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David Ignatius, Parochialism, and the USAF

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This is some pretty gruesome stuff:

Governors united across party lines to protest the potential loss of their pet C-130s and other planes. Members of Congress lined up behind the potent lobbying pressure of the Guard and the reserves. The result: The Air Force was ordered not to make the cuts it thought were best for the nation’s defense, and it instead had to retain scores of planes it wanted to retire….

Here’s how the numbers (and the public interest) got crunched: The Air Force began last year with a proposal for cutting forces to meet the Obama administration’s strategic review. The cuts would total more than 223 aircraft in fiscal 2013, including five squadrons of A-10 ground attack planes and one squadron each of F-16 and F-15 fighters. Also slated for retirement were 27 C-5A transport planes, 38 C-27 transports and 65 C-130s. With half of the C-130 fleet in the Guard and reserve units, these transport planes are especially beloved by governors.

The rationale for the cuts made strategic sense. The planes being retired had been suitable for Iraq and Afghanistan, but the military needed to concentrate on potential future adversaries. The Air Force also judged that the reserve forces had become swollen over the decade of war, growing to 35 percent of total force strength in 2012 from 25 percent in 1990.

Ignatius seems completely unaware of several problems:

  • There is a long-running dispute between the Air Force, the Army, and Congress over the utility of the A-10, based in profoundly different understandings of the utility of close air support and battlefield interdiction. People have even written books about it. The Air Force has tried to kill the A-10 several times since the early 1970s, with Army protests and Congressional action preventing the mothballing of the Warthog.
  • Of the transport aircraft that Ignatius identifies, only the C-27 could possibly be identified as being useful specifically to Afghanistan, with its high-altitude, short take off and landing capabilities.  The C-130 has been in continuous production since 1957, and is regarded as one of the most useful military transport aircraft in history.  The C-5 is growing long in the tooth, but is also transport aircraft of considerable vintage which was neither designed nor optimized for use in Afghanistan.
  • Anyone familiar with the history of the USAF understands that it has long been accused of having an institutional predisposition against transport (which it regards as fundamentally a support function), and that the commentary of USAF officers and PR flacks regarding the utility of transport aircraft should be understood against this background.
  • “Pet” uses of the C-130 Hercules include firefighting, hurricane relief, search and rescue, and humanitarian assistance.

The Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?  But wait, he’s on a roll…

Find an area of policy where politicians are able to intrude, as in planning the military force structure, and you’re almost guaranteed to find a result that is skewed by lobbying and horse-trading.

It’s difficult to convey how insipid this claim is.  There’s obviously an element of truth to it; parochial interests intrude on the ideal-rational planning process.  Ignatius fails to understand, however, that parochial interests are playing out in the process even before we reach the gubernatorial and Congressional stage.  The Air Force (like any other part of the bureaucracy) is a self-interested entity with a particular vision of its role in the national interest.  This vision can be (and often is) at odds with the visions of other parts of government. Put simply, the Air Force may not be the best source of information about what the Air Force needs. The same is true of the Army, Navy, IRS, et al.

And it’s not as if we’re talking about an abstract guns vs. butter argument, or about the notion that military dollars might go to schools, lunch programs, et al.   This involves a straightforward trade between the priorities of one military service, and the priorities of civilian authorities who use the “pet” planes in question for a wide variety of domestic operations. Unless you accept that the parochial interest of the Air Force is equivalent to the public interest, then you have a public interest conflict; the Air Force wants to use resources one way and state governments want to use them in a different manner.  The only sensible way of resolving this conflict is through the political process.

Somehow, it’s that last part — the national interest — that tends to get lost in today’s Washington. Somebody has to start fixing a political system that doesn’t work to serve the public.

Comments like this make me want to thrust my head in the oven.  The national interest isn’t “lost” in a debate over the relative utility of F-35s, C-27s, and C-130s, because the answers in that debate aren’t self-evident.  Some people (like me) tend to think that having C-130s and C-27s  available to state governors tends to serve the public interest more than devoting the same funding to F-35s.  Indeed, some people (like me) tend to think that the USAF has historically undervalued air transport, and that the interests of national defense would be better served by devoting more resources to cargo aircraft than to advanced tactical fighters. THIS IS THE DEBATE THAT’S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW. Ignatius just can’t manage to see it.

 

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  • witless chum

    Ignatius probably needs to watch The Wire or something to get a more jaundiced view of organizations.

    Hell, the techno-thrillers I read as a military hardware-obsessed preteen would provide a better education in this stuff than he apparently has. I remember reading one, The Warbirds by Richard Herman (no, I didn’t remember the title, but was able to figure it out) where one of the main characters had his USAF career somewhat derailed by bucking the preferred view of most generals on two-seat versus one-seat fighter planes. Also, it wouldn’t hurt for pundits to understand that, mostly, anyone who made general or admiral was at least partially a politician in uniform.

    Also, Rob, would you consider doing a broad state of the Air Force podcast at some point? I really enjoyed the Canadian Air Force episode.

    • Kurzleg

      Also, it wouldn’t hurt for pundits to understand that, mostly, anyone who made general or admiral was at least partially a politician in uniform.

      This, and it’s not exactly a secret. In general, I don’t think that any of the interested parties are doing anything untoward. It’s the nature of the beast.

    • One of the Blue

      I recall a thriller Ignatius himself wrote sometime in the ‘eighties about the CIA using local Islamists to destabilize the(then) Central Asian republics of the USSR.

      This guy’s got a history of talking crap.

      • witless chum

        Did Ignatius include overwritten sex scenes? Because that was 12 year old me’s other main criteria for a good read.

  • joe from Lowell

    If I was Preznit, I’d fill the job of USAF Chief of Staff by promoting the head of Air Mobility Command.

  • firefall

    Find an area of policy where politicians are able to intrude, as in planning the military force structure, and you’re almost guaranteed to find a result that is skewed by lobbying and horse-trading.

    ftfh

    • Uncle Kvetch

      “Find an area of policy and you’re almost guaranteed to find a result that is skewed by lobbying and horse-trading.”

      But don’t you see? A big, strong man could override all of those petty, corrupt politicians and LAY DOWN THE LAW.

      Dude sounds like he’s got more Daddy issues than MoDo.

  • What does he imagine all the Governors do with the C-130s? Transport elephants for private circuses for their cronies?

    • mds

      Well, Rick Scott probably does. But still.

      • catclub

        Barnum and Bailey has winter headquarters in Florida.

    • Cody

      Isn’t it a time-honored Republican principle (not sure if this dude is a Republican, just saying!) to use your own incompetence to prove that something is bad?

      For example, the FEMA response to Katrina was so bad we should get rid of FEMA!

  • Billmon

    Ignatius: “Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenceau said about war? He said it was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, he might have been right. But today war is too important to be left to the politicians. They have neither the time, the training nor the inclination for strategic thought.”

    When he starts babbling about flouridation, we’ll know he’s gone full Ripper.

  • Ignatius’s argument that the Air Force’s conception of its “global mission” is equivalent to “national interest” is farcical on its face. The Air Force wants to be able to shoot down Chinese fighters for some imagined future conflict while Governors’ want to have C-130’s for disaster relief! Which is more in the national interest again?

    • ajay

      The Air Force wants to be able to shoot down Chinese fighters for some imagined future conflict while Governors’ want to have C-130′s for disaster relief! Which is more in the national interest again?

      No, see, it’s like the difference in publishing between “the public interest” and “what the public is interested in”. They’re miles apart. Similarly in defence, you have to differentiate between doing things that are in “the national interest”, like propping up the Royal Lao government, and doing things that are merely in the interests of the nation, like propping up the Mississippi levees.

  • Pigmund

    It would have been helpful if the Post would update the photo next to Ignatius’ column. You would notice a bright red stain around his mouth from all that USAF Kool-Aid he has been drinking.

  • fidelio

    I’m always torn, when the issues of What planes do we need, anyway? comes around again, between suggesting the USAF, with all its various shortcomings*, be reduced to a branch of the USAR again, and suggesting that if they hate support work so very much that they let the USAR have control of fixed-wing services that handle transportation and ground-combat support. If they hate it that much surely they’ll be happy to let it go, no matter what the effect on their cut of defense spending…

    *Including, but not limited to the inability to exorcise the ghost of Curtis Lemay from their councils.

    • joe from Lowell

      if they hate support work so very much that they let the USAR have control of fixed-wing services that handle transportation and ground-combat support. If they hate it that much surely they’ll be happy to let it go, no matter what the effect on their cut of defense spending…

      To make the medicine go down easier, move the drones from the CIA to the USAF’s special forces command.

    • Indiana Joe

      If they hate it that much surely they’ll be happy to let it go, no matter what the effect on their cut of defense spending…

      Yes, but then the Army would be able to conduct operations without Air Force approval, and that would be intolerable!

    • RepubAnon

      The Marine Corp’s found having its own aircraft quite useful. Transferring air support and air transport to the Army sounds like a fine idea to me. Let the Air Force stay with air superiority and strategic bombing.

  • Paul Klos

    The bizarre thing is that sometime the Pentagon works like say the Navy buying MLPs and admitting every amphibious support ship does not need to some armed to the teeth USS America class ship, but off course they also manged to turn the LCS into a bloated white elephant…

    You know I have to say I think the Pentagon just uses a dart board with labels like:

    Well run project that meets actual needs

    Wonder toy for a big WW3 battle we might fight one day with somebody

    Intentional dismissal of other service needs

    Ignore already proven design from close ally with US production partner

    Reduce oversight even though there is only one primary contractor and no real competition

    Hey it looks its another mission modular thing that can do everything or attempt to use one platform for everything…

  • Major Kong

    I wonder how many of those C-130s we’ve worn out hauling supplies around Afghanistan.

    I know the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were pretty rough on the C-130 units from an ops tempo standpoint.

  • daveNYC

    I’ve never really gotten the hate for the A-10. Sure it’s ground support, which is non-sexy or something; but on the other hand it’s a freaking huge flying gun, so you’d think that would count for something.

    • John F

      It’s for ground support. Full Stop, period, that is the beginning and end of Air Force distaste.

      • Murc

        To unpack what John F said a bit, it’s not just that it’s about ground support. Plenty of Air Force guys are more than happy to provide ground support in the form of launching a missile from a hundred miles away and three miles up from their super-awesome mixed-role fighter.

        The A-10 has to fly low and slow. There’s no chance to show off, and like in all the armed forces, showing off in institutionally approved ways is how you get noticed and promoted. Flying in circles, very carefully, very smoothly, in order to provide a stable platform for your gunners, isn’t very glam. (Neither is being a transport pilot who always makes his runs on time and using less fuel than was budgeted for.)

        Also, it’s risky, and risky in the wrong way. Being shot out of the sky by another airplane (not that there’s been much of that ever since the end of the cold war) is sort of… well, honorable. It’s like a knight losing a joust. Getting splashed by ground-based defenses is NOT; there’s a perception that you did something wrong, that you were reckless or simply not very good.

        • Warren Terra

          Yup, this last. At least as a civilian watching how these things get portrayed, the Air Force see themselves as the Knights Of The Air – and just as in medieval times it was the right of the knight to race through the battle on their charger striking where they wished and untroubled by the peasants who were forbidden to attack them, the proper role of the air force is to nobly and untouchable challenge other air forces. The petty concerns of the country they represent must be weighed against the great importance of Chivalry. I’m pretty sure their next move will be to denounce wind turbines.

          • RepubAnon

            Or at least develop an F-35 variant designed to attack wind turbines with a nose-mounted lance, while Pilot S. Panza sits in his A-10 and explains that they might not be giants.

          • Mayson Lancaster

            And, in the next air-to-air combat in which the AF will engage, the knights will be mercilessly killed by the robots.

    • Deptfordx

      The argument is , and I freely admit no great expertise on this, is that a Plane which at the end of the day has to fly low and slow to use it’s gun is horribly vulnerable to MANPADS and other SAM’s in all but the most benign of situations. I.e. fighting insurgents who don’t actually have any AA capabilities worth mentioning. Which fact combined with the ability of modern planes to use stand-off weapons from a safe(er)distance basically makes the A-10 unnecessary. Or in a real war perhaps even a liability, captured pilots and all that.

      • joe from Lowell

        I.e. fighting insurgents who don’t actually have any AA capabilities worth mentioning.

        But how can anyone argue with a straight face that there will be less demand for those types of missions in the next decade or two, and more demand for achieving air supremacy against a peer competitor?

        That’s what I don’t get: how can anyone possibly conclude that argument “the military needed to concentrate on potential future adversaries” favors the F-35 and F-22 paradigm?

      • RepubAnon

        The A-10’s got a pretty good track record of surviving ground fire. Giving tactical air to the Army might result in a better ground attack plane… possibly in conjunction with the Marines.

        • Texasfield

          The Marines never bought the A-10 (actually the Navy never bought them for the Marines) and they are the first to make the F-35 operational. To replace their Harriers which are the least survivable of ANY modern fighter type aircraft, at least to ground fire.

    • Major Kong

      The Air Force only likes sleek, pointy-nosed fighter jets that go Mach 2 and shoot down other airplanes.

      • Helmut Monotreme

        And how much will they like the eventual, arguably inevitable fully autonomous drones that will replace the current generations of manned aircraft?

    • Major Kong

      The case for or against the A-10 comes down to an argument that probably goes back to WWII or maybe earlier.

      The anti A-10 argument is “A plane that’s designed to take hits will take hits”.

      In other words, adding armor to the plane makes it slower and less maneuverable therefore increasing its chances of getting shot. They would claim that the armor doesn’t provide enough protection to make up for the loss in speed and maneuverability.

      The pro A-10 argument is “Everybody’s going to take hits and it’s better to be able to soak up a few”.

      • John F

        The Japanese Zero flew rings around the F4F Wildcat, the Zero was faster, had a higher rate of climb and a tighter turning radius. It outclassed the Wildcat in every aspect of fighting ability except one, the Wildcat could take a hit, the Zero couldn’t. The result was two evenly matched fighters. The later Hellcat could out climb the Zero and was slightly faster, but still couldn’t turn with the Zero, the Zero still couldn’t take a hit and the Hellcat could and basically drove the Zero completely from the skies.

        • Major Kong

          There’s more to it. The Zero was poorly armed. It had two 7.7 mm machine guns and two 20 mm cannons that had a very slow rate of fire.

          It also was about 100 mph slower than the fastest American fighters (P-38, Corsair, Hellcat).

          The Wildcat never did well against the Zero until the Navy came up with improved tactics, called the “Thatch Weave”.

          To get a valid modern-world comparison I would look at F-16 vs A-10 loss rates in Desert Storm when flying comparable missions. I’m sure that data is out there but I couldn’t tell you what it says.

          • wjts

            Not the most helpful data for your question, but Wikipedia claims that the absolute losses of F-16s vs. A-10s in Desert Shield/Desert Storm were pretty similar: 3 F-16s and 4 A-10s. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, one A-10 was lost to enemy fire and no F-16s were lost to enemy fire.

            • Major Kong

              One of my former student pilots was shot down and taken prisoner during Desert Storm while flying an A-10.

              He parachuted right into the middle of a bunch of tanks he’d been strafing. They weren’t happy to see him – they beat him up pretty bad.

  • cpinva

    what function does the USAF serve, that is wholly unique to them? as near as I can tell, none. that being the case, the real issue here is, why are they a separate branch of the military? aside from the political implications, that is.

    • Major Kong

      Most countries have independent Air Forces. The US was actually very late to the game in 1947.

      As screwed up as the Air Force is, having it run by the Army would not be an improvement.

      • DocAmazing

        It is pure opium smoke, but I have a happy thought: a consolidated armed force, with one big budget.

    • Texasfield

      No other service has strategic bombers. I’m pretty sure the proliferation of those in WWII was what lead to the USAF in ’47 (or there abouts).

  • montag2

    Umm, I think that phrase could be truncated as follows: “Ignatius seems completely unaware of several problems:.”

    As with the CIA, Ignatius is in the bag for the institution’s viewpoint in all things. He might be the most credulous national security reporter transcriber around. It’s so obvious that it’s almost unfair to pick on him for it, that he doesn’t know any better and can’t help himself.

    One thing’s for sure. When he goes to the Pentagon (or Langley) the brass are like carnie barkers spotting a mark. They love to see him coming.

  • IM

    I don’t want to comment on the merits but isn’t Ignatius simply rejecting cilivian control of the military, if not the budgetary powers of congress?

    The Washington Post commentariat gets more and more openly antidemocratic.

  • Somehow, it’s that last part — the national interest — that tends to get lost in today’s Washington.

    It’s adorable that the esteemed Mr. Ignatius thinks this is something new.

    .

  • Tracy Lightcap

    All through the War to Subdue the Brown People I kept waiting for the obvious solution for COIN aircraft to come around again: re-open the A-1 production lines, just like we did in Vietnam. The A-10 is great in its way, but the A-1 is just as fast over the target, notoriously easy to fly, even sturdier, was heavily armed and had a great payload, and, of course, was absolutely dirt cheap.

    But no. We had to have that big cannon that almost never found a target and the various bells and whistles. And, of course, this is what always happens in our military when there isn’t a real shooting war on: we favor expensive “technically sophisticated” weapons that don’t work very well but that keep the services happy.

    • Major Kong

      The original design spec for the A-10 envisioned it as a tank-buster.

      Back in the late 70s and early 80s we were worried about the numerical superiority of Soviet armor in Europe. The 30mm gun was designed to penetrate a tank’s armor, at least from top and rear where the armor is relatively thin.

      • Pseudonym

        Would it have worked?

        • wjts

          During Desert Storm, A-10s destroyed just under 1000 Iraqi tanks. I suspect it would have worked OK.

          • Pseudonym

            That was against old export-model tanks after the coalition had achieved air supremacy though, right? Also, how many of those kills were from the 30mm cannon, versus, I guess, AGM-65 Mavericks?

    • seeker6079

      The fate of the COIN aircraft was predictable enough, and some people called it from the beginning. Before wars where you’d need a COIN plane the USAF says, “but none of our current threats necessitate the development of such an aircraft”. During wars where you’d need a COIN plane the USAF says, “but this war will be over soon and you can’t re-orient our air force to this passing need when our future threats won’t necessitate having such an aircraft”. Lather, rinse, repeat.

      Look, let me make this so simple that even a congressman could understand it.
      1. There aren’t phenomenal opportunities for cost overruns in COIN planes. They are, compared to the F15s and F35s and F22s of this world, fairly simple aircraft which operate on established principles and technology.
      2. Without huge cost overruns there isn’t any scope for massive padding and graft, so the defence industry hates them.
      3. If the defence industry hates them and the AF buys them instead of shiny new spacefighter toys then poof goes the chances for USAF brass and procurement guys to have lucrative jobs after they slough off their dress blues.
      4. There aren’t any extra stars in making sure that some Army moron goes home alive. Never have been, never will be. So why bother? Fuck him and fuck his widow and fuck his kids.
      5. Admitting the need for a COIN aircraft is admitting that ground support flying is a key component of the USAF mandate. Most USAF generals would rather send their 13 year old daughters to babysit for Roman Polanksi than admit this in public or private.
      6. It goes against the Air Force’s effort to be seen as a fighting service while not accepting that it incurs any casualties. “USAF” morphed into “Untouchably Safe Above the Fighting” and the fellows with the shiny starts like it that way. Risk is for the grottier armed services.

  • Paul Klos

    “6. It goes against the Air Force’s effort to be seen as a fighting service while not accepting that it incurs any casualties. “USAF” morphed into “Untouchably Safe Above the Fighting” and the fellows with the shiny starts like it that way. Risk is for the grottier armed services.”

    Which raises the question has to the USMC got suckered into he F-35 instead of going to mat for a 4.5 gen VSTOL fighter/attack aircraft and some modern take on the F4U…

    • seeker6079

      An interesting question. The commitment of the Corps to close air support is unquestioned, so I am inclined to think that there was some form of “or else” involved.

      Then again, the Harriers may be reaching the end of their lifespan [please correct if I’m wrong] and so the F35 was the only thing available that came even close to the Harrier’s VSTOL capacity.

    • Pseudonym

      Lack of alternative? Failure to convince a Hornet and a Harrier to fuck each other?

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