America’s “Beautiful” Weapons

a-10-thunderbolt-ii_001
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

W.J. Astore

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.

A Revealing Moment at the Democratic National Convention

no more war
Honest passion at the DNC

W.J. Astore

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.

Update (7/28):

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.

Drone Casualties: The New Body Count (Updated)

predator
A method of war, not a strategy

W.J. Astore

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.

Random Thoughts on Death, Dying, and the Reality of America’s Wars

Jarecke's photo of a dead Iraqi was considered too disturbing to publish in America
Kenneth Jarecke’s 1991 photo of a dead Iraqi was considered too disturbing to publish in America

W.J. Astore

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?

The F-35 Fighter Program: America Going Down in Flames

f35
W.J. Astore

This past weekend, 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: 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.]

Coddled indeed!

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.

The Temptations of Drone Warfare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

W. J. Astore