 attack jets, drones like Predators and Reapers, “strategic” B-1 and B-52 bombers designed originally for nuclear war, and that’s just the Air Force side of the equation. Troops on the ground also had Apache and Kiowa helicopters, heavy artillery, mortars, indeed virtually every weapon in the U.S. arsenal short of nuclear weapons. (And President Trump once hinted we could use them, theoretically, but he didn’t want to kill all Afghans. What mercy!)
The Taliban, by comparison, had assault rifles, RPGs, IEDs, a few mortars, and a cause they believed in. Expel the invader. Their strategy was to outlast U.S. forces while profiting from America’s wild expenditure of money there. It was a good strategy and they won.
Will America finally learn that massive firepower, especially from the air, is not only a crime but a mistake?
Update: After I wrote that final line, I got this report in my email: “The largest Muslim civil rights organization in the United States has demanded that the Biden administration immediately put in place a “moratorium on drone warfare” after the U.S. killed at least 10 Afghan civilians—including half a dozen children—with an airstrike in Kabul over the weekend.” Call for Drone Moratorium After Latest Civilian Killings, article by Jake Johnson at Consortium News.
Serving in the U.S. Air Force, Daniel Hale witnessed America’s drone assassination program and decided to speak out against it. As he awaits sentencing under the Espionage Act for sharing secrets about that program so that the American people could gain insight into the murderous realities of this war from a distance, he penned this letter to the judge hearing his case.
It is a heartfelt and harrowing letter that should be read by all Americans. The Biden administration is seeking a 9-year prison sentence and would prefer an even tougher punishment. This is exactly what is wrong about the United States today: the innocent are punished severely while the guilty are celebrated and promoted.
What follows are the words of Daniel Hale.
Dear Judge O’Grady,
It is not a secret that I struggle to live with depression and post traumatic stress disorder. Both stem from my childhood experience growing up in a rural mountain community and were compounded by exposure to combat during military service. Depression is a constant. Though stress, particularly stress caused by war, can manifest itself at different times and in different ways. The tell-tale signs of a person afflicted by PTSD and depression can often be outwardly observed and are practically universally recognizable. Hard lines about the face and jaw. Eyes, once bright and wide, now deepset and fearful. And an inexplicably sudden loss of interest in things that used to spark joy. These are the noticeable changes in my demeanor marked by those who knew me before and after military service. To say that the period of my life spent serving in the United States Air Force had an impression on me would be an understatement. It is more accurate to say that it irreversibly transformed my identity as an American. Having forever altered the thread of my life’s story, weaved into the fabric of our nation’s history. To better appreciate the significance of how this came to pass, I would like to explain my experience deployed to Afghanistan as it was in 2012 and how it is I came to violate the Espionage Act, as a result.
In my capacity as a signals intelligence analyst stationed at Bagram Airbase, I was made to track down the geographic location of handset cellphone devices believed to be in the possession of so-called enemy combatants. To accomplish this mission required access to a complex chain of globe-spanning satellites capable of maintaining an unbroken connection with remotely piloted aircraft, commonly referred to as drones. Once a steady connection is made and a targeted cell phone device is acquired, an imagery analyst in the U.S., in coordination with a drone pilot and camera operator, would take over using information I provided to surveil everything that occurred within the drone’s field of vision. This was done, most often, to document the day-to-day lives of suspected militants. Sometimes, under the right conditions, an attempt at capture would be made. Other times, a decision to strike and kill them where they stood would be weighed.
The first time that I witnessed a drone strike came within days of my arrival to Afghanistan. Early that morning, before dawn, a group of men had gathered together in the mountain ranges of Patika provence around a campfire carrying weapons and brewing tea. That they carried weapons with them would not have been considered out of the ordinary in the place I grew up, muchless within the virtually lawless tribal territories outside the control of the Afghan authorities. Except that among them was a suspected member of the Taliban, given away by the targeted cell phone device in his pocket. As for the remaining individuals, to be armed, of military age, and sitting in the presence of an alleged enemy combatant was enough evidence to place them under suspicion as well. Despite having peacefully assembled, posing no threat, the fate of the now tea drinking men had all but been fulfilled. I could only look on as I sat by and watched through a computer monitor when a sudden, terrifying flurry of hellfire missiles came crashing down, splattering purple-colored crystal guts on the side of the morning mountain.
Since that time and to this day, I continue to recall several such scenes of graphic violence carried out from the cold comfort of a computer chair. Not a day goes by that I don’t question the justification for my actions. By the rules of engagement, it may have been permissible for me to have helped to kill those men—whose language I did not speak, customs I did not understand, and crimes I could not identify—in the gruesome manner that I did. Watch them die. But how could it be considered honorable of me to continuously have laid in wait for the next opportunity to kill unsuspecting persons, who, more often than not, are posing no danger to me or any other person at the time. Nevermind honorable, how could it be that any thinking person continued to believe that it was necessary for the protection of the United States of America to be in Afghanistan and killing people, not one of whom present was responsible for the September 11th attacks on our nation. Notwithstanding, in 2012, a full year after the demise of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, I was a part of killing misguided young men who were but mere children on the day of 9/11.
Nevertheless, in spite of my better instincts, I continued to follow orders and obey my command for fear of repercussion. Yet, all the while, becoming increasingly aware that the war had very little to do with preventing terror from coming into the United States and a lot more to do with protecting the profits of weapons manufacturers and so-called defense contractors. The evidence of this fact was laid bare all around me. In the longest or most technologically advanced war in American history, contract mercenaries outnumbered uniform wearing soldiers 2 to 1 and earned as much as 10 times their salary. Meanwhile, it did not matter whether it was, as I had seen, an Afghan farmer blown in half, yet miraculously conscious and pointlessly trying to scoop his insides off the ground, or whether it was an American flag-draped coffin lowered into Arlington National Cemetery to the sound of a 21-gun salute. Bang, bang, bang. Both served to justify the easy flow of capital at the cost of blood—theirs and ours. When I think about this I am grief-stricken and ashamed of myself for the things I’ve done to support it.
The most harrowing day of my life came months into my deployment to Afghanistan when a routine surveillance mission turned into disaster. For weeks we had been tracking the movements of a ring of car bomb manufacturers living around Jalalabad. Car bombs directed at US bases had become an increasingly frequent and deadly problem that summer, so much effort was put into stopping them. It was a windy and clouded afternoon when one of the suspects had been discovered headed eastbound, driving at a high rate of speed. This alarmed my superiors who believe he might be attempting to escape across the border into Pakistan.
A drone strike was our only chance and already it began lining up to take the shot. But the less advanced predator drone found it difficult to see through clouds and compete against strong headwinds. The single payload MQ-1 failed to connect with its target, instead missing by a few meters. The vehicle, damaged, but still driveable, continued on ahead after narrowly avoiding destruction. Eventually, once the concern of another incoming missile subsided, the driver stopped, got out of the car, and checked himself as though he could not believe he was still alive. Out of the passenger side came a woman wearing an unmistakable burka. As astounding as it was to have just learned there had been a woman, possibly his wife, there with the man we intended to kill moments ago, I did not have the chance to see what happened next before the drone diverted its camera when she began frantically to pull out something from the back of the car.
A couple of days passed before I finally learned from a briefing by my commanding officer about what took place. There indeed had been the suspect’s wife with him in the car. And in the back were their two young daughters, ages 5 and 3 years old. A cadre of Afghan soldiers were sent to investigate where the car had stopped the following day. It was there they found them placed in the dumpster nearby. The eldest was found dead due to unspecified wounds caused by shrapnel that pierced her body. Her younger sister was alive but severely dehydrated. As my commanding officer relayed this information to us she seemed to express disgust, not for the fact that we had errantly fired on a man and his family, having killed one of his daughters; but for the suspected bomb maker having ordered his wife to dump the bodies of their daughters in the trash, so that the two of them could more quickly escape across the border. Now, whenever I encounter an individual who thinks that drone warfare is justified and reliably keeps America safe, I remember that time and ask myself how could I possibly continue to believe that I am a good person, deserving of my life and the right to pursue happiness.
One year later, at a farewell gathering for those of us who would soon be leaving military service, I sat alone, transfixed by the television, while others reminisced together. On television was breaking news of the president giving his first public remarks about the policy surrounding the use of drone technology in warfare. His remarks were made to reassure the public of reports scrutinizing the death of civilians in drone strikes and the targeting of American citizens. The president said that a high standard of “near certainty” needed to be met in order to ensure that no civilians were present. But from what I knew, of the instances where civilians plausibly could have been present, those killed were nearly always designated enemies killed in action unless proven otherwise. Nonetheless, I continued to heed his words as the president went on to explain how a drone could be used to eliminate someone who posed an “imminent threat” to the United States. Using the analogy of taking out a sniper, with his sights set on an unassuming crowd of people, the president likened the use of drones to prevent a would-be terrorist from carrying out his evil plot. But, as I understood it to be, the unassuming crowd had been those who lived in fear and the terror of drones in their skies and the sniper in this scenario had been me. I came to believe that the policy of drone assasiniation was being used to mislead the public that it keeps us safe, and when I finally left the military, still processing what I’d been a part of, I began to speak out, believing my participation in the drone program to have been deeply wrong.
I dedicated myself to anti-war activism, and was asked to partake in a peace conference in Washington, DC late November, 2013. People had come together from around the world to share experiences about what it is like living in the age of drones. Fazil bin Ali Jaber had journeyed from Yemen to tell us of what happened to his brother Salem bin Ali Jaber and their cousin Waleed. Waleed had been a policeman and Salem was a well-respected firebrand Imam, known for giving sermons to young men about the path towards destruction should they choose to take up violent jihad.
One day in August 2012, local members of Al Qaeda traveling through Fazil’s village in a car spotted Salem in the shade, pulled up towards him, and beckoned him to come over and speak to them. Not one to miss an opportunity to evangelize to the youth, Salem proceeded cautiously with Waleed by his side. Fazil and other villagers began looking on from afar. Farther still was an ever present reaper drone looking too.
As Fazil recounted what happened next, I felt myself transported back in time to where I had been on that day, 2012. Unbeknownst to Fazil and those of his village at the time was that they had not been the only watching Salem approach the jihadist in the car. From Afghanistan, I and everyone on duty paused their work to witness the carnage that was about to unfold. At the press of a button from thousands of miles away, two hellfire missiles screeched out of the sky, followed by two more. Showing no signs of remorse, I, and those around me, clapped and cheered triumphantly. In front of a speechless auditorium, Fazil wept.
About a week after the peace conference I received a lucrative job offer if I were to come back to work as a government contractor. I felt uneasy about the idea. Up to that point, my only plan post military separation had been to enroll in college to complete my degree. But the money I could make was by far more than I had ever made before; in fact, it was more than any of my college-educated friends were making. So, after giving it careful consideration, I delayed going to school for a semester and took the job.
For a long time I was uncomfortable with myself over the thought of taking advantage of my military background to land a cushy desk job. During that time I was still processing what I had been through and I was starting to wonder if I was contributing again to the problem of money and war by accepting to return as a defense contractor. Worse was my growing apprehension that everyone around me was also taking part in a collective delusion and denial that was used to justify our exorbitant salaries, for comparatively easy labor. The thing I feared most at the time was the temptation not to question it.
Then it came to be that one day after work I stuck around to socialize with a pair of co-workers whose talented work I had come to greatly admire. They made me feel welcomed, and I was happy to have earned their approval. But then, to my dismay, our brand-new friendship took an unexpectedly dark turn. They elected that we should take a moment and view together some archived footage of past drone strikes. Such bonding ceremonies around a computer to watch so-called “war porn” had not been new to me. I partook in them all the time while deployed to Afghanistan. But on that day, years after the fact, my new friends gaped and sneered, just as my old one’s had, at the sight of faceless men in the final moments of their lives. I sat by watching too; said nothing and felt my heart breaking into pieces.
Your Honor, the truest truism that I’ve come to understand about the nature of war is that war is trauma. I believe that any person either called-upon or coerced to participate in war against their fellow man is promised to be exposed to some form of trauma. In that way, no soldier blessed to have returned home from war does so uninjured. The crux of PTSD is that it is a moral conundrum that afflicts invisible wounds on the psyche of a person made to burden the weight of experience after surviving a traumatic event. How PTSD manifests depends on the circumstances of the event. So how is the drone operator to process this? The victorious rifleman, unquestioningly remorseful, at least keeps his honor intact by having faced off against his enemy on the battlefield. The determined fighter pilot has the luxury of not having to witness the gruesome aftermath. But what possibly could I have done to cope with the undeniable cruelties that I perpetuated?
My conscience, once held at bay, came roaring back to life. At first, I tried to ignore it. Wishing instead that someone, better placed than I, should come along to take this cup from me. But this too was folly. Left to decide whether to act, I only could do that which I ought to do before God and my own conscience. The answer came to me, that to stop the cycle of violence, I ought to sacrifice my own life and not that of another person.
So, I contacted an investigative reporter, with whom I had had an established prior relationship, and told him that I had something the American people needed to know.
A recent article in The National Interest captured an open secret: Donald Trump has been using drone strikes far more than Barack Obama ever did.
The Pentagon likes to depict such strikes as incredibly accurate, with few or even no innocents killed. Such a portrayal is inaccurate, however, since “precision” bombing isn’t precise. Intelligence is often wrong. Missiles don’t always hit their targets. Explosions and their effects are unpredictable.
Recognizing those realities, are drone strikes also cowardly?
America likes to fancy itself the “home of the brave,” a land of “heroes” and “warriors.” But how heroic is it to launch a Hellfire missile from a drone, without any risk to yourself? Aren’t warriors supposed to be on the receiving end of elemental violence as well as being the inflictors of it?
Experiencing violence, even reveling in it while enduring war’s passions and horrific results was part of what it meant to be a warrior. Think of Achilles versus Hector in ancient days, or knights jousting with knights in the Middle Ages, or men not firing until they saw the white of the enemy’s eyes at Bunker Hill. Even when machines intruded, it wasn’t just T-34 tanks versus Tigers at Kursk in 1943, or B-17 bombers versus Focke-Wulf Fw 190s over Berlin in 1944: it was the men operating those machines who mattered — and who demonstrated heroism and warrior spirit.
But when war becomes robotic and routine for one side, action at a great distance and indeed at total remove from violence and its effects, can that be heroic in any way? Isn’t drone warfare a form of denatured war, war without passion, war without risk to U.S. drone operators?
Don’t get me wrong. Drone warfare has its pains for its “operators.” PTSD exists for these men and women who pilot the drones and launch the missiles; watching other people die on video, when you’re responsible for their deaths, carries a cost, at least for some. But is it not all-too-tempting to smite and kill others when they have no way of smiting you back?
It is not well that war grows less terrible for us – for we are growing much too fond of it.”
That the Trump administration is turning so fondly to drone strikes (following the example of Obama, for once proudly) is yet another sign that America is far too devoted to war. Is it not because war is so profitable for a few, and so painless for the rest of us?
There is no direct pain to America from drone warfare, but there’s also little recognition of war’s horrific costs and the need to end them; there is no immediate risk, but there’s also little recognition that there are ways to triumph other than simply killing one’s perceived enemies.
A final, heretical, question: Are Americans so eager to celebrate their warriors as heroes precisely because they so often practice a form of warfare that is unheroic and even cowardly? If Americans were routinely on the receiving end of drone strikes by a distant foreign power, I think I know how we’d answer that question.
When do humans count in drone warfare, and when do they not?
I thought of this question as I read Christopher Fuller’s “See It/Shoot It: The Secret History of the CIA’s Lethal Drone Program.” Revealingly, U.S. pilots and crews who operate these drones, such as Predators and Reapers, reject the terminology of “drones” and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or UAS (unmanned aerial system). They prefer the term RPA, or remotely piloted aircraft. They want to be known as the essential humans in the loop, they want to stand out, they want to count for something, and in fact the Department of Defense at various times has suggested a new “drone medal” to recognize their service.
Whereas American pilots want to stand up and be recognized as the pilots of their “remote aircraft,” the Pentagon doesn’t want to think about the targets of these drones as human beings. Civilian casualties are grouped and shrouded under the term “collateral damage,” a nasty euphemism that combines a banking term (collateral) with the concept of damage that hints at reversibility and repair. But collateral damage really means innocents blown up and blasted by missiles. Shouldn’t these humans count?
Another term that Fuller discusses is “neutralization.” The U.S. counterterrorism goal is to “neutralize” opponents, meaning, as Fuller notes, “killing, rendition, and imprisonment.” Again, with a word like neutralization, we’re not encouraged to think of those being attacked as humans. We’re just “neutralizing” a threat, right? A terrorist, not a fellow human being. Right?
Interestingly, the whole idea of terrorism is something they do, not us. Why? Because the U.S. defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” Note that word: subnational. By this definition, nations do not commit terrorism, which is handy for the U.S., which presents its drone attacks as defensive or proactive or preemptive.
Finally, the Pentagon and the CIA are at pains to assert they take the utmost care in reducing “collateral damage” in their “neutralization” efforts. Yet as Fuller notes in his book (page 214), “the U.S. government did not always know the identity or affiliations of those killed in its drone strikes.”
So who counts, and who doesn’t? Whose humanity is to be celebrated (pilots of RPAs?), and whose humanity (innocent victims) is to be suppressed?
Addendum: On how the U.S. seriously undercounts civilian deaths in its air strikes, see this article.
The business of America is weapons sales. That much is true when you consider the following snippet today from FP: Foreign Policy:
Drone sales. The United States is looking to make changes to a major international arms control treaty that would open the door for wider exports of military drones, Defense Newsreports. The proposed change to the Missile Technology Control Regime would make it easier for nations to sell drones.
Proliferation of drones: What could go wrong?
America is the world’s leader in drone technology, and the companies that have developed them see even bigger profits on the horizon if they can sell them to America’s allies around the globe. The nature of drones is that they make killing easier — usually bloodless — for those countries that possess the technology. They promise results, but the American use of drones in places like Iraq and Afghanistan has not led to any resolution of those conflicts. Only the body count has increased.
A famous utterance attributed to General Robert E. Lee during the U.S. Civil War is, “It is well that war is so terrible – lest we should grow too fond of it.” His words capture the idea that war is an elemental thing – and also a seductive one. Much like a storm-tossed ocean, war is relentless, implacable, and unsparing. It is chaotic, arbitrary, and deadly. It is not to be bargained with; only to be endured.
Given its ferocity, its rapacity, the enormity of its waste and devastation, war is best to be avoided, especially since war itself has its appeals, especially since war itself can be intoxicating, as the quotation from Lee suggests, and as the title of Anthony Loyd’s fine book on the war in Bosnia, My War Gone By, I Miss It So (1999), indicates.
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? 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.
President Trump is hawking weapons in the Middle East. After concluding a deal with the Saudis for $110 billion in weaponry, he sought out the Emir of Qatar and said their discussions would focus on “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.”
Trump’s reference to American weapons as “beautiful” echoed the recent words of Brian Williams at MSNBC, who characterized images from the Tomahawk missile attack on Syria as “beautiful,” not once but three times.
We can vilify Trump and Williams for seeing beauty in weapons that kill, but we must also recognize Americans love their technology of death. It’s one big reason why we have more than 300 million guns in America, enough to arm virtually every American, from cradle to grave.
Why do we place so much faith in weapons? Why do we love them so?
In military affairs, America is especially prone to putting its faith in weapons. The problem is that often weaponry is either less important than one thinks, or seductive in its promise. Think of U.S. aerial drones, for example. They’ve killed a lot of people without showing any decisiveness.
Technology is a rational and orderly endeavor, but war is irrational and chaotic. Countries develop technology for war, thinking they are adding order and predictability, when they are usually adding just another element of unpredictability while expanding death.
U.S. air power is a great example — death everywhere, but no decisiveness. Look at Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). The U.S. obliterated vast areas with high explosive and napalm and Agent Orange, killing millions without winning the war. The technological image of America today is not stunning cars or clever consumer inventions but rather Predator and Reaper drones and giant bombs like MOAB.
Profligate expenditures on weapons and their export obviously feed America’s military-industrial complex. Such weapons are sold by our politicians as job-creators, but they’re really widow-makers and life-takers. Americans used to describe armament makers as “merchants of death,” until, that is, we became the number one producer and exporter of these armaments. Now they’re “beautiful” to our president and to our media mouthpieces.
We have a strange love affair with weapons that borders on a fetish. I’ve been to a few military re-enactments, in which well-intended re-enactors play at war. The guys I’ve talked to are often experts on the nuts and bolts of the military weaponry they carry, but of course the guns aren’t loaded. It’s all bloodless fun, a “war game,” if you will.
Nowadays real war is often much like a video game, at least to U.S. “pilots” sitting in trailers in Nevada. It’s not a game to an Afghan or Yemeni getting blown to bits by a Hellfire missile fired by a drone. For some reason, foreigners on the receiving end of U.S. weaponry don’t think of it as “beautiful.” Nor do we, when our weapons are turned against us.
Enough with the “beautiful” weapons, America. Let’s stick to the beauty of spacious skies and amber waves of grain.
Yes, there was a revealing moment at last night’s Democratic National Convention. No, it wasn’t President Obama’s soaring speech, or Joe Biden’s heartfelt appeal, or Tim Kaine’s “believe me” lampoon of Donald Trump. All these were scripted.
It was the anti-war protesters who spoke out against drone assassinations and war while former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke.
Good for them. This democratic convention has been at pains to please the military. Last night, Panetta called the U.S. military our greatest national treasure. Obama repeated his claim that the U.S. military is the finest fighting force since Cain slew Abel. Tim Kaine opened his remarks by mentioning the Marines and shouting Semper Fi.
The Democrats are the new Republicans: they’re going “all in” on military boosterism and ra-ra patriotism.
Which is why the anti-war protest was so refreshing. End the wars — end the killing — what’s wrong with these protesters for expressing such crazy sentiments at a Democratic political rally? (An aside: my favorite sign read “Fauxmocracy.”)
The DNC response was swift. Apparently, they cut the lights to the section where the main body of protesters sat (the Oregon delegation), but the protesters simply pulled out their Smart phones for light. Panetta, of course, ignored them, carrying on with his prepared speech that vilified Trump for his remarks about Vladimir Putin and hacking. (Pretty dumb by The Donald, but the man is an empty barrel, an Archie Bunker who loves to make lots of noise.)
Most interesting of all was media response. I was watching MSNBC (I think) when a commentator attacked the anti-war protesters for undercutting Panetta’s speech against Trump. Yes, it was the protesters who were TOTALLY in the wrong! How dare they chant “no more war” at a former CIA Director and secretary of war? How dare they challenge an olympian like Panetta while he’s on the stage? How dare they organize and exercise their first amendment rights?
Expect more unbounded praise of the U.S. military tonight by Hillary Clinton. Expect more talk of war. Just don’t expect any honest talk about the cost of America’s wars or any vows about ending them in our lifetimes.
I just endured General Allen’s jingoistic speech/scream and all the “USA! USA!” chants, followed by a short speech by a Medal of Honor recipient in favor of Clinton.
After which Brian Williams of MSNBC said, “Sadly,” you could still hear faintly the voices of protesters shouting “No more war.” Why is that so sad, Brian Williams? Why is it so sad for Democrats to be against war? Why must they shut up when a general speaks, a general who boasts of making the U.S. military stronger with even better weaponry with which to kill?
That’s the real “sad” part, Brian Williams: How the Democratic Party has become the war party.
In President Obama’s drone wars, how many innocent civilians have been killed? An official U.S. government report will suggest that roughly 100 civilians have been killed since 2009 in drone strikes, a surprisingly small number. According to NBC News:
The Long War Journal, a project of the right-leaning Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank whose numbers tend to be the most favorable for U.S. policy-makers, tallied 207 civilian casualties since 2009 in 492 strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. That does not include strikes in Somalia and Libya, which the Obama administration includes in its count of around 100 [civilians killed].
New America, a left-leaning Washington think tank, counted between 244 and 294 civilians killed in 547 attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that as many as 1068 civilians were killed in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the vast majority since 2009.
So it’s unclear whether the Obama administration’s drone strikes have killed 100 innocents, 300 innocents, or over 1000 innocents. Part of the discrepancy involves who is a “militant” and who is an innocent civilian. The U.S. government tends to count all military-age males killed in drone strikes as “militants,” effectively changing the meaning of civilian to “women and children.”
In one respect, this body count doesn’t matter. Dead is dead, whether you’re talking about 100 people or 1000. And isn’t the death of 100 innocents enough to provoke protest if not outrage? Think of the reaction in the U.S. to the killing of 49 innocent civilians in Orlando. Better yet, think if a foreign government was flying drones over our skies, taking out American “terrorists” while killing a few innocent civilians now and again. Would we dismiss 100 dead American civilians as “collateral damage,” regrettable but necessary in this foreign power’s war on terror?
Of course not. Americans would memorialize the dead, honor them, and make them a cause for vengeance.
For all the people the U.S. government is killing overseas in hundreds of deadly drone strikes, it’s not obvious that any progress is being made in the war on terror. The wars continue, with the Taliban gaining strength in Afghanistan. ISIS is on the wane, until it rebounds or morphs into another form. What is essentially terror bombing as a weapon against terror has little chance of ending a war on terror. Meanwhile, hammer blows from the sky against fractured societies only serve to propagate the fractures, creating new fault lines and divisions that are exploitable by the determined and the fanatical.
Indeed, we really have no clear idea whether these multi-billion dollar air campaigns are making any progress in war. Much of the data and results of these campaigns are both classified and open to bias, with reports of casualties being manipulated or “spun” by all sides. All we really know is that innocents are killed (whether 100 or 1000) as the wars persist with no end in sight.
Meanwhile, American exceptionalism rules. As Tom Engelhardt noted back in May of 2015:
In his public apology for deaths [of innocents by drones] that were clearly embarrassing to him, President Obama managed to fall back on a trope that has become ever more politically commonplace in these years. Even in the context of a situation in which two innocent hostages had been killed, he congratulated himself and all Americans for the exceptional nature of this country. “It is a cruel and bitter truth,” he said, “that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur. But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”
Whatever our missteps, in other words, we Americans are exceptional killers in a world of ordinary ones. This attitude has infused Obama’s global assassination program and the White House “kill list” that goes with it and that the president has personally overseen.
Drone strikes are a method of war, but they’ve become the American strategy. The strategy, so it seems, is to keep killing bad guys until the rest give up and go home. But the deaths of innocents, whether 100 or 1000, serve to perpetuate cycles of violence and revenge.
We have, in essence, created a perpetual killing machine.
Update (7/2/2016): Well, the Obama administration has done it again, releasing its report on drone casualties on the afternoon of Friday, July 1st, just before the long Independence Day weekend, ensuring minimal media coverage. The report excludes “active” war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, a convenient definition that serves to lower the death toll.
According to the report, U.S. drone strikes in places like Yemen, Libya, tribal Pakistan, and Somalia have accounted for about 2500 “terrorists” while killing 64 to 116 civilian bystanders. The tacit message: We’re killing 25 times (or perhaps 40 times) as many “terrorists” as we are innocent civilians, a very effective (even humane?) kill ratio.
Talk about an exercise in cynical bookkeeping! One can guess what happened here. Someone high up in the government began with the civilian body count judged acceptable: I’m guessing that figure was roughly 100. Then, they worked backwards from that. How do we get 100? Well, if we exclude “active” war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and if we squint sideways …
Well, you probably know the saying: the very first casualty in war is truth. Followed by an honest accounting of civilian casualties, as this latest report from the Obama administration shows.
Americans tend to fear death. It makes us uncomfortable. Yet death is inevitable. Its inevitability should teach us to revel in the richness of the here and now. It should also teach us the foolishness of undue pride.
All is vanity, the Bible teaches. Death reminds us of this — that human vanity, as unavoidable as it may be, is ultimately shallow. There are riches out there that we should seek away from the glaring and garish light of vanity. Riches that give deeper meaning to life.
Of all cultures in the world, I wonder if there’s another that ignores or denies death as much as American culture. We’re the culture of new beginnings, fresh starts, reinvention, and also of the perpetual now, of youth, of defying or denying death through face lifts, cosmetics, adrenalin-driven adventures, and so on. Technology and consumerism also provide distractions. After all, how can I be nearing the end if I have the latest iPhone or iPad or if I’m wearing the latest hip fashions?
Our funeral homes seek to deny death with open casket rituals in which the dead person is made up to look alive. Paul Fussell skewered this cultural tendency in his book, Class. We use euphemisms like “passed away” or “passed on” for “died”; the descriptive term of “undertaker” has morphed into “funeral home director.” Our religions stress life after death, not death itself.
We even deny that our wars produce death. Think of the Bush/Cheney Administration, which refused to show photographs of flag-draped coffins of American troops, ostensibly for “privacy” reasons but mainly to minimize the deadly costs of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Indeed, we don’t talk of troops dying in combat; we talk instead of troops “paying the ultimate price” or “making the ultimate sacrifice.”)
In minimizing the cost of war to its troops, the U.S. government and media also seek to deny the reality of death to the enemy. War coverage in the media is often stock footage showing drones or aircraft firing missiles, enhanced by graphics and music. You might see an enemy building or truck blowing up, but you’ll never see dead bodies. Too disturbing, even though violent gun play and bleeding corpses are routinely shown in American crime shows and movies as entertainment.
In the first Iraq war (Desert Storm) in 1991, the photographer Kenneth Jarecke caught a powerful image of a dead Iraqi soldier burnt alive in his truck on the infamous “highway of death.” Jarecke believed his photo would change America’s vision of the war, which in the U.S. media had been staged like a Hollywood production, neat and sanitary and clean. But no U.S. media outlet would publish the image. It was relegated to overseas publications.
What price do we pay as a people by ignoring death? We lack a certain depth and maturity; put differently, we are callous and shallow. Death has little meaning to us, especially the deaths of those in other lands. For in seeking to deny the inevitability of our own deaths, how can we possibly recognize and process the death of others?
A death-denying culture that rains death on others using drones named “Predator” and “Reaper”; a culture that finds images of war dead too disturbing even as its TVs and movies and videos are saturated by bloody murders. What are we to make of this?
The most powerful speech I’ve seen in any movie is that of Chief Dan George in “Little Big Man.” In trying to make sense of the White Man’s war on Native Americans, Chief Dan George’s character, Old Lodge Skins, suggests that the White Man kills because he believes everything is dead already. Lacking a moral center, the White Man has no sense of, or appreciation for, the sanctity of life.
Do we deny death because in some sense we are already dead? Dead to the richness and sanctity of life?
Random thoughts, as promised. But I hope they stimulate thought. What say you, readers?
This past weekend [February 2014], CBS 60 Minutes did a segment on the F-35 fighter program. The basic facts are these: the program is seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Yes, you read that right: Not $163 million, but $163 billion. The lead contractor, Lockheed Martin, is essentially unapologetic about the delays and cost overruns. Why should they be? The general in charge of the F-35 acquisition program said we’re going to buy thousands of the plane over the next two decades. Talk about rewarding failure!
If we continue like drunken sailors to throw money at the F-35, it’ll be an effective fighter jet. But the biggest issue is that we don’t need it. Predator and Reaper drones are just the beginning of a new generation of pilotless aircraft that promise to be more effective. Why? Because we need not risk pilots getting shot down. Also, when you combine long loiter time over targets with super-sensitive sensors, drones reduce collateral damage while increasing the odds of “one shot, one kill.”
Proponents of the F-35 like to brag about its (costly) stealthy features, its (costly) cameras and sensors (especially the computer- and sensor-integrated helmet worn by each pilot, which creates a virtual reality and visual scape for that pilot), and its survivability vis-a-vis Russian and Chinese fighters (which are largely still on the drawing boards in those countries). But the truth is that an updated generation of F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, and F-22s are more than capable of defending America and projecting power. (The Vietnam War proved that, in aerial combat, pilot training and skill matter more than technology. That’s why the U.S. military established realistic training at “Top Gun” schools.)
The F-35, given the amount of money thrown at it, doubtless has some improvements over planes such as the F-15 and F-18. But at a price tag of at least $400 billion to purchase the F-35, and $1.45 trillion over the life of the program to operate and maintain them, it has simply become far too prohibitive for the United States to afford, especially in a climate of fiscal austerity.
Based on its track record, it’s probably safe to say that the F-35 will soon be a decade behind schedule and $200 billion over budget, even as it’s increasingly rendered irrelevant by improvements in drone technologies. So why are we buying it? Simply because the program is too big to fail. The Air Force, Navy, and Marines are all counting on it.
Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin has distributed its subcontractors across the USA, making it exceedingly difficult for Congress to cut the program without hurting jobs in virtually every Congressional district. Indeed, in an awesome display of chutzpah, you can go to the Lockheed Martin website to see how much your state is involved in building the F-35. Clicking on the “economic impact map,” I see that for the State of Pennsylvania, for example, the F-35 creates 759 jobs and an economic impact of nearly $51 million.
For the DoD, the F-35 may have ridden off the rails, but for Lockheed Martin the F-35 will continue to soar into the stratosphere as a major money-maker for decades to come. In the battle between DoD program managers and Lockheed Martin, the winner and “top gun” is as obvious as it is depressing. Score another victory for Lockheed Martin! But please avert your eyes as America itself goes down in flames.
Update 1: Another critical perspective from “War Is Boring” on the F-35 program that also takes “60 Minutes” to task for relying only on government sources for their (weak) critique. Here’s an excerpt:
“But where was the long list of design and quality-control issues with the aircraft, 12 years after development began? What about discussing the many alternatives to this under-performing machine, such as F-22s and drones plus rebuilt F-15s, F-16s and F/A-18s? Why not point out how many experts in the defense journalism and analysis worlds see the JSF program as detracting from America’s security rather than enhancing it?”
Those are very good questions.
Update 2: For military/contractor perspectives, check out this video, which includes testimony by test pilots that is generally favorable to the F-35 program (at least from a technical sense).
Update 3: Winslow Wheeler reveals the high cost and serious limitations of the F-35 here and here. Wheeler knows his stuff. He’s the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, part of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) in Washington, DC, and is the author of The Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages National Security (US Naval Institute Press) and Military Reform: An Uneven History and an Uncertain Future (Stanford University Press). Another critical article is by the legendary Chuck Spinney here with the telling title “F-35: Out of Altitude, Airspeed, and Ideas — But Never Money.”
Update 4: An excerpt from Franklin C. “Chuck” Spinney: “But the F-35 program is not at serious risk, despite all the hysterical hype in the trade press — not by a long shot. The F-35′s political safety net has been front-loaded and politically engineered (the general practices of the power games are explained here) with exquisite malice aforethought. Domestically, the F-35 employs 130,000 people and 1300 domestic suppliers in 47 states and Puerto Rico. The only states missing the gravy train are Hawaii, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Internationally, there are already cooperative development/production plans involving nine countries, and more are in the offing. Given the intensity of the geographic carpet-bombing of contracts around the globe, can there be any question why the Secretary of the Air Force said in September, ‘Simply put, there is no alternative to the F-35 program. It must succeed.’ If you think that is an accident, dear reader, I have a Brooklyn Bridge to sell you.”
Update 5: I’ve worked on two Air Force software programs. Both were overly complex and plagued with coding problems that drove up costs and extended schedules while degrading performance. The software on the F-35 is yet another example of this, as this report indicates. The F-35 continues to slip in schedule as costs rise due to software flaws, even as reports emerge that the software is vulnerable to hacking. In trying for leading edge abilities, the contractor has found the bleeding edge, as they say in the military, but what is being bled is the American taxpayer.
Update 6: More problems for the F-35, including oil leaks and one plane bursting into fire as it was taking off, are leading to more countries questioning their commitment to the plane. For a program so deep into testing and initial production, such problems are worrisome indeed.
Update 7: The latest from Winslow Wheeler on the F-35 (July 11, 2014); see his article A Big Week for the F-35? (pasted below):
“Even if the mainstream U.S. media has been late in coming to the story, the largest defense program in U.S. history is facing two critical events this coming week.
“As major British media has been reporting for some time, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may be facing a major international marketing embarrassment: It has failed to show up for two of three scheduled (and much ballyhooed) public demonstrations in the United Kingdom. Now, it may miss the main event, a flying demonstration before the world’s aviation community at the Farnborough International Airshow, starting Monday. You see, the F-35 is grounded-again. An engine blew up on take-off at Eglin Air Force Base on June 23 and reportedly burned up much of the plane’s flammable, plastic composite rear fuselage and tail. No F-35s are flying until inspectors know what the problem is and can say it’s safe to fly-at least in the very limited regimes the F-35 has been cleared for. Moreover, even if the F-35 is released to participate at Farnborough, there may be a new problem: weather predictions for next week in England are not good, and the F-35 has real issues flying near thunder- and rainstorms; it even has problems with wet runways.
“Stuck at home or coddled in UK hangars, the timing could not be worse for F-35 advocates. This Tuesday, the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC-D) will mark up its 2015 Defense Appropriations bill, and more than the usual routine approval of the Pentagon’s F-35 budget request is at stake. As pointed out in two timely commentaries (one by the Center for International Policy’s William Hartung and a second by Taxpayers for Common Sense’s Ryan Alexander), the House Appropriations Committee larded onto the already gigantic $8.3 billion request by adding four unrequested F-35s, costing an extra $479 million.
“The four added planes are clearly at risk given the F-35’s self-embarrassment at Eglin, surely inspiring the F-35 talking points Lockheed is planting on the Members of the SAC-D well beyond their usual spinmeister fantasies on cost and performance. Worse, there could-at least theoretically-arise a critic of the F-35 in the membership of the SAC-D who might try to take real action on the F-35, beyond the rhetorical hyperbole that critics like Senator John McCain (R-AZ) have been hurling at the F-35. Imagine the shock and awe if some Member were to offer a meaningful amendment requiring the F-35 to be tested-actually imposing “fly-before-buy”-before a few hundred more mistake-laden jets are produced.
“Not to worry: the F-35 defenders are rushing to the rescue. Beyond whatever election year financing promises major F-35 contractors Lockheed-Martin, Northrop-Grumman, and Pratt & Whitney may be distributing to keep the program on track, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has just completed a baby-kissing exercise for the airplane. Travelling to Eglin Air Force Base where that F-35 destroyed itself, Hagel declared“This aircraft is the future of fighter aircraft for all our services,” thereby removing any notions that his junket might have some useful purpose other than showing fealty to the beleaguered F-35 program. Any expectation that he went to Eglin to exercise oversight of the F-35’s recurring embarrassments, as one might expect from a functioning Secretary of Defense, has been thoroughly excised. That leaves it up to the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“The SAC-D has many important defense spending decisions to make. None will be a better test of whether the committee is willing to conform DOD program ambitions to Pentagon budget realities than this point in the endless F-35 drama. Of course, the easy road beckons; defense business-as-usual will be happy to shower the Members with handsome signs of approval, material and otherwise.
“Unfortunately, more of the same simply accelerates the decay of our defenses at ever-higher expense.
“All eyes are turning to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee. Thus far, political support for the F-35 has rolled over every ground truth, but realities like multiple groundings occurring amidst a continuing torrent of technical failures and cost overruns have a relentlessness all their own. Perhaps the only real question is when, not if, the politicians in Congress and the Pentagon will succumb to the inevitable tide. If next week does not end up as a tipping point for the F-35, it will come. It will come. And, that will be long before we buy the 2,433 Lockheed and its other boosters dream of.” [End of Wheeler’s article.]
Update 8 (9/8/2014): Professor Mark Clodfelter in Air & Space Power Journal notes that the U.S. Air Force today is “purchasing far more remotely piloted than manned aircraft,” making it “remote” that the service will buy 1,763 F-35s at “flyaway costs of roughly $185 million each.” Meanwhile, the Navy version of the F-35 now exceeds $200 million in “flyaway cost,” with the Marines’ short takeoff and vertical landing variant (the F-35B) approaching $300 million per plane. And these per-unit costs are only due to rise as various countries buy fewer planes than currently projected.
I can still recall being on active duty twenty years ago when the Joint Strike Fighter, progenitor to the F-35, was sold as a “low-cost” (at about $35-50 million per plane) multi-role combat jet in the tradition of the F-16. Since then, “low-cost” has become high-cost as the F-35 program spun wildly out of control.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan, USAF, the F-35 program’s chief. He admitted that “basically the (F-35) program ran itself off the rails.”
Yet despite the fact that the F-35 is the equivalent to a derailing and runaway train, the passengers on board remain captives to it, with some of them smiling all the while.
Update 9 (11/7/2014): The AF is now claiming that A-10s need to be eliminated to free up maintenance staff for the F-35. If the venerable A-10s are not mothballed, initial operational capability (IOC) for the F-35 will be delayed, according to Lt Gen Bogdan.
The AF has never liked the A-10, since it was designed to provide close air support for ground troops. As Winslow Wheeler notes, “The simple truth is that the Air Force does not think the close support mission for troops in combat is a prime responsibility. It never wanted to buy and operate the A-10 in the first place, and it protests that other — unsuitable—aircraft are good enough for the job.”
The AF also knows that Congress as well as soldiers love the A-10. Chances are that the A-10 will be preserved by Congress, which gives the AF the perfect excuse when IOC for the F-35 is delayed. See, the AF will say — We told you we needed those A-10 maintainers for the F-35. That’s the reason why the schedule has slipped yet again. It’s your fault, not ours.
Perhaps the AF believes this is a clever gambit, but what’s being sacrificed (along with credibility) is combat effectiveness. And that may prove a deadly price for our troops to pay.
Update 10 (3/17/2015): In this video, Pierre Sprey, the designer of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, explains why the F-35 is such a “Kluge,” an inherently terrible airplane, as he puts it, an overpriced and ineffective multi-role fighter/bomber that neither fights well nor bombs well.
Update 11 (3/18/2015): Is the F-35 FUBAR? According to this article by AJ Vicens at Mother Jones, it is. Here is the text:
Originally slated to cost $233 billion, the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighterprogram could end up being costing more than $1.5 trillion. Which might not be so bad if the super-sophisticated next-generation jet fighter lives up to its hype. Arecent report from the Defense Department’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation paints a pretty damning picture of the plane’s already well documented problems. The report makes for some pretty dense reading, but the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group that’s long criticized the F-35 program, has boiled down the major issues.
Here are a few:
Teaching to the test: The blizzard of testing required on the plane’s equipment and parts isn’t exactly going well, so the program’s administrators are moving the goal posts. Test scores are improving because the stats are being “massaged” with tricks like not recounting repeated failures. Some required testing is being consolidated, eliminated, or postponed. “As a result,” POGO writes, “the squadron will be flying with an uncertified avionics system.”
Unsafe at any airspeed? The high-tech stuff that was supposed to make the F-35 among the most advanced war machines ever built pose serious safety risks. For example: The fuel tank system “is at significant risk of catastrophic fire and explosion in combat,” according to POGO. The plane isn’t adequately protected against lightning strikes (in the air or on the ground); it’s currently prohibited from flying within 25 miles of thunderstorms. That’s a major problem for a plane training program based in the Florida panhandle.
Flying blind: The F-35’s fancy helmet-mounted display system, which is supposed to show pilots an almost 360-degree view that includes panel controls and threat information, has “high false alarm rates and false target tracks.” Its unreliability, combined with the plane’s design, make it impossible for pilots to see anything behind or below the cockpit.
Wing drop: The DOD report points out an ongoing problem with “wing drop“: When maneuvering at high speeds, the F-35 may drop and roll to one side. This issue has been known to designers for years, and they’ve tried designing add-on parts to address the problem. The fixes, unfortunately, will “further decreas[e] maneuverability, acceleration, and range,” according to POGO.
Engine trouble: For years the F-35s engines have suffered design and performance problems, and these problems have never been fully solved. Last summer these problems resulted in one engine ripping itself apart and destroying one of the planes. At the time, officials said this was a one-time occurrence, but a permanent fix has yet to be determined and the plane may not be airworthy, according to Department of Defense regulations.
Software bugs: The plane’s software includes more than 30 million lines of code. Problems with the code are causing navigation system inaccuracies, false alarms from sensors, and false target tracks. The operating system is so cumbersome that it requires the “design and development of a whole new set of…computers.” The software glitches also affect the plane’s ability to “find targets, detect and survive enemy defenses, deliver weapons accurately, and avoid fratricide.”
More cost overruns: Due to all the testing delays, design problems, and maintenance issues, taxpayers could be on the hook for an additional $67 billion to deploy the F-35. That’s a lot of money. Even for the US military.”
Update 12 (4/28/15): More trouble for the F-35, this time involving its engines. According to Reuters, “The Pentagon’s internal watchdog on Monday said it found 61 violations of quality management rules and policies during an inspection of Pratt & Whitney’s work on the F-35 fighter jet engine and warned the problems could lead to further cost increases and schedule delays on the biggest U.S. arms program.” Further cost increases and schedule delays — where have we heard that before?
The report further added:
“Pratt and the Pentagon are still correcting a design problem with the high-performance F135 engine that grounded the F-35 fleet last year, but that was not due to manufacturing issues. However, quality issues have grounded the fleet in the past.
Earlier this month, the congressional Government Accountability Office also faulted the reliability of the F135 engine.”
Unreliable engines — nothing to worry about. Right?
Update 13 (7/29/15): Not surprisingly, given its design flaws, the F-35 is distinctly inferior to the F-15, F-16, and F-18 in dogfighting capability. Even worse, its cockpit design seriously restricts a pilot’s ability to “Check Six” (to look behind, often the most likely sector from which an enemy plane will attack). For more on this, check out this link: http://www.pogo.org/our-work/straus-military-reform-project/weapons/2015/leaked-f-35-report-confirms-deficiencies.html.
Given its design flaws, which stem from compromises made at the very beginning of the program, the F-35 is not a “next generation” fighter — it’s a lost generation, a step backwards, and a very expensive one at that.
Update 14 (9/25/15): Satire is often good at revealing uncomfortable truths. Here’s a golden example from Duffel Blog:
Pentagon Requests 500 Gold-Plated F-35s
The Pentagon released a report today requesting Congressional authorization for 500 gold-plated F-35 fighter planes.
The F-35 Lightning II is a fifth-generation multirole stealth fighter intended to replace numerous aging aircraft, including the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The F-35 program has been fraught with problems, including numerous delays, cost overruns, and failure to deliver on promised operational performance.
The new variant, dubbed the F-35G, is proposed as an upgrade over existing F-35 models. In addition to 24K gold plating encasing its exterior, its cockpit is trimmed with wood grain paneling harvested from the endangered African blackwood tree and leather upholstery from the hide of the northern white rhinoceros. Its GAU-12/A 25mm rotary cannon is able to fire solid platinum rounds at a rate of 3300 per minute. Each round is handcrafted by a Swiss jeweler.
“In an ever-evolving battlefield, it is imperative to have a military equipped with tactical vehicles that offer versatility, adaptability, and mother of pearl ice buckets to keep champagne bottles cold during missions,” reads the Pentagon report. “Our service men and women deserve to fly in only the finest combat aircraft.”
Each F-35G unit is projected to cost 8.2 billion dollars, approximately twice the average annual GDP of some of the countries it is expected to bomb. The total cost, including development, procurement, operation, and sustainment, will top $15 trillion over the life of the program.
While most on Capitol Hill are interested in fulfilling the Pentagon’s request, there is heated debate on how best to pay for it.
“This program can easily be funded by eliminating Medicare,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), at a luncheon co-sponsored by Lockheed Martin and Newmont Mining Corp. “Eliminating Medicare will also have the second-order effect of slashing Social Security costs by culling the nation’s senior citizen population.”
The White House was quick to dismiss Ryan’s proposal.
“We’re not going to end anyone’s free lunch,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. “President Obama has instead proposed funding the program with a 5% tax hike on the wealthiest 1% of Americans.”
“Also, President Obama is not very good at math,” he added.
While most on Capitol Hill are supportive, some naysayers continue to offer criticism. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has remained vocal in his staunch opposition to the F-35 program.
“There is nothing a gold-plated F-35 can do in close air support that can’t be done better by a silver-plated A-10,” he opined.
It also remains to be seen if the F-35G’s combat performance will be able to deliver on the program’s promises. At present, the added weight from the gold plating has prevented the F-35G from achieving flight. Its first test was a disaster, as the prototype F-35G rolled straight through the end of the test runway and careened into oncoming traffic on a nearby highway, resulting in 12 fatalities.
“Slight tweaks to the design are still required, however it is clear that the F-35G is the future of United States combat aviation,” the report concluded.
Update 15 (1/27/18): The F-35 continues to suffer serious teething pains, notes this report at breakingdefense.com. From the article:
Here’s what the new DOTE, Robert Behler, says about the F-35 Joint Strike fighter in his office’s latest annual report:
The operational suitability of the F-35 fleet remains below requirements and is dependent on work-arounds that would not meet Service expectations in combat situations (emphasis added). Over the previous year, most suitability metrics have remained nearly the same, or have moved only within narrow bands which are insufficient to characterize a change in performance.
Overall fleet-wide monthly availability rates remain around 50 percent, a condition that has existed with no significant improvement since October 2014, despite the increasing number of new aircraft. One notable trend is an increase in the percentage of the fleet that cannot fly while awaiting replacement parts – indicated by the Not Mission Capable due to Supply rate.
Update 16 (8/17/19): More teething pains for the F-35. notes Dan Grazier at The American Conservative. Here’s the beginning of his report:
The fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters flying in the critical operational testing phase is struggling to stay airborne, which could delay the troubled program’s great leap forward into mass production.
As I recently reported for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a document from the program’s test force shows that the fleet’s test aircraft, housed at California’s Edwards Air Force Base, have netted an average 11 percent “fully mission capable rate”—the key measure of how often an aircraft can perform all of its assigned missions—since the process began last December.
To put this into context, the Pentagon’s former operational testing director, Michael Gilmore, has said the fleet needs an 80 percent availability rate to successfully complete the combat-testing phase.
The F-35, by the way, is already the most expensive weapons system in history. As of March, its acquisition price tag was $400 billion. However, the cost of operating and maintaining the fleet over the next several decades stands at an estimated $1.45 trillion.
The 17-year-old program reached an important milestone when, after many delays, officials started the Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) process on December 5, 2018. This is the phase in which the completed product is put through its paces in realistic combat scenarios to determine whether it can fulfill its intended role and is suitable for pilots’ use.
This is supposed to take place after the former design phase. But because the F-35 program hasn’t actually finished the design process, the program effectively created extra obstacles to successful completion of this legally required testing phase. That the test fleet struggles even to get off the ground only compounds these challenges …