November 1, 2014
Weapons ‘R’ Us: Making Warbirds Instead of Thunderbirds
Posted on Jan 26, 2012
By William Astore, TomDispatch
As one U.S. Air Force officer who served as an advisor to the fledging Iraqi Air Force, or IqAF, recently worried:
“Will the IqAF be able to refuel its own aircraft? Can the Iraqi military offer adequate force protection and security for its bases? Can the IqAF provide airfield management services at its bases as they return to Iraqi control after eight years under US direction? Can the IqAF ensure simple power generation to keep facilities operating? Will the IqAF be able to develop and retain its airmen?... Only time will tell if we left [Iraq] too early; nevertheless, even without a renewed security agreement, the USAF can continue to stand alongside the IqAF.”
Put bluntly: We doubt the Iraqis are ready to field and fly American-built F-16s, but we’re going to sell them to them anyway. And if past history is a guide, if the Iraqis ever turn these planes against us, we’ll blow them up or shoot them down—and then (hopefully) sell them some more.
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Well into my teen years, I was fascinated by military hardware. I built models of what were then the latest U.S. warplanes: the A-10, the F-4, the F-14, -15, and -16, the B-1, and many others. I read Aviation Week and Space Technology at my local library to keep track of the newest developments in military technology. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I went on to major in mechanical engineering in college and entered the Air Force as a developmental engineer.
Enamored as I was by roaring afterburners and sleek weaponry, I also began to read books like James Fallows’s National Defense (1981) among other early critiques of the Carter and Reagan defense buildup, as well as the slyly subversive and always insightful Augustine’s Laws (1986) by Norman Augustine, later the CEO of Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin. That and my own experience in the Air Force alerted me to the billions of dollars we were devoting to high-tech weaponry with ever-ballooning price tags but questionable utility.
Perhaps the best example of the persistence of this phenomenon is the F-35 Lightning II. Produced by Lockheed Martin, the F-35 was intended to be an “affordable” fighter-bomber (at roughly $50 million per copy), a perfect complement to the much more expensive F-22 “air superiority” Raptor. But the usual delays, cost overruns, technical glitches, and changes in requirements have driven the price tag of the F-35 up to $160 million per plane, assuming the U.S. military persists in its plans to buy 2,400 of them. (If the Pentagon decides to buy fewer, the cost-per-plane will soar into the F-22 range.) By recent estimates the F-35 will now cost U.S. taxpayers (you and me, that is) at least $382 billion for its development and production run. Such a sum for a single weapons system is vast enough to be hard to fathom. It would, for instance, easily fund all federal government spending on education for the next five years.
The escalating cost of the F-35 recalls the most famous of Norman Augustine’s irreverent laws: “In the year 2054,” he wrote back in the early 1980s, “the entire defense budget will [suffice to] purchase just one aircraft.” But the deeper question is whether our military even needs the F-35, a question that’s rarely asked and never seriously entertained, at least by Congress, whose philosophy on weaponry is much like King Lear’s: “O, reason not the need.”
But let’s reason the need in purely military terms. These days, the Air Force is turning increasingly to unmanned drones. Meanwhile, plenty of perfectly good and serviceable “platforms” remain for attack and close air support missions, from F-16s and F-18s in the Air Force and Navy to Apache helicopters in the Army. And while many of our existing combat jets may be nearing the limits of airframe integrity, there’s nothing stopping the U.S. military from producing updated versions of the same. Heck, this is precisely what we’re hawking to the Saudis—updated versions of the F-15, developed in the 1970s.
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