The Closet Moderate: Robert Gates Regulates

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Robert Gates Regulates

So, before I use the termination of the F-22 program to talk about larger issues related to defense procurement, I'd like to ask our readership how many F-15s they think have been shot down, in total.

Zero.

That's right, nobody has ever managed to so much as shoot the wing off a F-15 jet. Our air superiority is so complete that referring to it as "superiority" seems like something of a misnomer. It's like priding yourself on being the best singer in a world of mutes, or being the best wrestler on a team of quadriplegics. It's not that you're the best, it's that everybody else lacks the tools to even compete with you. When the F-15 entered service in 1972, people were still dying of smallpox. In Europe. In the 37 years since then, the F-15 has never been shot down. Moreover, nobody's really had the moxie to even try. Col. Cesar Rodriguez (Ret.) had the most air-to-air kills of any active pilot in the USAF when he retired two years ago with a total of 3. That's two kills shy of the 5 kills required to earn the title "ace" and not a patch on the ace-of-aces, Major Dick Bong, who shot down 40 planes before slamming an experimental aircraft into some North Hollywood pinkos on the same day we bombed Hiroshima.

Aside: let's take a moment to process that--on a day when the leading story was "Japan's shit totally fucking ruined by world-historical bombing" the LA Times also thought that the second most important thing we needed to know that day was that a hardass named "Dick Bong" had plowed a furrow into Southern California using his eerily cock-shaped plane.

Anyway, it took a man as crazy as Saddam Hussein to challenge American aerial hegemony, and in 1991 the IrAF was on the the receiving end of a red-assed beating so severe that the Iraqi pilots took their planes and fled to Iran. It should be noted that the Iran-Iraq War had just ended in 1988, and featured the gassing of some 100,000 Iranians by Iraqi forces. In other words, they fled into the arms of the enemy rather than fight the USAF.

So, given our overwhelming advantage why did SecDef Gates and President Obama have to fight so hard to end the funding for the F-22 at 187 planes?

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The answer is both structural and political.

Structurally, defense contractors rely on congressional approval to fund their projects and making it as painful as possible for congress to cancel them is just sound business strategy. Accordingly, parts for the F-22 are manufactured or assembled in over 40 states. Yes, that's horribly inefficient, but Lockheed Martin can just pass the cost of those inefficiencies on to the American taxpayer. That accounts for part of the >$300m/plane pricetag and the caviling of numerous representatives when Gates announced his intention to end the program.

Additionally, the RFP for the F-22 went out in 1986. You know what was still around in 1986? That's right, the USSR. The F-22 was intended counter to the Soviet Sukhoi Su-27. The Su-27 was itself intended to counter the F-15 and F/A 18 Hornet. Such is the logic of arms races. In April 1991, a few short months before the fall of the Soviet Union, the Lockheed Martin F-22 design won the contract. The F-22 was first deployed in 2005, over a decade after it's raison d'etre had, well, stopped existing.

A related factor is the enduring political myth that runaway US defense spending was instrumental in causing the collapse of the USSR. Proponents of the "Ronald Reagan and SDI ruined the USSR" myth argue that it was our escalation of the arms race that was the proximate cause of the fall of the Soviet Union. (That fable hints at a larger issue of Americans inserting themselves into what are fundamentally national narratives of other countries, often to our detriment.) As a result, defense spending is often politically invisible, unless it's about to be cut. At that point, the interests of defense contractors and the narrative of "more $$$ = safer" align, and the catchy hook of "Sellin' out 'Merica" by the Jee Oh Pee begins to echo in the media. Yes, that happens even when overall defense spending is still increasing. Democrats, who live in fear of being seen as "soft on defense," generally are unwilling to take on the entrenched interests around this issue, cleverly avoiding being called wimps by actually being wimps.


In the end, the F-22 was a plane we didn't need, designed for a war we never fought against an adversary that no longer exists. Despite all that, Robert Gates still had to give a major speech that was half history lesson and half fist to the groin of the defense industry just to halt production at 187 planes.

[Photo: A cloud braves airplane skin temperatures measured in hundreds of degrees just to hang out briefly with an F-22 Raptor.]

1 comment:

Fake Steve Hawking said...

Isn't that a Prandtl-Glauert singularity? Just sayin'...