Should we say Bravo! to the Air Force for doing its job, for doing what the military services are supposed to do, which is to train and equip, to advocate for their mission and specialty, and then to move out smartly when overruled by higher ups? Or should we just shut down the junior service because it’s so pathetic?
The Air Force received the final, 187th F-22 Raptor jet last week in Georgia, destined to join the 3rd Wing’s 525th Fighter Squadron, stationed at the Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz was on hand to blather on about “America’s first 5th generation fighter aircraft,” thanking the line workers, and then heading back to his Pentagon credenza, where no doubt he was preparing to weather the onslaught.
First came ABC News, with Senator Take-No-Prisoners McCain repeating the old bombast that the F-22 is useless because it has never been used in combat. In almost seven years not a single one of the jets, which cost an estimated $420 million-plus each, has ever been used, ABC said.
60 Minutes followed, sucking all of the oxygen out of any decent discourse, scoring the coup of having actual pilots “without permission … blow the whistle on a plane they love to fly.”
The GAO piled on.
Lockheed Martin tweeted and tweeted in response how fabulous the plane is, oblivious to what was going on all around. The Air Force produced Gen. Mike Hostage – no kidding – to tell us that the F-22 was in fact being deployed and used all over. This nation needs this airplane – and every one of them,” he said. “I wish I had ten times as many as I have.” Really only the Air Force Association and the network of retired airpower advocates have joined the battle, attempting to answer the F-22 critics.
They are all missing the point.
There’s so much to be said about the news media and how opportunistic it is, stuck in a mode of having to make every story a bombshell. There’s so much to be said about the Air Force, which just can’t get beyond its institutional inferiority complex and can’t see the big picture because it is constantly bunkered and under attack. There’s so much to be said about the idiocy of the public defense debate stuck in some 1980’s mode of waste, fraud, and abuse, weapons-won’t-or-don’t-work.
But the real issue is that we have no defense policy, no national security strategy. We’re fighting in Afghanistan and no one other than the government and military supports it or cares; we’ve declared terrorism an existential threat that isn’t one; we’re pivoting to Asia to unstick ourselves from the Middle East, making believe that there is some military solution in the future; we’re hanging on to and hostage to gajillions of dollars of nukes – “not used in combat” in 60 years, get it?; we’re watching new constituencies in favor of perpetual war emerge – homeland security, the intelligence community, special operations, the cyber warriors, the counter-IED kingdom, the counter-threat finance sleuths, the counter-narcoterrorism fighters – and seem oblivious to the age of special interests that takes advantage of the absence of a national security strategy. No wonder every Congressman and woman just tries to get and save bases, contracts, and weapons in their districts and states: The Defense Department and the federal government has completely failed to articulate in any useful way why x is needed and y isn’t, so it all boils down to politics, what’s best for the district or State, and every special interest just establishes alliances to pursue what it can get.
The F-22 symbolizes all of this dysfunction, particularly that part about our debate stuck in some weird 1980’s time warp. But what’s really happening is that the plane is just too good, too good for even the pilots, too powerful, too fast, too flexible, too magnificent. And as such, it should be seen as part of a sea change, as a seam between an old era and a new, rather than some industrial object to be audited.
Like the 10 last-inch-seeking hyper-reliable MIRVs that we finally stuffed on top of the triple-somersaulting MX missile in the 1980’s (and then abandoned for being too much), the F-22 is too much for what is really needed for our national security, which is to say, that just because it’s the best doesn’t mean it’s buying us anything.
I’m an agnostic one way or another about the airplane, but do appreciate the details of its capabilities, including how fabulous it is as an intelligence platform, how it can dog fight and bomb at the same time… The real question we have to ask ourselves is whether 187 of anything carrying two or twenty bombs, no matter how accurate, is going to defeat a China or Russia? Of course it isn’t; it’s a “deterrent,” it’s a symbol; it’s a lab experiment. It’s all sorts of things that might actually be good for America except that we can’t really determine whether that’s so unless we look at our national security in a lot broader way, shorn of love for boots on the ground and hate for the fly boys, shorn of pro-Europe and Pacific and anti-Middle East, shorn of COIN versus big war.
Is this my only choice: More killer drones? More main battle tanks? More opaque spending on intelligence and special operations? More cyber this and that? More PTSD?
In which case then, I’ll take the F-22s. Everything that the drones and the tanks and the magnificent covert operators represent seem both more mischievous and dangerous for the future of America.