In the South Carolina primary won on Saturday by Joe Biden, Tulsi Gabbard earned only 1.3% of the vote. Her poor showing was due in part to her outcast status among the Democratic establishment joined by mainstream media outlets like MSNBC and CNN. Speaking of CNN, I caught a few minutes of coverage last night during which its commentators confessed they couldn’t understand why Tulsi was still running. (Update: See my comment below for more details on this exchange.) One person (Anderson Cooper, the weasel) suggested she was angling for a job with Fox News. Of course, Tulsi’s principled opposition to regime-change wars and other disastrous U.S. foreign policy decisions went unmentioned. When her name is mentioned by the corporate-owned media, it’s usually in the context of the candidate most likely to succeed – in Russia.
By running in the election, Tulsi Gabbard continues to make an invaluable contribution: She highlights the power of the military-industrial-Congressional-media complex and its rejection of any candidate willing to challenge it. Gabbard’s status as a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard, her service in Congress on the House Armed Services Committee, her military deployments to Iraq: all of this is downplayed or dismissed. Meanwhile, Mayor Pete’s brief stint in Afghanistan is celebrated as the height of military service. What’s the difference between them? Mayor Pete plays ball with big donors and parrots talking points of the Complex – Tulsi doesn’t.
In a recent op-ed for The Hill, Tulsi yet again does America a service by calling out red baiting in America’s elections. Here’s how her op-ed begins:
Reckless claims by anonymous intelligence officials that Russia is “helping” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are deeply irresponsible. So was former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s calculated decision Tuesday to repeat this unsubstantiated accusation on the debate stage in South Carolina. Enough is enough. I am calling on all presidential candidates to stop playing these dangerous political games and immediately condemn any interference in our elections by out-of-control intelligence agencies.
A “news article” published last week in The Washington Post, which set off yet another manufactured media firestorm, alleges that the goal of Russia is to trick people into criticizing establishment Democrats. This is a laughably obvious ploy to stifle legitimate criticism and cast aspersions on Americans who are rightly skeptical of the powerful forces exerting control over the primary election process. We are told the aim of Russia is to “sow division,” but the aim of corporate media and self-serving politicians pushing this narrative is clearly to sow division of their own — by generating baseless suspicion against the Sanders campaign.
Tulsi is right here – and she’s right when she says that:
The American people have the right to know this information in order to put Russia’s alleged “interference” into proper perspective. It is a mystery why the Intelligence Community would want to hide these details from us. Instead it is relying on highly dubious and vague insinuations filtered through its preferred media outlets, which seem designed to create a panic rather than actually inform the public about a genuine threat.
All this does is undermine voters’ trust in our elections, which is what we are constantly told is the goal of Russia.
She also accurately notes how the “corporate media will do everything they can to turn the general election into a contest of who is going to be ‘tougher’ on Russia. This tactic is necessary to propagandize the American people into shelling over their hard-earned tax dollars to the Pentagon to fund the highly lucrative nuclear arms race that the military-industrial complex craves.”
Tulsi Gabbard may not be in the democratic race much longer, but that’s not because she lacks guts. Indeed, her willingness to buck the system – and her commitment to making the world a less militaristic place – make her a notable candidate. She’s been a noble voice crying in a corrupt and self-serving wilderness.
You can always count on the Pentagon to come up with jargon that unleashes hubris. When I was in the Air Force, it was all about “global reach, global power.” I also heard about “full-spectrum dominance.” Now the latest buzzword is “All-Domain Operations.” “All-domain” means land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace, which are supposed to be integrated by computers, with information being shared at the speed of light, or close to it. The U.S. military will know so much, be so nimble, and act in such a coordinated fashion that its rivals and enemies won’t have a chance.
This is what the Vice-Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to say about this:
“we’ll have a significant advantage over everybody in the world for a long time, because it’s the ability to integrate and effectively command and control all domains in a conflict or in a crisis seamlessly — and we don’t know how to do that. Nobody knows how to do that.”
I’ve been hearing about “seamless” and “global” integration for a long time, and it’s never going to happen. War is fundamentally messy, chaotic, a realm of chance, influenced by what Clausewitz termed “fog and friction,” and of course the enemy rarely reacts in ways that are predictable. No matter. A “global” vision of “all-domain” dominance has the virtue of justifying enormous defense budgets, so it’s likely here to stay.
As an aside, I do like the way the term has grown like Topsy, according to this report:
“Breaking Defense readers have seen these ideas evolve rapidly over the last few years, with even the terminology becoming ever more ambitious, from Multi-Domain Battleto Multi-Domain Operations to All-Domain Operations.”
Yes — who wants only multi-domain battles when you can have all-domain operations? Let’s show some ambition here!
Note how in this vision, there’s no talk of national defense or of upholding the U.S. Constitution. It’s all about power projection in the cause of dominance. It’s an enabler to forever war — one that will be increasingly driven by computers.
What could possibly go wrong with such a vision?
One thing is likely: if there’s ever a war of hubristic buzzwords in the future, the Pentagon might finally have a fighting chance.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I tackle the U.S. military and its self-defeating nature when it comes to wars overseas. But there is a “war” that the military-industrial complex truly is winning handily, even overwhelmingly, and that’s the one for money and power within and across American society. Put differently, when it comes to winning hearts and minds, the military fails spectacularly overseas but succeeds brilliantly here in the “homeland.”
Consider only one example: America’s major sporting events. Each one has now become a military celebration. At the Super Bowl this past weekend, four 100-year-old military veterans from World War II were the centerpiece of this year’s opening ceremonies (ostensibly to mark the 75th anniversary of the ending of that war in 1945, as well as the 100th year of the NFL), and of course no event is complete without military colorguards, saluting troops, and a loud flyover by combat jets at the close of the national anthem. This is all accepted as “normal” and patriotic, the very mundanity of which illustrates the triumph of the military-industrial complex in our lives.
What follows is an excerpt from my article from TomDispatch:
The Future Is What It Used to Be
Long ago, New York Yankee catcher and later manager Yogi Berra summed up what was to come this way: “The future ain’t what it used to be.” And it wasn’t. We used to dream, for example, of flying cars, personal jetpacks, liberating robots, and oodles of leisure time. We even dreamed of mind-bending trips to Jupiter, as in Stanley Kubrick’s epic film2001: A Space Odyssey. Like so much else we imagined, those dreams haven’t exactly panned out.
Yet here’s an exception to Berra’s wisdom: strangely enough, for the U.S. military, the future is predictably just what it used to be. After all, the latest futuristic vision of America’s military leaders is — hold onto your Kevlar helmets — a “new” cold war with its former communist rivals Russia and China. And let’s add in one other aspect of that military’s future vision: wars, as they see it, are going to be fought and settled with modernized (and ever more expensive) versions of the same old weapons systems that carried us through much of the mid-twentieth century: ever more pricey aircraft carriers, tanks, and top of the line jet fighters and bombers with — hey! — maybe a few thoroughly destabilizing tactical nukes thrown in, along with plenty of updated missiles carried by planes of an ever more “stealthy” and far more expensive variety. Think: the F-35 fighter, the most expensive weapons system in history (so far) and the B-21 bomber.
For such a future, of course, today’s military hardly needs to change at all, or so our generals and admirals argue. For example, yet more ships will, of course, be needed. The Navy high command is already clamoring for 355 of them, while complaining that the record-setting $738 billion Pentagon budget for 2020 is too “tight” to support such a fleet.
Not to be outdone when it comes to complaints about “tight” budgets, the Air Force is arguing vociferously that it needs yet more billions to build a “fleet” of planes that can wage two major wars at once. Meanwhile, the Army is typically lobbying for a new armored personnel carrier (to replace the M2 Bradley) that’s so esoteric insiders joke it will have to be made of “unobtainium.”
In short, no matter how much money the Trump administration and Congress throw at the Pentagon, it’s a guarantee that the military high command will only complain that more is needed, including for nuclear weapons to the tune of possibly $1.7 trillion over 30 years. But doubling down on more of the same, after a record 75 years of non-victories (not to speak of outright losses), is more than stubbornness, more than grift. It’s obdurate stupidity.
Why, then, does it persist? The answer would have to be because this country doesn’t hold its failing military leaders accountable. Instead, it applauds them and promotes them, rewarding them when they retire with six-figure pensions, often augmented by cushy jobs with major defense contractors. Given such a system, why should America’s generals and admirals speak truth to power? They are power and they’ll keep harsh and unflattering truths to themselves, thank you very much, unless they’re leaked by heroes like Daniel Ellsberg during the Vietnam War and Chelsea Manning during the Iraq War, or pried from them via a lawsuit like the one by the Washington Post that recently led to those Afghanistan Papers.
My Polish mother-in-law taught me a phrase that translates as, “Don’t say nothin’ to nobody.” When it comes to America’s wars and their true progress and prospects, consider that the official dictum of Pentagon spokespeople. Yet even as America’s wars sink into Vietnam-style quagmires, the money keeps flowing, especially to high-cost weapons programs.
Consider my old service, the Air Force. As one defense news site put it, “Congressional appropriators gave the Air Force [and Lockheed Martin] a holiday gift in the 2019 spending agreement… $1.87 billion for 20 additional F-35s and associated spare parts.” The new total just for 2020 is “98 aircraft — 62 F-35As, 16 F-35Bs, and 20 F-35Cs — at the whopping cost of $9.3 billion, crowning the F-35 as the biggest Pentagon procurement program ever.” And that’s not all. The Air Force (and Northrop Grumman) got another gift as well: $3 billion more to be put into its new, redundant, B-21 stealth bomber. Even much-beleaguered Boeing, responsible for the disastrous 737 MAX program, got a gift: nearly a billion dollars for the revamped F-15EX fighter, a much-modified version of a plane that first flew in the early 1970s. Yet, despite those gifts, Air Force officials continue to claim with straight faces that the service is getting the “short straw” in today’s budgetary battles in the Pentagon.
What does this all mean? One obvious answer would be: the only truly winning battles for the Pentagon are the ones for our taxpayer dollars.
Inspired by three recent articles at TomDispatch.com, I’d like to suggest why America’s wars never end.
The first article marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is by James Carroll. It brought me back to when I was a young Air Force captain on active duty. All of us in the military were surprised when the wall came down. Soon the Soviet Union would collapse as well. I know because I got a certificate signed by President G.H.W. Bush congratulating us for winning the Cold War.
In the early 1990s there was much talk about a New World Order (largely undefined) and a Peace Dividend. The “new” world order quickly became global military adventurism for the U.S. and the peace dividend withered as Desert Shield/Storm and other operations commenced.
I recall some personnel cuts, but no real cuts in weaponry. And no change to strategy. NATO remained even though the Warsaw Pact had dissolved. Indeed, NATO would soon be expanded (in the cause of peace, naturally), even as U.S. imperial ambitions grew. It was the “end of history” and the U.S. had triumphed, or so we thought.
But why had we triumphed? Apparently the lesson our leaders took from it was that military strength was the key to our triumph, therefore more of the same would lead to new triumphs. Pax Americana was not about democracy or freedom: it was about weapons and wars. Peace through military strength (and destruction) was the driving philosophy.
Unbounded ambition and unbridled power – that was the new world order for America. The wall came down in Berlin, but it didn’t come down in our minds. Instead of an open society, Fortress America became the norm.
The second article is by Allegra Harpootlian and focuses on the “collateral damage” (murdered innocents) of America’s global bombing and drone campaigns. It made me think of a conversation I had with a student; he’d been in the U.S. Army and fought in Afghanistan. Basically, he described it as a dirt-poor country with a primitiveness that seemed Biblical to him. He got me thinking about how we “see” people like the Iraqis and Afghans as less than us. Different. Inferior. Primitive. From another time, and from another place.
So, when Americans kill civilians in those places, it’s almost like it’s cinematic, not real, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” We just move on.
Of course, Americans are not encouraged to be empathetic people. The world is supposed to revolve around us. “You can have it all.” In a world of selfies, why care about others? Look out for #1!
To put a bow on this, consider evangelical Christianity and the prosperity gospel. (The idea God will reward you with material goods and money as a sign of righteousness.) Remember when charity to others was valued? Not anymore.
Another way of putting this: In America there’s a huge market for self-help books, videos, etc. But where are the books and videos encouraging us to help others?
The third article is by Andrew Bacevich and specifically addresses the never-ending nature of America’s wars. His piece made me think of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who as a presidential candidate has called for an end to regime-change wars (though not the war on terror). For her pains, she’s been accused of being a Russian asset by Hillary Clinton & Company.
Why is this? Because there’s just so much money – literally trillions of dollars – at stake here, and the military-industrial-congressional complex knows how to protect itself.
The Complex offers or supports hundreds of thousands of decent-paying jobs, building weapons, staffing think tanks, and so forth. President Trump may have voiced some skepticism about America’s failed and failing wars, yet he keeps giving the Pentagon more money. Hence the wars will continue, no matter what sounds come out of Trump’s mouth.
As Tom Engelhardt has noted, for the Pentagon, failure is success. Naval accidents mean the Navy needs more money. Failed wars mean the military needs more money to replace weaponry, “modernize,” and prepare for the next round. Defeat is victory, as in more money.
To recap, America’s wars persist because a martial imperialism is our new world order; because we have limited empathy for others, especially darker-skinned “primitives”; and because war is simply a thriving business, the Washington way to rule.
Here’s a final, bonus, reason America’s wars persist: thoughtfulness is not valued by the U.S. military. Another “t” word is: toughness. The U.S. military would rather be strong and wrong than smart and right.
For all the “think” tanks we have inside the Washington beltway, what matters more than thought is toughness. Action. Making the other guy whimper and cry, to cite President Trump. This is yet another reason why America loses. We prefer to act first, then (grudgingly) think, then act some more.
Here I think of U.S. officer performance reports, which also stress action, results, even when the results are “fragile,” “reversible,” or even made up. How many officers have been promoted on pacification campaigns that pacified no one? On training efforts, e.g. for the Iraqi Army, that trained no one? On battles or skirmishes “won” that had no staying power? Remember that Petraeus Surge in Iraq?
In a nutshell, perhaps we wage war without end simply because we want to. We’ll stop when we wake up from our madness – or when someone makes us stop.
Last night witnessed another scrum among the top twelve Democratic challengers. It wasn’t really a debate since each candidate only had a minute or two to respond to questions. I’ve seen headlines describing the debate as “the moderates versus the progressives,” with the usual scorecards about which candidates “won” and “lost,” but I don’t think any candidate “won.” And it was the American people who clearly lost.
First, what was missing. There was no serious discussion of U.S. foreign policy, of America’s military-industrial complex and colossal “defense” budgets, or of climate change. The situation in Syria was discussed in the context of President Trump’s alleged betrayal of the Kurds, but that was all. There was no discussion about nuclear weapons and their proliferation (and America’s decision to “modernize” our arsenal at a cost of at least a trillion dollars). There was no discussion of America’s overseas empire of 800 military bases. There was no serious discussion about ending the Afghan War, or the enormous cost of America’s wars since 9/11.
So, what was discussed? Trump’s impeachment, of course. Medicare for all versus “choice.” A woman’s right to control her own body (obviously a very important subject). How and whether to change the Supreme Court. Taxes. Guns. Tech monopolies. Opioid abuse and holding drug companies responsible for the same. Even Ellen’s friendship with George W. Bush.
CNN and the New York Times sponsored the debate, hence they controlled the questions. The initial goal seemed to be to get Elizabeth Warren to admit she’d have to raise taxes to pay for her Medicare plan. She largely ducked the issue, insisting the rich and corporations would pay for it. Another question raised the specter of Bernie Sanders’s health after his recent heart attack, and also of Joe Biden’s age, i.e. that if he’s elected, he’ll turn 80 while he’s in office. It was that kind of “debate.”
Speaking of Joe Biden, he didn’t perform well in this debate. He often misspoke and his answers drifted off course. I can see why the smart money is gravitating toward Elizabeth Warren.
Another person who suffered from the debate format was Tulsi Gabbard. Few questions were directed her way, and she was often ignored or cut off as she tried to speak. Her attempt to challenge Elizabeth Warren on her qualifications to be commander-in-chief went unanswered as CNN cut to commercials. Nice try, Tulsi, but CNN was having none of that.
With respect to Trump and Syria, only Tulsi Gabbard attempted to explain the long history of U.S. involvement in the area, which was, in essence, a regime-change war directed against Bashar al-Assad. (Recall that President Obama in 2015 said that Assad had to go.) But again CNN was having none of that, and Tulsi’s point was left hanging as other candidates babbled about not serving the agenda of Vladimir Putin.
And there you have it: yet another debate from which the American empire and the military-industrial complex emerged as the clear victors.
The current brouhaha in the U.S. Senate (and the larger neocon community) over President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria is a repeat performance of the passion play that the same actors performed earlier this year when Trump first announced his intention to make good on his campaign promise to get our country out of its endless wars. In the leading role for the neocons last time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a speech on the Senate floor on January 19, 2019 excoriating Trump for doing what he told the electorate he would do if he was elected president.
Having been an interloper in our country’s national security state, I know how things work in Washington and the tactics the pro-war political establishment uses to sell the public on its interventionist foreign policy and endless wars. I wrote a book (When Will We Ever Learn?) on this subject based on my personal experiences.
As this drama plays out again, I’ve excerpted passages from my book that reveal the modus operandi the neocons used last time for overruling President Trump in determining U.S. military policy. My critique of Senator McConnell’s speech is as pertinent now in exposing the fallacious thinking underlying the neocons’ current “stay forever” battle cry for Syria as it was in the brawl Trump lost to the neocons earlier this year when he wanted to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan after 18 years. Let’s hope the president learned from that defeat.
It’s now “game on” in round two of this battle. The same players are back. Senator McConnell is even using the word “precipitous” again. Get your popcorn out and let’s see who wins this round in this heavyweight bout.
We’ve already seen [earlier in my book] how the national security state sandbagged a Democrat president in his role as Commander-in-Chief in the conduct of the Afghan war. Let’s now see how Washington elites are trying to sandbag a Republican president in his attempt to end this 18-year long war – despite President Trump’s vow in his presidential campaign and strong public support in the polls for getting all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.
The neocon foreign policy establishment used three of its most prominent members to maintain their control over national security matters: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; President of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Richard Haass; and James Dobbins, Senior Fellow at the Rand Corporation. Mr. Dobbins was the lead author of the 15-page Rand Report dated January 7, 2019, Consequences of a Precipitous U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan. (Take note of the word “precipitous” in this title.)
For those who don’t recognize the name, Rand Corporation is a charter member of the national security state insiders’ club. Military history buffs might recall Rand wrote the Pentagon Papers for the DoD in the late 1960s. They were the War State’s obvious go-to think-tank for this important assignment on Afghan war policy.
First, let’s see what Senator McConnell had to say about President Trump’s decision to start pulling U.S troops out of Afghanistan and Syria. Below are remarks Senator McConnell made on the Senate floor on January 31, 2019.
“Simply put, while it is tempting to retreat to the comfort and security of our own shores, there is still a great deal of work to be done,” McConnell said. “And we know that left untended these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities.”
The United States is not the “world’s policeman,” it is the “leader of the free world” and must continue to lead a global coalition against terrorism and stand by allies engaged in the fight. He also stressed the importance of coordination between the White House and Congress to “develop long-term strategies in both nations, including a thorough accounting of the risks of withdrawing too hastily.”
“My amendment would acknowledge the plain fact that al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their affiliates in Syria and Afghanistan continue to pose a serious threat to our nation.” McConnell said his amendment “would recognize the danger of a precipitous withdrawal from either conflict and highlights the need for diplomatic engagement and political solutions to the underlying conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan.”
Notice the word “precipitous” in the Leader’s remarks. Do you think it’s a coincidence that the title of the Rand Report is Consequences of a Precipitous U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan? Obviously, Mitch got the memo from neocon headquarters.
He even got in the “we’re not the world’s policeman” line. In Washington-speak, this is called “a non-denial denial.” It translates to: “I’m really doing what I say I am not doing, but I can’t admit it, or you would catch on to how duplicitous I am.” I’ve hung around with Washington swamp creatures too long to know that this professed denial is really an affirmation.
The line “we know that left untended these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities” is also classic neocon-speak. It’s meant to scare the public. But what it really does is reveal the flawed logic in their interventionist foreign policy doctrine. The U.S. builds military bases around the world, starts wars, deposes governments, and occupies other countries – this is the interventionist foreign policy Senator McConnell champions as the head neocon in the U.S. Senate. But the local nationals affected by this U.S. militarism don’t like a foreign power meddling in their part of the world, changing their governments, and interfering with their way of life. (Who would?)
The obvious way to avoid blowback “in our cities” is for the U.S. to stop intervening in centuries-old ethnic, religious and territorial disputes in other parts of the world. Not realizing this cause and effect (or simply ignoring it), Senator McConnell’s solution is to “stay the course.” In neocon-speak, this means sending in more troops, intensifying bombing, and increasing extrajudicial drone killings. These actions only worsen the conflicts, causing the U.S. to sink deeper into quagmires.
Predictably, Senator McConnell’s amendment passed the Senate on a 63-28 non-binding vote, proving that bipartisanship isn’t dead in Washington when it comes to authorizing endless wars. This vote just shows how out of touch our elected officials are with the electorate as well as the power of the pro-military and pro-war lobby in Washington.
The other character on the neocon’s tag-team to undercut the President on his Afghan exit plan is Richard Haass, CFR President. Mr. Haass was a senior State Department official in the first term of the Bush administration when the Iraq war began. He’s one of several media savvy spokespersons for the national security state who apparently was charged with getting the word out on the Rand Report and endorsing its conclusion.
On the day after the report came out, Mr. Haass tweeted to his 150,000 followers:
“This report has it right: winning is not an option in Afghanistan (nor is peace) but losing (and renewed terrorism) is if we pull out U.S. forces any time soon. We should stay with smaller numbers and reduced level of activity.” Twitter, January 18, 2019.
In sum, even though there’s no chance of winning, America needs to keep fighting. How do they sell this nonsense?
This was a three-step process. First, the “let’s stay in Afghanistan forever” doctrine was composed by Mr. Dobbins in the Rand Report. It was next preached by CFR President Haass. And finally, it was ordained by Senate Majority Leader McConnell in his speech on the Senate floor with the hallelujah chorus being the 63 “yes” votes for his resolution.
Picking up the trio’s “let’s stay in Afghanistan forever” cue, guest op-eds and editorial board columns appeared in the usual pro-War State newspapers advocating the neocon position. Media talking heads – as semiofficial spokespersons for the Washington national security state – echoed the neocons’ talking points on this issue.
This modius operandi for keeping the national security state in charge of foreign and military policy – and its untouchable $1-trillion-plus/year War State budget– has been going on since the Kennedy presidency. Michael Swanson documents how this takeover evolved in his book War State. Most times, the story being sold (e.g., keep U.S. troops in Syria; stay in NATO after it became obsolete; continue the DoD’s $300-billion unworkable missile-defense program) is a front for the national security state’s real objectives (e.g., maintain U.S. influence in the Middle East to keep Israel’s supporters happy; keep the Cold War alive with Russia as an adversary; and fund make-work projects for defense contractors).
This duplicity is how business is done in Washington. It’s an insiders’ game where what’s good for the American people and U.S. national security is, at best, a secondary consideration. Among the Washington ruling class, what counts most is retaining power by keeping big donors happy. And if that means endless wars, so be it.
Mr. Enzweiler, who served in the US Air Force in the 1970s, has lived and worked extensively in the Middle East, serving seven years (2007-2014) as a field-level civilian advisor for the US government in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now retired, he has written a book (When Will We Ever Learn?) that critiques US foreign and military policy.
My latest article for TomDispatch.com focuses on the F-35 stealth fighter, which is estimated to cost $1.5 trillion over the life of the program. I hope you can read all of the article here; what follows is an extended excerpt on the history of the program. Did you ever notice how Congress never asks where the money is coming from for these incredibly expensive weapons? But ask for money for education, environmental protection, infrastructure, and especially for poor people and Congress starts screaming about the deficit, which is booming under Trump. But there’s always money for weapons! We need to remember that “government” money is our money, and we need to start spending it on priorities that matter to us, not to defense contractors and generals.
A Brief History of the F-35 Program
I first heard of what would become the F-35 in 1995. I was then a captain in the Air Force, working on flight-planning software. I was told that a new Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF, was being developed. The “joint” meant that the Air Force, Navy, and Marines would all use it. Its big selling point at the time was the striking level of anticipated savings expected due to the commonality of the design, of spare parts, and of everything else. (Those in the know then, however, remembered the Pentagon’s previous shot at “jointness,” the TFX program in the 1960s; the resulting plane, the F-111, would be rejected by the Navy and unloved by the Air Force.)
The new JSF was advertised as offering the highest-tech possible at the lowest price imaginable, a fighter that would replace legacy aircraft like the Air Force’s F-16s and A-10s and the Navy’s F-18s. Winning the competition to develop the plane was weapons giant Lockheed Martin and a prototype F-35 Lightning II first took to the skies in 2006, by which time I was already retired from the Air Force. In the 13 years since then, the F-35 has gone through a mind-boggling series of major program delays and setbacks, burning money all the way.
In 2014, the plane’s woeful record finally caught the eye of CBS’s 60 Minutes, which documented how the program was seven years behind schedule and already $163 billion over budget. The Pentagon, however, simply plunged ahead. Its current plan: to buy more than 2,600 F-35s by 2037, with the assumption that their service lives will possibly extend to 2070. In Pentagon terms, think of it as a multi-generational warplane for America’s multi-generational wars.
Five years after that 60 Minutes exposé and 13 years after its first flight, the F-35 unsurprisingly remains mired in controversy. Harper’s Andrew Cockburn recently used it to illustrate what he termed “the Pentagon Syndrome,” the practice of expending enormous sums on weapons of marginal utility. The F-35, he noted, “first saw combat [in 2018], seventeen years after the program began. The Marines sent just six of them on their first deployment to the Middle East, and over several months only managed to fly, on average, one combat sortie per plane every three days. According to the Pentagon’s former chief testing official, had there been opposition, these ‘fighters’ could not have survived without protection from other planes.”
So far, in other words, the F-35 has had an abysmally low rate of availability. Technically speaking, it remains in “initial operational testing and evaluation,” during which, as defense journalist Dan Grazier has noted, it achieved a “fully mission capable rate” of just 11% in its combat testing phase. (The desired goal before going into full production is 80%, which is, in a sense, all you need to know about the “success” of that aircraft so many years later.) Compounding those dreadful percentages is another grim reality: the F-35’s design isn’t stable and its maintenance software has been a buggy nightmare, meaning the testers are, in a sense, trying to evaluate a moving and messy target.
These and similar problems led President Trump and former acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to push possible alternatives to the F-35 as a way of pressuring Lockheed Martin to improve its performance. In December 2016, before he even entered the Oval Office, for example, Trump tweeted about building F-18 Super Hornets in place of the F-35. Later, Shanahan advocated for an updated version of the venerable F-15 Eagle, made by Boeing, a company for which he had only recently been a senior executive. But the president’s tweets have moved on, as has Shanahan, and Lockheed Martin continues to hold all the cards. For the Pentagon, it’s still the F-35 or bust.
Unsurprisingly, the president has changed his tune, enthusing that the F-35 is invisible (“You literally can’t see it”) rather than merely difficult to detect on radar. (He has also referred to Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, as Marillyn Lockheed.) The main selling point of the F-35 is indeed its stealth technology, marking it as a “fifth generation” fighter when compared to the older F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, and A-10s, which are decidedly unstealthy and radar detectable. Primarily because of such technology, the Pentagon argues that the F-35 will prove far more “survivable” than previous warplanes in any future conflict with Russia, China, or some other country equipped with sophisticated radars and surface-to-air missiles.
Yet such stealthiness comes at a real cost and not just in monetary terms. To maintain its stealthy profile, the F-35 must carry its weaponry internally, limiting its load and destructive power compared to “fourth generation” planes like the A-10 and F-15. It must also rely on an internal fuel system, which will limit its range in battle, while its agility in air-to-air combat seems poor compared to older fighters like the F-16. (The Pentagon counters, unconvincingly, that the F-35 wasn’t designed for such dogfighting.)
As a former Air Force project engineer and historian of technology and warfare, here’s my take on the F-35 program today: in trying to build an aircraft to meet the diverse requirements of three services, Lockheed Martin has produced a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none albatross. Each military service piled requirements onto the F-35, as ever more esoteric features were added, including that stealth capability; special software featuring eight million lines of code; unique (and wildly expensive) helmets for its pilots; and vertical landing/short takeoff capacity for the Marines, which led to an airframe design that made it ever less maneuverable for the Air Force and Navy. The result: perhaps the classic example of a plane that is far less than the sum of its staggeringly expensive parts.
To get more specific, consider the mission of close air support, or CAS, which means supporting troops in or near combat. The best and most survivable plane for such a role remains the one specifically designed for it: the unglamorous A-10 Warthog, which ground troops love but Air Force officialdom hates (because it was designed in response to Army, not Air Force, needs). By comparison, the F-35, which is supposed to fill the A-10’s role, simply isn’t designed for such a mission. It’s too fast, meaning its loiter time over targets is severely limited; its weapons load is inadequate; it has only one engine, making it more vulnerable to ground fire; and its (malfunctioning) gun lacks punch. (It also costs twice as much to fly.) Despite all this, the Air Force continues to advocate for the F-35 in a CAS role, even as it grudgingly re-wings A-10s to extend their lives.
And keep in mind as well that, if you want an attack platform that can loiter for hours, while removing all risk to pilots, why not just use already existing drones like the military’s Reapers? Who even needs an expensive F-35 stealth fighter? To these and similar criticisms the Pentagon responds that it’s fifth generation! It’s new! It’s stealthy! It’s a game-changer! It scares the Russians and Chinese! And if those answers don’t work, there’s always that old standby: tell me why you hate our troops!
Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin’s profits are soaring as that company and the Pentagon sell the F-35 to allies around the world. Despite its delays, cost overruns, and performance issues, it’s still being promoted as America’s latest and greatest. Foreign military sales have the added benefit of driving down per-unit costs for the Pentagon, even as politicians tout the F-35 as a huge job creator. In short, with no alternative in sight, Lockheed Martin remains top gun in the Pentagon’s cockpit (Eat your heart out, Tom Cruise!), with virtually guaranteed profits for the next half-century.