Today isn’t National Barbecue Day. Take a moment to remember all those who left behind all they knew and gave all they had in the service of their country.
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.
Sixteen years. That’s how long it’s been since the worst terrorist attack in American history. A total of 2,996 people dead or never accounted for. Symbols of American power struck without warning: both World Trade center towers and the Pentagon. The actions of informed passengers on a fourth plane likely averted a strike on the White House or Congress.
An entire generation had horrifying visions of previously unimaginable events happening in their own nation, with memories firmly etched into their minds.
They say time heals all wounds. And for the families of those lost that day I hope there is some measure of truth in it. But there is a flip side: such events fade in the public consciousness, such that they no longer inform or shape how the nation acts. To quote the opening of the movie “The Fellowship of the Ring,”
“…some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend, legend became myth…” (click “continue reading” below to continue)
…this fellow also says it well (emphasis added by me):
War is and always will be an ugly business.
That knowledge should lead Western governments to use their technological and economic advantages to avoid getting into wars with the barbarians on the edge of civilization. Instead, they start wars they never intend to win, so they can preen and pose about their virtue and morality, when something terrible inevitably happens…
The point of war is to kill the enemy and break up their stuff. The hope is they quit before you kill all of them and break all of their stuff, but you plan otherwise. If the Afghans knew all along that helping Osama bin Laden was most likely going to mean their cities and large towns would be flattened, they would have chose differently. Let’s assume they played it the same and Bush had firebombed Kabul, what would have been the result?
Yeah, there would have been a lot of hand-wringing and pearl clutching in Washington, but every other nutjob in the Middle East would have been re-calibrating his plans. A lot less death and destruction would have come as a result.
Not long after it became clear we were in both Afghanistan and Iraq for an extended engagement, I told a fellow Airman our country was making a huge mistake. Rather than just strike and leave, our country was arrogant enough to believe we could “make democracy bloom” in a soil that has never yet produced it on its own. Americans today have no stomach for the kind of occupation (both scope and duration) it would take to create that level of change in the region. To put it bluntly, unless we’re willing to seal off and occupy the countries until we’ve educated a couple new generations, it ain’t happening (and probably wouldn’t then, either). I said at the time we’d have been better off after 9/11 by turning the Taliban and Kabul into the world’s largest man-made crater as a warning to others, then leaving everyone in literal shock and awe (“Who else wants some of that? Any takers?”). Instead, our half-hearted wars of choice over the last decade and a half have eroded the respect and fear (not to mention the capability) our military once commanded.
You’re not powerful just because you’re throwing military forces around. You’re powerful when nobody dares challenge you, even indirectly, for fear of the deathstroke you’re expected to deliver. That’s the difference between deterrence and playing expensive whack-a-mole all over the earth.
“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” – Sun Tzu
But failing that,
At the height of the war in Iraq, the military offered large bonuses for experienced troops who chose to stay in despite the grueling deployment tempo, the risk to life and limb, and the effects on their families.
But Uncle Sam always reserves the right to change the terms of the deal whenever he wants:
Nearly 10,000 California National Guard soldiers have been ordered to repay huge enlistment bonuses a decade after signing up to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, a newspaper reported Saturday…
A federal investigation in 2010 found thousands of bonuses and student loan payments were improperly doled out to California Guard soldiers. About 9,700 current and retired soldiers received notices to repay some or all of their bonuses with more than $22 million recovered so far.
Soldiers said they feel betrayed at having to repay the money. ((Editor’s note: THEY WERE!))
“These bonuses were used to keep people in,” said Christopher Van Meter, a 42-year-old former Army captain and Iraq veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart. “People like me just got screwed.”
The government breaks its promises to We the People on a regular basis. But this is an unusually egregious case. To entice a veteran to stay in uniform during increasingly unpopular (and poorly managed) wars, have some of them wounded, crippled or killed, then wait a decade and say “now you have to pay it all back” is COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE.
Why isn’t the government of California on the hook for “overpaying” its National Guard? Why should these soldiers suffer because someone made a promise that was not theirs to make? Which bureaucrats will lose their jobs over fraudulently recruiting? (I know… I’m not holding my breath.) Why is it there’s always money and favors to give to illegal immigrants or foreign terror regimes, but never any to take care of Americans?
There have been too many broken promises, too much corruption, too many of our politicians on the take, and nothing for the average, law-abiding citizen of this nation. Our self-appointed elites are so stupid that now they’re bashing thousands of combat veterans who may be wondering which way to point the rifle next time. That’s just one of dozens of reasons why I’m convinced the United States is a dead country walking, and will soon collapse with a heartrending crash. Why would anyone defend it, when this is the thanks those defenders get for putting their lives on the line?
For what little good it may do, there is an online petition to the White House asking to forgive these ‘debts’ that should never have been levied. You can add your name here.
This may be the best brief summary of the Iraq War I’ve read to date:
First, the American government did not find what it had been looking for at the war’s outset, then it failed to prepare its troops and medical corps for the aged weapons it did find.
Be sure to read the entire linked story, because those chemical weapons didn’t just get there by themselves… or only at the Iraqi government’s behest. This is but one blatant example of our nation’s blundering about in the world coming back to bite our own.
Speaking of holding back information…
And then you have grossly inappropriate government requests for information, which should be forcefully ignored. If churches will now be harassed for opposing city ordinances that would deny businesses the ability to require that men use the men’s room, and ladies the ladies’ room, then it’s safe to say freedom of speech AND religion are both dead.
Why is it so hard to understand that one of the best ways to prevent the global spread of Ebola is to deny it jet-assisted travel? And why was/is our government so persistent in allowing unfettered travel from the affected countries in Africa? Cui bono from this determined inaction?
Facing death: a contrast in worldviews
…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?