21st Century stories

This — not the social nonsense that seems to permeate our country — is what I was hoping for in the new millennium:

SpaceX completed an unprecedented 19th launch this year on Monday, while putting a U.S. record 64 satellites in orbit at once.

Additionally, SpaceX made history as the first company to fly the same orbital-class rocket three times. This Falcon 9 rocket’s large first stage, also known as the “booster,” launched and landed twice before, in May and August. Reusing rockets is key to Elon Musk’s space company, which hopes to make humanity “a multiplanetary species.”

SpaceX now dominates the global market of orbital rocket launches. Earlier this year, it debuted the Falcon 9 Block 5: The most advanced version of the workhorse rocket. Each Falcon 9 Block 5 “is capable of at least 100 flights,” Musk said in May. The billionaire entrepreneur said the SpaceX plans for Falcon 9 to be able to launch, land and launch again in 24 hours as early as next year.

The erstwhile astronaut in my inner child smiles… and continues to hope the price of a commercial ticket to space will one day be within grasp.

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Sounding a Mayday

A new memoir by retired Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz revisits the decision by then-Secretary Robert Gates to shut down the F-22 Raptor production line well short of the service’s calculated minimum operational requirement.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been tremendously expensive for the United States, both in lives and money.  As time goes on, we may find the largest cost of those conflicts was to cause such an intense focus on counterinsurgency warfare that our higher-end capabilities were allowed to atrophy.  Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has considered Russia and China “near peer competitors” — in short, not quite the superpower America is.  That situation is changing more rapidly than many planners anticipated even a decade ago.  China fielded its first operational stealth aircraft years before expected.  While they are still having some growing pains, this development invalidated some of the reasoning behind shutting down the F-22 — that the U.S. Air Force was largely untouchable.

…Schwartz’s predecessor General Mike Moseley “never gave up in his principled attempts to get those 381 F-22s” the book states. That push ended up getting Moseley fired along with his civilian counterpart, Air Force Secretary Mike Wynn. After the culling, the brass thought that the new bomber was simply too important and that the chances of winning both the F-22 and bomber arguments with Gates, who was staunchly averse to building high-priced weapons that couldn’t be used in Iraq or Afghanistan, was next to zero.

Schwartz, in an attempt to see if a reduced F-22 production number would be palatable to the Defense Secretary, executed an independent assessment that ended up stating 243 F-22s was the absolute minimum the force could get by with. But Gates balked at that number as well.

In the end, the production line was shut down after only 188 Raptors were built.  The F-22 is designed to ensure air supremacy by sweeping adversaries’ aircraft from the skies.  For context, it is assuming that role from the 1970s-vintage F-15 Eagle, of which the Air Force procured nearly 900 over the decades since its debut.  That number does not include the 225 F-15E “Strike Eagles” specially designed with more focus on ground attack missions than air-to-air operations.  The F-15 production line continues to operate today, fielding orders from major U.S. allies more than a dozen years after the United States bought its last Eagle.

In short, the U.S. bought far too few Raptors, and now has no option to build more (the production line having been dismantled).  The Air Force was able to replenish its F-15 fleet over the years, purchasing newer aircraft and retiring older airframes.  This will not be an option for the F-22 design, as reopening production is cost-prohibitive.  As a result of this shortfall, the Air Force has kept a large number of F-15s in service as teammates to the Raptor.  But this generates the cost of maintaining four distinct fighter platforms: the F-22, the F-15, the smaller F-16 (most known for its use by the Thunderbird Demonstration Team), and the new F-35 attack aircraft.  The F-15 and F-16 were built concurrently as a “high-low” mix: a smaller number of highly capable F-15s to defeat enemy air forces, and considerably more of the less capable (and less expensive) F-16s to operate in a mostly “permissive” environment.  The same approach was intended for the F-22 and F-35.  With the premature closure of the F-22 line, the Air Force has to choose between keeping the F-15s around longer (adding to budget strain), or shifting some of their air superiority mission to the larger (but less capable) F-16 fleet until sufficient numbers of stealthy F-35s are flying.

This was not the first time the U.S. shot itself in the foot while buying a major aircraft system.  The B-2 bomber, which critics love to point out cost more per unit than any aircraft in history, was originally supposed to be a fleet of 100 aircraft.  Rattled by the program cost at a time the Cold War was winding down, Congress funding the Air Force for only 21 (of which only 19 are in operation today).  After 9/11 the system proved far more versatile than its original mission of nuclear combat with the Soviet Union, flying incredibly long missions non-stop from the U.S. to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere.  Instead of 16 nuclear weapons, the aircraft can carry up to 80 satellite-guided 500-pound bombs, accurately hitting scores of targets on each mission.  Such capability creates high demand, but with such a small fleet these demands have worn out the B-2 force and the Air Force is scrambling to produce a replacement system as mentioned in the book excerpt above.  It’s arguable an original fleet of 100 aircraft would have reduced or eliminated the need for another design procurement this soon.

But such is the “penny-wise, pound-foolish” ways of government acquisition.  The F-22 and B-2 are arguably the most advanced and capable aircraft ever built — and no more of either can be produced because the facilities have shut down.  It has been 65 years since an American soldier was lost to enemy airpower — in 1953, during the Korean War.  Three generations of military planners have been able to reasonably assume the U.S. would control the skies in any conflict they foresaw.

Our investment decisions in recent years may soon call that assumption into serious question.  Penny-wise, pound-foolish is bad, but not nearly as bad as penny-wise, blood-foolish.

A scary situation

Since it’s Halloween, everyone’s focused on spooky things.  Here’s a spooky thought: the U.S. national security strategy is “insolvent:”

Too few resources are chasing too many ongoing operations, forward presence commitments, and potential conflicts. U.S. military leaders have been unanimous in warning that they do not have enough troops, equipment, or funding to execute the national defense strategy. … There aren’t enough available dollars to sustain the current U.S. military strategy, which aims to simultaneously keep American global posture intact, conduct an ongoing military campaign against ISIL, sustain a global counterterrorism effort in its 16th year, and be ready for multiple contingencies against highly capable regional challengers.

Much like Maverick from the movie Top Gun, whose ego was accused of “writing checks your body can’t cash,” the United States after World War Two extended its umbrella of protection across the world, underwriting the security of what became known as the “free world.”  While that may have been appropriate (debatable) at a time when our economy represented nearly half of the world’s Gross Domestic Product, it is untenable now that our government borrows 10 to 20 percent of its annual budget, and rising interest rates make servicing the debt one of the fastest-growing Federal expenditures.

Russia.  China.  Iran.  North Korea.  Islamic terrorism.  Border security.  It’s essential the U.S. prioritize the threats (and in the case of Russia, perhaps take action to live less in conflict with other great powers).  Trump was right on the campaign trail to say that many of our allies (*cough* Europe *cough*) need to shoulder a greater portion of the burden of their own defense.  When we’re playing Twister with our national power to try to cover U.S. interests, it makes no sense to be subsidizing others at the same time.

Our current global posture is in many ways a bluff… and our potential adversaries know it.  That creates both uncertainty and potential adventurism.  It’s time our stated objectives and our commitment to maintaining them were brought back into balance.

But instead of just spending more on the military, maybe we should stop writing so many checks.

“[America} goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.  She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.  She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” – John Quincy Adams. 1821

 

“Why has America stopped winning wars?”

This is a worthwhile read from Atlantic magazine:

…From 1846 to 1945, the United States had a minuscule peacetime army but won almost every major campaign. After World War II, Washington constructed the most expensive military machine that ever existed and endured seven decades of martial frustration.

Indeed, power is part of the reason the United States loses. After 1945, America’s newfound strength created a constant temptation to use force (emphasis added), and projected U.S. forces into distant conflicts. But Washington chose an unfortunate moment to discover its inner interventionist. The nature of global warfare changed in ways that made military campaigns ugly at best and unwinnable at worst…

America’s material strength has another curse. For a global hegemon like the United States, each war is just one of many competing security commitments around the world. For the enemy, however, the conflict is a life-and-death contest that occupies its entire attention. It’s limited war for Americans, and total war for those fighting Americans. The United States has more power; its foes have more willpower.

Two thoughts:

1) All the material advantages in the world can be useless if there is not a coherent strategy that aligns means and ways with ends.  In nearly all of the recent conflicts that have turned sour, it is difficult to identify a comprehensible–and achievable–goal that could serve as an endpoint toward which our resources could logically be used.  Regardless whether a conflict is a massive conventional struggle of state against state, or the now-more-common issue of fighting various non-state or quasi-state actors (i.e. ISIS), unless you know–and can articulate–what your desired end state is, you’ll never get there.

2) The recent escalations of tension with both Russia and China are both unnecessary (another result of America’s interventionist attitudes since 1945), and if we aren’t careful, could prove a disastrous temptation.  After the frustrations of fighting Viet Cong, then Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and now ISIS, no doubt many yearn for the “simpler” times of industrialized warfare between functioning nation-states.  Frustrations aside, all one need do is look at the costs of the Second World War and the Cold War versus our long national nightmares in Iraq and Afghanistan to realize that, as Billy Joel put it, “the good old days weren’t always good…”  Let’s hope nobody provokes World War III while quoting Han Solo: “bring it on; I prefer a straight up fight to all this sneaking around.”

What America REALLY needs to do is realize it is not omniscient, nor omnipotent, and that our continued delusions of remaking the world in our image have only led to us becoming more like the rest of the world (including importing large quantities of refugees from our various wars of choice), and squandering all that once made us unique.  Our poor choices have cost us much respect and prestige, not to mention considerable blood, treasure and the rise of ever-increasing government power (remember: “War is the health of the State”).  Instead of following the 1990s view of the hawkish first female Secretary of State, Madeline Albright (“What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”), we should recall the council of the Greek historian Thucydides: “Of all the manifestations of power, restraint impresses men the most.”

Yes, it’s come to this

Tired of incoherent foreign policy?  How about demanding a reassertion of the Constitutional restriction that ONLY the Congress can declare a war — and that this should only happen after a reasonable explanation to the American people of the causes for, and objectives of, such a venture.  Otherwise we’re likely to continue having Presidents who win Nobel Peace Prizes before bombing multiple countries during their reign tenure, and claiming not to have “boots on the ground” while leaving plenty of footprints.

Whose side are we on

The power of one…

…or, “why America can’t use military force effectively anymore.”  I was recently asked my take on the resumption of airstrikes in Iraq, this time on ISIS forces.  I wish to put my thoughts–such as they are–in a broader context of how we decide to fight.

“The President is right to provide humanitarian relief to the Iraqi civilians stranded on Mount Sinjar and to authorize military strikes against ISIS forces that are threatening them, our Kurdish allies, and our own personnel in northern Iraq. However, these actions are far from sufficient to meet the growing threat that ISIS poses. We need a strategic approach, not just a humanitarian one,” [Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham] said in a statement. ““We need to get beyond a policy of half measures. The President needs to devise a comprehensive strategy to degrade ISIS.”

The article quoted above (the entirety of which I recommend for your consideration) points out that even before World War II, presidents committed American forces to a series of “small wars” in many nations.  That doesn’t mean they were right (or had the right) to do so.  Those same ‘small wars’ were the backdrop that drove Marine Major General Smedley Butler, a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor, to conclude in 1935 that “war is a racket.”  I would argue that our tendency for overseas meddling has only grown since 1945, as has a highly unconstitutional–and dangerous–deference to the President’s role as “Commander in Chief.”  That role is an executive one, not a legislative one.  No one person should be able to commit the nation to a war of choice.  It is one thing to repel an invasion (something else we seem to be having trouble with these days).  It’s quite another to launch one.  Consider the fact that President Obama is the fourth president in a row to commence a new round of military actions in Iraq!

As currently conducted by the United States, I have to conclude Smedley Butler has a key point about war.  And as much as I highly disdain the tendency of McCain and Graham to cheerlead overseas adventurism they, too, make a point: that America does not pursue long-term strategy.  Instead, we as a nation tend to knee-jerk our way through the violent side of foreign policy, from “firing a $2 million missile at a $10 tent” to “hit a camel in the butt,” to targeted “regime change actions” (Libya, 2011), to full-scale invasions of other countries (Afghanistan, 2001; Iraq, 2003).  In these cases, Congress either stood by or unconstitutionally deferred its powers to the President to commit the nation to force without a solid understanding, much less discussion or public acknowledgement of what is required of the full range of national power in order to achieve sustained results worth the cost in lives, material and national reputation.

In short, we’re really good at “release the hounds.”  We have lost the ability, however, to tie that choice of violence and death to long-term gains in national security.  America has lost much of its moral standing in the world because of this.  The makers of those $2 million missiles, or the enormously expensive platforms used to deliver them, are the real winners in this chaos.  They need not worry about whether the use of their product results in a more just peace.  Quite the opposite — they benefit most when things are kept at a slow boil, requiring a relatively stable demand of such gadgets.  What’s not to like about the business model?  The public gets to cheer at the 6 o’clock news that “America is doing something;” military and civilian leaders get to look “strong;” the defense contractors earn more money, and life goes on.

Except for those who have to live with the realities our policies create.

I’m not an America-hater or a pacifist–in fact, I’m as far from them as one can be.  What I am is extremely distressed by our casual approach to war, as though it were some sort of professional spectator sport that happens to be covered by Fox and CNN instead of ESPN.  Because of that, what I’m about to say next will take a moment to digest.  Stay with me.  It’s simply this:

Commit or quit.

What do I mean by that?  I mean our nation needs to have a serious, broad discussion about what we see as our role in the world and what we’re willing to do to perform it.  And we  need to pay attention to the issues for a longer period than that required by NFL Sunday Ticket.  Stop looking only at the individual instances of marketplaces being shelled (Yugoslavia, 1990s), the constant eruptions of ethnic and religious groups abusing and killing each other, or other emotionally heartbreaking headlines.  These evil events are endemic to the fallen human nature–they have raged since the beginning of time, and will do so until the end of it.  That means any nation has to pick and choose its battles.  What is the desired result of getting involved in a particular issue?  Are we committed to pay the price to see things through to that conclusion?  For instance, did the American people decide for themselves that defending Taiwan against mainland China is worth the potential loss of American cities?  If so, by what process was that decision reached?  Before you say “Congress,” ask yourself: if push comes to shove, will the American people back the defense guarantees “Congress” has handed out like candy to countries around the world?  Many potential adversaries are starting to ask that very question.

This isn’t a game, people.  We spent eight years in Iraq.  Are they better off?  Are we?  It seems we had just enough national will to make both countries miserable, but not enough commitment to see something productive result from that mess.  If we go all “Rolling Thunder” on ISIS now, what will be the impact after the news has turned its attention to whatever Miley Cyrus or the Kardashians are doing these days?  Given our short attention span it’s not unlikely that, after dropping bombs for a couple weeks (and more importantly, ordering replacements), we’ll declare success, go home, and ignore a more slow-motion slaughter of the same people we originally said we’d intervened to protect.  On top of that, what is the long-term outlook for that small percentage of Americans called upon to do the fighting and dying in these situations, for policies that are increasingly incoherent?

Until and unless we as a people decide what is worth killing and dying for, and our leaders devise full visions (including defined end states) for how to pursue those agreed-upon objectives, we need to reign in our trigger-happy fingers.  Given the effects of decades of massive immigration from all over the world, multiculturalism and a dumbing down of the citizenry’s understanding of the world and its history, I’m not sure we can even have that conversation, much less reach a consensus.

Regardless, we definitely need–right now–to constrain the ability of any one person, regardless of their party affiliation, to ‘send in the troops’ first and consult Congress later.

That’s the mark of an Empire, not a Republic.  Sadly, it’s not the only mark evident these days.  And remember, it was the bumbling, colliding ambitions of several Empires–British, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman–that brought on the insanity of the First World War.  Do we really think, only a century later, that we’re so much smarter?

A farce to be reckoned with

Our entire national security machinery has devolved into extremely dangerous self-parody over the issue of Syria:

We have a flim-flamming President (…”it wasn’t ME who drew a red line…”) who, after beating his chest and telling Assad he was going to get a spanking, suddenly changed his mind and decided to seek political cover from Congress.

We have a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs who is understandably concerned about the slow-motion telegraphing of our nation’s intentions to our next apparent target.  Meanwhile, is anyone else more than a little concerned he doesn’t seem to have heard a clear objective statement from the Administration?

We have a military and intelligence community that is still, a dozen years later, killing Islamic jihadists in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan (and who knows where else), while simultaneously arming their ideological fellow travelers in Libya, Egypt, and now Syria.  This might have something to do with the Joint Chiefs not really knowing what the heck we’re trying to accomplish.

We have a Secretary of State musing about boots on the ground, realizing his faux pas then backpedaling, all while telling the American people everything’s hunky dory because “the Arabs have offered to carry the cost.”  (Really?  So no American troops will die, right?)

We have a Homeland Security apparatus trying to identify any potential Syrian or Iranian agents in the U.S. who might be posed for retaliatory action, should the shooting begin (a very real threat that has so far seen little discussion, from what I’ve observed).  This should be reassuring, since that same apparatus was so effective in preventing the shootings at Fort Hood, or acting on Russian tips to stop those planning the bombing of the Boston Marathon.  Oh… wait…

And to top it off, we have Congress.  A Congress that hasn’t met its Constitutional obligation to pass an annual budget for nearly four and a half years.  A Congress that hasn’t met its Constitutional obligation to vote up or down on a Declaration of War in SEVENTY years.  A Congress that has more than enough authority to reign in a host of three-letter Executive Branch agencies run amok (IRS, FBI, NSA, CIA, ATF…), but refuses to exercise it.  A Congress that likes to call itself the ‘world’s greatest deliberative body,’ but in practice hands most of the important stuff to groups called things like “The Gang of 8” while the rest preen for reelection and enjoy their perks.

All of this provides plenty of fodder for the late-night comedians.  As for me, I’d love to laugh at all these fools, but there’s nothing funny about the course they’ve set.  Every nation has its share of bumbling would-be statesmen, but we seem to have a disproportionally large number this generation.  What’s worse, they hold the keys to machinery that affects the entire world.

…and we seem content to allow them to drive that world to war…