Commentary Magazine


Topic: F-35

Don’t Sell Defense Secrets to Turkey

Against the backdrop of the Pentagon budget cuts, recouping several hundred million dollars by selling the new generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to allies might at first glance make sense. Certainly, there will be no shortage of trustworthy customers, not only in Western Europe but also in Israel and Japan. Yesterday, Turkey announced that it plans to purchase the plane as well. While Turkey is part of the consortium which constructed the plane, the contract to have Turkey contribute to the fuselage was more a diplomatic bone to throw than a necessity. Turkey, however, has had no role in the stealth aspect of the plane nor the cutting edge software and electronics which make the F-35 possible.

Since that original deal was struck, the Turkish intelligence service has been taken over by a pro-Iranian functionary; the Turkish military which the Pentagon saw as a strategic asset has become a shadow of its former self; the Turkish Air Force has conducted war games with China; and the Turkish government has threatened military action against both Cyprus and Israel. To sell Turkey technology upon which the U.S. national defense will depend for a generation to come makes about as much strategic sense as selling Pakistan the home addresses of CIA operatives, or selling blueprints for nuclear warheads.

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Against the backdrop of the Pentagon budget cuts, recouping several hundred million dollars by selling the new generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to allies might at first glance make sense. Certainly, there will be no shortage of trustworthy customers, not only in Western Europe but also in Israel and Japan. Yesterday, Turkey announced that it plans to purchase the plane as well. While Turkey is part of the consortium which constructed the plane, the contract to have Turkey contribute to the fuselage was more a diplomatic bone to throw than a necessity. Turkey, however, has had no role in the stealth aspect of the plane nor the cutting edge software and electronics which make the F-35 possible.

Since that original deal was struck, the Turkish intelligence service has been taken over by a pro-Iranian functionary; the Turkish military which the Pentagon saw as a strategic asset has become a shadow of its former self; the Turkish Air Force has conducted war games with China; and the Turkish government has threatened military action against both Cyprus and Israel. To sell Turkey technology upon which the U.S. national defense will depend for a generation to come makes about as much strategic sense as selling Pakistan the home addresses of CIA operatives, or selling blueprints for nuclear warheads.

Make no mistake: Put the F-35 in a room with Chinese and Iranian scientists for a week, and they will be able to reverse engineer it, even if the White House convinces itself that certain software keys and codes are unbreakable. If the Obama administration is intent on undercutting America’s strategic standing, it behooves Congress to step up to the plate to just say no.

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Don’t Balance the Budget on the Back of Defense

I am struck by the juxtaposition of two news items. First, it is being reported that Bob Gates is proposing $100 billion in defense cuts over the next five years, including the cancellation of the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Second it is being reported that China’s military modernization program is moving ahead faster than expected. In recent days, China has unveiled a new stealth fighter, the J-20, and a new ballistic missile that has been dubbed a “carrier killer” because it is designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers. China is also reportedly building its own aircraft carriers and taking other actions to beef up its arsenal.

Granted, China has a long way to go before it approaches parity with the U.S. — but then again, it doesn’t need parity. Much of our military spending goes to enable operations thousands of miles from home. China, by contrast, seems to lack global ambitions, at least for the moment. It is concerned with dominating its region. And that does not require that it match U.S. military capacity across the board. All it has to do is raise the cost to the U.S. of taking action to keep in check Chinese expansionism, whereas the U.S. must worry not only about the threat from China but also about North Korea, Iran, al-Qaeda, Somalia, Yemen, and myriad other concerns.

The cuts proposed by Secretary Gates do not seriously threaten America’s military position in the world. Heck, I’ve expressed my own skepticism about the utility of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. I am also not that alarmed about the cancellation of the F-22 or the pushing back of the Marine Corps’s vertical-takeoff version of the F-35; I think the Marine version of the F-35 could be canceled altogether, because the vertical takeoff and landing capability of the Harrier jump jet has so seldom been utilized in combat.

But I am concerned about talk of delaying or downsizing the overall F-35 program at a time when China and Russia are both fielding their own stealth fighters. More than that, I am worried that Gates’s cuts may be only the beginning of a drawdown that is happening even as we are still fighting a major war in Afghanistan. Already proposals are circulating — see, for instance, this Foreign Affairs article — for massive cutbacks, including the loss of hundreds of thousands of service personnel, that would eviscerate American power-projection capabilities. Alas, many in Congress, even some Republicans, appear to be open to deeper defense cuts.

I am all for addressing our runaway federal spending — but we won’t balance the budget on the back of the Defense Department. Not when defense spending is less than 20 percent of the budget and less than 5 percent of GDP. Getting our fiscal house in order requires cutting entitlement spending. Downsizing the military, by contrast, will contribute to future insecurity and turn out to be the most costly option in the long run. That is a lesson we should have learned in the past, many times over (as I argued in this op-ed).

I am struck by the juxtaposition of two news items. First, it is being reported that Bob Gates is proposing $100 billion in defense cuts over the next five years, including the cancellation of the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Second it is being reported that China’s military modernization program is moving ahead faster than expected. In recent days, China has unveiled a new stealth fighter, the J-20, and a new ballistic missile that has been dubbed a “carrier killer” because it is designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers. China is also reportedly building its own aircraft carriers and taking other actions to beef up its arsenal.

Granted, China has a long way to go before it approaches parity with the U.S. — but then again, it doesn’t need parity. Much of our military spending goes to enable operations thousands of miles from home. China, by contrast, seems to lack global ambitions, at least for the moment. It is concerned with dominating its region. And that does not require that it match U.S. military capacity across the board. All it has to do is raise the cost to the U.S. of taking action to keep in check Chinese expansionism, whereas the U.S. must worry not only about the threat from China but also about North Korea, Iran, al-Qaeda, Somalia, Yemen, and myriad other concerns.

The cuts proposed by Secretary Gates do not seriously threaten America’s military position in the world. Heck, I’ve expressed my own skepticism about the utility of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. I am also not that alarmed about the cancellation of the F-22 or the pushing back of the Marine Corps’s vertical-takeoff version of the F-35; I think the Marine version of the F-35 could be canceled altogether, because the vertical takeoff and landing capability of the Harrier jump jet has so seldom been utilized in combat.

But I am concerned about talk of delaying or downsizing the overall F-35 program at a time when China and Russia are both fielding their own stealth fighters. More than that, I am worried that Gates’s cuts may be only the beginning of a drawdown that is happening even as we are still fighting a major war in Afghanistan. Already proposals are circulating — see, for instance, this Foreign Affairs article — for massive cutbacks, including the loss of hundreds of thousands of service personnel, that would eviscerate American power-projection capabilities. Alas, many in Congress, even some Republicans, appear to be open to deeper defense cuts.

I am all for addressing our runaway federal spending — but we won’t balance the budget on the back of the Defense Department. Not when defense spending is less than 20 percent of the budget and less than 5 percent of GDP. Getting our fiscal house in order requires cutting entitlement spending. Downsizing the military, by contrast, will contribute to future insecurity and turn out to be the most costly option in the long run. That is a lesson we should have learned in the past, many times over (as I argued in this op-ed).

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It’s Getting Painful to Watch

Those who were supportive of Obama’s latest stunt to keep the “peace process” going argued that at least Israel would get some very expensive fighter aircraft for a mere 90-day extension. Well, not so fast, according to this report:

On Wednesday, Ynet reported of the disagreement between Israel and the US over the F-35 fighter jets which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed will be included in the freeze deal. Sources familiar with the matter said Thursday that progress has been made on the issue and stated that the aircraft will arrive in Israel in 2015. Nevertheless, it appears there still is a misunderstanding regarding the payment for the jets.

In his meetings with the seven ministers Saturday night and the Likud ministers, Netanyahu stressed that the 20 fighter jets will be given as a gift from the US and that Israel will not have to pay for them using funds from the security aid budget.

The parties are still working out the details of the matter, as it appears the US had a different take on the understandings reached between Clinton and Netanyahu in New York. It also appears there were misunderstandings regarding the time in which the aircraft will be provided, as Israel expected to receive them in the coming years while the US planned on supplying them after a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians is achieved.

Got that? The planes aren’t free and are conditioned on a peace deal that is unlikely to be made by 2015 — or 2025, for that matter. Now this seems like a pretty fundamental point, and yet the parties aren’t clear on the contours of the deal? Yes, the more we learn, the more discombobulated the Obama team seems.

Oh, and the promise not to include East Jerusalem in the deal is also sort of up in the air: “The paper is slated to include a US pledge not to demand an additional moratorium at the end of the second freeze. The issue of Jerusalem is not mentioned, however, sources close to the negotiations noted that the document suggests that Jerusalem is not included in the freeze.” So East Jerusalem is simply ignored? “Suggests” suggests that this, too, is fuzzy.

I’m sure professional negotiators must be appalled by all this. Every aspect of the undertaking — the investment of so much presidential prestige in a long-shot proposition, the notion that the PA can make a deal, the obsession with settlements, the frantic last-minute bribe, the lack of clarity, the preposterous assumption that we’ll get a deal in 90 days — reveals a lack of sophistication and understanding of the region. It has taken on the feel of an international-relations exam: how many errors can you find in this undertaking?

And by the way, the parties broke off whatever minimal talks they were having nearly two months ago. At some point, as the U.S.’s haggling with Bibi’s government continues (Well, when we said “give” we didn’t mean for free!), perhaps they will declare a “recess” and all go home to work out the details at the staff level. And then this entire, shabby episode can be left for the history books — and the graduate students — we hope never to be repeated.

Those who were supportive of Obama’s latest stunt to keep the “peace process” going argued that at least Israel would get some very expensive fighter aircraft for a mere 90-day extension. Well, not so fast, according to this report:

On Wednesday, Ynet reported of the disagreement between Israel and the US over the F-35 fighter jets which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed will be included in the freeze deal. Sources familiar with the matter said Thursday that progress has been made on the issue and stated that the aircraft will arrive in Israel in 2015. Nevertheless, it appears there still is a misunderstanding regarding the payment for the jets.

In his meetings with the seven ministers Saturday night and the Likud ministers, Netanyahu stressed that the 20 fighter jets will be given as a gift from the US and that Israel will not have to pay for them using funds from the security aid budget.

The parties are still working out the details of the matter, as it appears the US had a different take on the understandings reached between Clinton and Netanyahu in New York. It also appears there were misunderstandings regarding the time in which the aircraft will be provided, as Israel expected to receive them in the coming years while the US planned on supplying them after a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians is achieved.

Got that? The planes aren’t free and are conditioned on a peace deal that is unlikely to be made by 2015 — or 2025, for that matter. Now this seems like a pretty fundamental point, and yet the parties aren’t clear on the contours of the deal? Yes, the more we learn, the more discombobulated the Obama team seems.

Oh, and the promise not to include East Jerusalem in the deal is also sort of up in the air: “The paper is slated to include a US pledge not to demand an additional moratorium at the end of the second freeze. The issue of Jerusalem is not mentioned, however, sources close to the negotiations noted that the document suggests that Jerusalem is not included in the freeze.” So East Jerusalem is simply ignored? “Suggests” suggests that this, too, is fuzzy.

I’m sure professional negotiators must be appalled by all this. Every aspect of the undertaking — the investment of so much presidential prestige in a long-shot proposition, the notion that the PA can make a deal, the obsession with settlements, the frantic last-minute bribe, the lack of clarity, the preposterous assumption that we’ll get a deal in 90 days — reveals a lack of sophistication and understanding of the region. It has taken on the feel of an international-relations exam: how many errors can you find in this undertaking?

And by the way, the parties broke off whatever minimal talks they were having nearly two months ago. At some point, as the U.S.’s haggling with Bibi’s government continues (Well, when we said “give” we didn’t mean for free!), perhaps they will declare a “recess” and all go home to work out the details at the staff level. And then this entire, shabby episode can be left for the history books — and the graduate students — we hope never to be repeated.

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The F-35 and the Israel-Obama Relationship

Commenting on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision last week to buy 20 American-made F-35 fighter jets, Elliot Jager of Jewish Ideas Daily said it “illuminates Israel’s continuing, vital, and enduring — albeit dependent — relationship with the United States.” That is undoubtedly true: Washington has been Israel’s principal arms supplier for over four decades, and those arms are crucial for the country’s defense.

Ironically, however, the purchase also illuminates the nadir to which the relationship has fallen under the current administration. Barack Obama’s aides have tried to divert attention from their boss’s efforts to put “daylight” between America and Israel by insisting that on the all-important issue of security, “President Obama has taken what was already a strong U.S.-Israel defense relationship, and broadened and deepened it across the board,” as Dan Shapiro of the National Security Council told the Anti-Defamation League in May.

But in reality, Washington has attached unprecedented restrictions to the F-35 sale — restrictions so severe that Israel’s defense establishment agonized for months over whether to sign the deal, and ultimately opted to buy only 20 planes instead of the 75 the Israel Air Force originally sought.

First, as Haaretz reported last month, the U.S. refused to supply a test aircraft as part of the deal for the first time in 40 years. From the Phantom in 1969 through the F-16I six years ago, every previous American sale of fighters to Israel has included an experimental aircraft that Israel can use to test new systems or weapons it is considering installing in order to upgrade the planes or adapt them to particular missions. Effectively, the paper said, this refusal means “upgrades will not be implemented during the plane’s service in the IAF.”

Second, Washington initially refused to let any Israeli systems be installed in the plane, and finally reluctantly agreed to what various Israeli reports described as “minor changes” or “a few” systems (though holding out the carrot that more might be allowed if Israel ultimately commissions more planes). This, too, is unprecedented. Previous deals have given Israel great latitude to have its own systems installed on American-made aircraft, and have also allowed other countries to install Israeli systems — with the result that “between 10 percent and 15 percent of every new F-16 made in America, for instance, consists of Israeli systems.”

The restrictions so incensed Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz that he has appealed the purchase to the cabinet. His ministry says they would deal “a major blow to Israel’s defense industry” and particularly “hurt development of new Israeli missile systems.” On an issue as militarily important as purchasing new fighters, Steinitz has no chance of prevailing against Barak. But for a senior minister to publicly challenge such a deal is itself unusual.

It’s a testament to the depth of Israel’s support both in Congress and among the American people that even a hostile president only dares impair the security relationship at the margins, where he can hope it won’t be noticed. But precisely because the F-35 restrictions will fly below most Americans’ radars, they’re a telling indication of where Obama’s heart really lies.

Commenting on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision last week to buy 20 American-made F-35 fighter jets, Elliot Jager of Jewish Ideas Daily said it “illuminates Israel’s continuing, vital, and enduring — albeit dependent — relationship with the United States.” That is undoubtedly true: Washington has been Israel’s principal arms supplier for over four decades, and those arms are crucial for the country’s defense.

Ironically, however, the purchase also illuminates the nadir to which the relationship has fallen under the current administration. Barack Obama’s aides have tried to divert attention from their boss’s efforts to put “daylight” between America and Israel by insisting that on the all-important issue of security, “President Obama has taken what was already a strong U.S.-Israel defense relationship, and broadened and deepened it across the board,” as Dan Shapiro of the National Security Council told the Anti-Defamation League in May.

But in reality, Washington has attached unprecedented restrictions to the F-35 sale — restrictions so severe that Israel’s defense establishment agonized for months over whether to sign the deal, and ultimately opted to buy only 20 planes instead of the 75 the Israel Air Force originally sought.

First, as Haaretz reported last month, the U.S. refused to supply a test aircraft as part of the deal for the first time in 40 years. From the Phantom in 1969 through the F-16I six years ago, every previous American sale of fighters to Israel has included an experimental aircraft that Israel can use to test new systems or weapons it is considering installing in order to upgrade the planes or adapt them to particular missions. Effectively, the paper said, this refusal means “upgrades will not be implemented during the plane’s service in the IAF.”

Second, Washington initially refused to let any Israeli systems be installed in the plane, and finally reluctantly agreed to what various Israeli reports described as “minor changes” or “a few” systems (though holding out the carrot that more might be allowed if Israel ultimately commissions more planes). This, too, is unprecedented. Previous deals have given Israel great latitude to have its own systems installed on American-made aircraft, and have also allowed other countries to install Israeli systems — with the result that “between 10 percent and 15 percent of every new F-16 made in America, for instance, consists of Israeli systems.”

The restrictions so incensed Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz that he has appealed the purchase to the cabinet. His ministry says they would deal “a major blow to Israel’s defense industry” and particularly “hurt development of new Israeli missile systems.” On an issue as militarily important as purchasing new fighters, Steinitz has no chance of prevailing against Barak. But for a senior minister to publicly challenge such a deal is itself unusual.

It’s a testament to the depth of Israel’s support both in Congress and among the American people that even a hostile president only dares impair the security relationship at the margins, where he can hope it won’t be noticed. But precisely because the F-35 restrictions will fly below most Americans’ radars, they’re a telling indication of where Obama’s heart really lies.

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Extreme Opinions Regarding the Future of Our Military

Mark Helprin, meet John Arquilla. Helprin is a gifted novelist who, in his spare time, offers strategic commentary. Arquilla is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School who coined the term “net war” and has become an influential strategist. They have just published articles with diametrically opposing — and equally wrong-headed — messages.

Helprin in the Wall Street Journal bemoans our having “recalibrated the armed forces to deal with perhaps a division’s worth of fluid irregulars worldwide, thus granting China, Russia, and Iran military holidays in which to redirect the balance of power.” He thinks we are losing conventional-combat power and warns of dire consequences: “This year, the Air Force will keep 150 fighters in all of Europe, as at one time, while it declined but before it burned, Rome kept only a shadow of legions upon the Rhine and Danube.” Really? The U.S. will fall like the Roman Empire did because we don’t have enough fighter aircraft in Europe? Helprin thinks so, and demands that the F-22 production line be restarted, even though we have another ultra-modern aircraft, the F-35, in the pipeline. The large picture he misses is that we spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined; our edge can’t be taken for granted but it won’t disappear soon either.

Arquilla, by contrast, thinks the U.S. military remains too conventional. His preferred analogy is not to Rome but rather to World War I: “When militaries don’t keep up with the pace of change, countries suffer. In World War I, the failure to grasp the implications of mass production led not only to senseless slaughter, but also to the end of great empires and the bankruptcy of others.” Today, he argues in Foreign Policy, the U.S. Navy is spending too much on surface warfare ships “whose aluminum superstructures will likely burn to the waterline if hit by a single missile”; the Army, on “a grab bag of new weapons, vehicles, and communications gadgets now seen by its own proponents as almost completely unworkable for the kind of military operations that land forces will be undertaking in the years ahead”; and the Air Force, on “extremely advanced and extremely expensive fighter aircraft — despite losing only one fighter plane to an enemy fighter in nearly 40 years.”

His solution is a radical one: cut defense spending by 10 percent a year, declare “a moratorium … on all legacy-like systems (think aircraft carriers, other big ships, advanced fighters, tanks, etc.),” and cut military manpower (more than 2 million serve today) by two thirds. “The model for military intervention,” he writes, “would be the 200 Special Forces ‘horse soldiers’ who beat the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan late in 2001. Such teams would deploy quickly and lethally, with ample reserves for relieving ‘first waves’ and dealing with other crises.”

Give Arquilla props for “out of the box” thinking — as well as for demonstrating why it usually makes sense to stay in the box. The “Afghan model” he cites has been found wanting since 2001 — a few Special Forces troopers could help overthrow the Taliban but couldn’t keep them down. That requires dispatching lots of more troops, which is what President Obama is wisely doing today. Likewise, the projection of U.S. power around the world requires more, not fewer, soldiers. And I wouldn’t be so quick to junk the “legacy weapons system,” which for years to come will give us an invaluable edge over potential adversaries. Helprin goes too far in the other direction, however, by focusing exclusively on the F-22 and its ilk while ignoring developments in robotics (more advanced unmanned aircraft) and the need for effective counterinsurgency forces.

As usual, between the two extremes they represent — extreme unconventionality and extreme conventionality — the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Mark Helprin, meet John Arquilla. Helprin is a gifted novelist who, in his spare time, offers strategic commentary. Arquilla is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School who coined the term “net war” and has become an influential strategist. They have just published articles with diametrically opposing — and equally wrong-headed — messages.

Helprin in the Wall Street Journal bemoans our having “recalibrated the armed forces to deal with perhaps a division’s worth of fluid irregulars worldwide, thus granting China, Russia, and Iran military holidays in which to redirect the balance of power.” He thinks we are losing conventional-combat power and warns of dire consequences: “This year, the Air Force will keep 150 fighters in all of Europe, as at one time, while it declined but before it burned, Rome kept only a shadow of legions upon the Rhine and Danube.” Really? The U.S. will fall like the Roman Empire did because we don’t have enough fighter aircraft in Europe? Helprin thinks so, and demands that the F-22 production line be restarted, even though we have another ultra-modern aircraft, the F-35, in the pipeline. The large picture he misses is that we spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined; our edge can’t be taken for granted but it won’t disappear soon either.

Arquilla, by contrast, thinks the U.S. military remains too conventional. His preferred analogy is not to Rome but rather to World War I: “When militaries don’t keep up with the pace of change, countries suffer. In World War I, the failure to grasp the implications of mass production led not only to senseless slaughter, but also to the end of great empires and the bankruptcy of others.” Today, he argues in Foreign Policy, the U.S. Navy is spending too much on surface warfare ships “whose aluminum superstructures will likely burn to the waterline if hit by a single missile”; the Army, on “a grab bag of new weapons, vehicles, and communications gadgets now seen by its own proponents as almost completely unworkable for the kind of military operations that land forces will be undertaking in the years ahead”; and the Air Force, on “extremely advanced and extremely expensive fighter aircraft — despite losing only one fighter plane to an enemy fighter in nearly 40 years.”

His solution is a radical one: cut defense spending by 10 percent a year, declare “a moratorium … on all legacy-like systems (think aircraft carriers, other big ships, advanced fighters, tanks, etc.),” and cut military manpower (more than 2 million serve today) by two thirds. “The model for military intervention,” he writes, “would be the 200 Special Forces ‘horse soldiers’ who beat the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan late in 2001. Such teams would deploy quickly and lethally, with ample reserves for relieving ‘first waves’ and dealing with other crises.”

Give Arquilla props for “out of the box” thinking — as well as for demonstrating why it usually makes sense to stay in the box. The “Afghan model” he cites has been found wanting since 2001 — a few Special Forces troopers could help overthrow the Taliban but couldn’t keep them down. That requires dispatching lots of more troops, which is what President Obama is wisely doing today. Likewise, the projection of U.S. power around the world requires more, not fewer, soldiers. And I wouldn’t be so quick to junk the “legacy weapons system,” which for years to come will give us an invaluable edge over potential adversaries. Helprin goes too far in the other direction, however, by focusing exclusively on the F-22 and its ilk while ignoring developments in robotics (more advanced unmanned aircraft) and the need for effective counterinsurgency forces.

As usual, between the two extremes they represent — extreme unconventionality and extreme conventionality — the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

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A New Bomber?

The National Journal has an interesting article in the current issue on “The Air Force’s Next Bomber,” by Sydney Freedberg. Unfortunately, it’s not available for free online. (For the paid version, see here). But the gist is that the Air Force, after years of pressure from Congress and political appointees in the Department of Defense, reluctantly has agreed to begin developing a new bomber by 2018. Yet many analysts doubt whether the Air Force is serious.

To an outsider this might seem like a head-scratcher. Why wouldn’t the Air Force want a new airplane? The need for a new bomber seems clear given that, of the current bomber fleet of 180 aircraft, more than half are B-52’s that were last built in 1962. They still perform admirably, but it’s not clear how much longer we can continue to rely for our defense on aircraft that are older than the pilots. Yet the Air Force hasn’t been planning to get any more bombers for decades—not until 2037, when the B-52 turns 75. (Would you drive a 75-year-old car?) The last addition to its bomber fleet was the B-2 stealth bomber, of which it now has 21, the last having arrived in 1997.

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The National Journal has an interesting article in the current issue on “The Air Force’s Next Bomber,” by Sydney Freedberg. Unfortunately, it’s not available for free online. (For the paid version, see here). But the gist is that the Air Force, after years of pressure from Congress and political appointees in the Department of Defense, reluctantly has agreed to begin developing a new bomber by 2018. Yet many analysts doubt whether the Air Force is serious.

To an outsider this might seem like a head-scratcher. Why wouldn’t the Air Force want a new airplane? The need for a new bomber seems clear given that, of the current bomber fleet of 180 aircraft, more than half are B-52’s that were last built in 1962. They still perform admirably, but it’s not clear how much longer we can continue to rely for our defense on aircraft that are older than the pilots. Yet the Air Force hasn’t been planning to get any more bombers for decades—not until 2037, when the B-52 turns 75. (Would you drive a 75-year-old car?) The last addition to its bomber fleet was the B-2 stealth bomber, of which it now has 21, the last having arrived in 1997.

All of the Air Force’s creative energy has been poured into acquiring super-expensive, short-range fighter-bombers—the F-22 and F-35. Both are sexy and fun to fly, but have small bomb capacities and flight ranges. The National Journal notes their limitations in a prospective war with China:

Even from the nearest U.S. bases, in South Korea, the F-22 and the F-35 may well penetrate the outer layers of enemy defenses only to run out of fuel long before they reach any target. Slow, bulky tankers can refuel the short-range fighters in midair, but would never perform this delicate operation in full view of hostile radars. Thus, strike planes must rely on their internal fuel tanks once they enter enemy airspace. The F-22 has an estimated combat radius—the maximum distance it can fly before it must return to base—of 540 nautical miles; the still-in-development F-35 will be slightly better, at about 633 miles. Either fighter could hit, say, Tehran from bases in Kuwait, or Beijing from South Korea. But if U.S. allies balked, or if the bases came under fire, or if, in China’s case, key targets were hidden deep in Central Asia—like the Xichang space facility from which China test-launched an anti-satellite missile in January—the fighters would simply run out of gas.

By contrast, the article notes, the B-2 has a combat radius of 3,000 miles. During the Kosovo conflict, B-2’s flew all the way to Belgrade from Missouri and back without ever landing (but with multiple in-flight refuelings). So why doesn’t the Air Force want more bombers like the B-2?

The service advances plenty of arguments for its preference, but none is particularly convincing. More germane may be a fact noted by the National Journal: “Nearly half of all Air Force generals are fighter pilots, but less than 5 percent have bomber backgrounds.”

This is one case where it’s imperative that civilian leaders not defer to the preferences of the uniformed services. The Air Force needs more bombers—and more UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles)—even if it’s not what the fighter jocks prefer.

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