Home / Robert Farley / Air Force Continues to Make the Case for Its Own Abolition

Air Force Continues to Make the Case for Its Own Abolition

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This is insane.

The Pentagon has developed the MOP bomb specifically for destroying hardened targets. It can penetrate as deeply as 200 feet underground before detonating, more than enough capability to do significant damage to Iran’s nuclear program. There are no legal or policy limitations on selling MOPs to Israel, and with an operational stockpile at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the U.S. has enough in its arsenal to share.

Israel, however, also lacks the aircraft to carry the MOP. Which means the U.S. would need to provide planes capable of carrying such a heavy payload. Only two can do so: the B-52 and the stealth B-2.

The U.S. has only 20 B-2s and would not share such a core component of nuclear deterrence. Nor is the Pentagon willing to part with active B-52s. Of the 744 built since 1955, all but roughly 80 have been decommissioned, sent to the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, and, in compliance with arms-control-treaty obligations, mostly rendered inoperable. With plans for a new long-range bomber delayed by defense-spending cuts and sequestration, current plans call for keeping the active duty B-52s in service for at least another 20 years.

But there are more than a dozen of the relatively “newest” B-52H bombers—built in the early 1960s—in storage. Some of these should be delivered to Israel. There’s no legal or policy impediments to their transfer; they would just have to be refurbished and retrofitted to carry the MOP.

Let’s set aside all of the political questions, and just focus on the tactical problems. The GBU-57 is a precision guided gravity bomb. This means that the B-52 cannot use it from standoff range; it has to get close to the target in order to drop the weapon. The B-52 thus becomes vulnerable not only to Iranian interceptors (including F-14s which may still operate a version of the long-range Phoenix missile), but also to Iranian surface-to-air missile sites. This is why air forces don’t normally fly B-52s through contested air space. If you’re the sort of country that can carry out a massive SEAD (suppression of enemy air defense) campaign that will destroy long range SAMs along the bomber route, short range SAMs near the target, and every conceivable interceptor base that could launch fighters that could plausibly get in range of the B-52s flight path, then this is a manageable problem. Or you could just send a B-2.

Israel could carry out this sort of campaign against Syria, both because of the deterioration of the Syrian air defense network and the Syrian Air Force, and because the distances are manageable. The IDF Air Force cannot carry out a large scale, prolonged SEAD campaign against Iran, in large part because the distances are un-manageable. Iranian fighters can move outside of the range of Israeli fighter-bombers, and Iran can disguise its SAMs. This isn’t such a problem for a single strike package, or even a series of strikes, because the aircraft Israel would expect to use are small enough and fast enough to either evade Iranian SAMs or destroy Iranian interceptors. Moreover, the Iranians have little incentive to expose their SAMs and their interceptors to destruction in order to kill one or two out of a hundred or more fighter-bombers.

Israeli B-52s would immediately become the juiciest target available to Iran, and the Iranian military would likely take significant risks in order to shoot one or more down. Especially if the Israelis operated only a dozen, downing one would become a significant political coup. The presence of B-52s would, accordingly, make the Israeli SEAD problem immensely more complex, and significantly increase the potential costs to Israel of carrying out the strikes. This is to say nothing,

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of course, of the problems the Israelis would have in developing sufficient expertise to maintain the B-52s, and to fly them in combat situations. These issues are not lost on the Israelis, who retired their last large, multi-engine bombers in 1958. Essentially, Deptula is asking the Israelis to use B-52s in circumstances more dangerous than the USAF itself has been willing to use them since at least 1991, and probably since 1972.

In short, it would be dumb for the US to offer B-52s, but fortunately it’s unlikely that the Israelis would be dumb enough to accept them. David Deptula almost certainly understands this.

One of the reasons for creating an independent air force is to develop a cadre of experienced, professional airpower experts. These experts are supposed to do two things. First, they manage the use of military airpower in the most efficient and effective way possible. Second, they provide expert advice to civilian policy-makers and to the public with respect to how the military can utilize airpower to accomplish national objectives. This second role means that both active-duty and retired Air Force officers have a responsibility not to spout nonsense about airpower in public fora, largely because the patina of professional expertise leads civilian policy-makers and the public at large to take this nonsense seriously.

If the Air Force cannot either a) sufficiently educate its officers such that they appreciate the consequences of the tactical and operational advice they are providing to civilians, or b) inculcate a sense of responsibility with respect to their professional obligations as managers of airpower violence, then we’re better off without an Air Force. I suspect that people know where I stand on this question.

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  • rea

    And you don’t even mention that (1) having the US give the Israelis weapons for a particular mission is no different, in terms of culpability and consequences, than conducting the mission ourselves, and (2)the several presently non-hostile countries between Iran and Israel who are not likely going to give permission for invasion of their airspace for such an attack, and (3) the unmitigated folly of such an attack, given that it is not likely to eradicate the nuclear program, and particularly now that Iran seems disposed to negotiate the program’s future.

    • particularly now that Iran seems disposed to negotiate the program’s future.

      Peace is incompatible with the military-industrial complex, a concept itself inseparable from the USAF.

    • Colin Day

      (2)the several presently non-hostile countries between Iran and Israel who are not likely going to give permission for invasion of their airspace for such an attack,

      The Saudis would withhold permission?

      If not, Israel crosses Gulf of Aqaba/Red Sea, then over Saudi Arabia, then over the Persian Gulf. Of course, if the facilities are in Northern Iran, the Israeli planes might not have the range.

      • Manny Kant

        The Saudis would allow a country they don’t have any diplomatic relations with and don’t recognie to fly over their air space?

        • rea

          The Saudis don’t like the Iranians, but I doubt they’d risk helping the Israelis against Iran in a way likely to become public.

          Not to mention, they’d need some assurances the attack was not aimed against them . . .

        • John F

          I’ve read that the Saudis have indeed told Israel that they’d look the other way if Israel was attacking Iran

  • joe from Lowell

    Moreover, the Iranians have little incentive to expose their SAMs and their interceptors to destruction in order to kill one or two out of a hundred or more fighter-bombers.

    Israeli B-52s would immediately become the juiciest target available to Iran, and the Iranian military would likely take significant risks in order to shoot one or more down. Especially if the Israelis operated only a dozen, downing one would become a significant political coup.

    This is exactly why it’s nuts to turn your fighters into the equivalent of capital ships.

    • gman

      Even adjusted for inflation the Hellcat only cost 500k in todays money.

  • rea

    David Deptula and Michael Makovsky, the authors of the linked article, are not serving officers, though, so maybe the article doesn’t make the case for abolishing the AF. I’ll add that any serving officer who published such an article ought to be courtmatialed for insubordination.

    • I think Farley’s point is that USAF trained these jokers, with no obvious success.

      • Deptula has a M.S. in “national security strategy” from the National War College. Do they grade USAF officers on the curve there?

        I now see that Makovsky is a nutjob professor, not a nutjob USAF veteran.

  • BigHank53

    This isn’t a serious proposal to either country. What it is is Deptula’s public declaration that he’s looking for a job with AIPAC.

    • gman

      Why not? It pay much better than being on the other side of that issue.

    • Ann Outhouse

      The Wall Street Urinal has to fill its editorial trough with this sort of golden elixir for its wealthy AIPAC/neocon subscribers, advertisers and, alas, owner.

    • Zachary Smith

      … he’s looking for a job …

      After looking the situation over, this was my own conclusion as well. It was a perfectly stupid little essay, but that sort of crap plays well in some places.

      IMO, the MOP is overrated if used against a prepared and sophisticated opponent. Way back during the Falklands war thirty years ago, the British had an anti-air missile – the Sea Wolf – which was capable of intercepting a 4.5″ artillery shell. The MOP is a much larger and slower target. Probably a sophisticated cannon system could destroy the thing while still in the air.

  • junker

    I don’t know a lot about waging war, but if you had to do all that stuff to make a B-52 effective, wouldn’t you at that point be winning the war to the point where the B-52 is no longer needed?

    • njorl

      A lot of our weapons systems serve the purpose of making a lopsided victory even more lopsided. For a wealthy nation, that’s a valid purpose, but it can be taken to absurd extremes.

    • Ann Outhouse

      That’s making the B-52 effective in that highly specific situation. It can also be effective in situations where it doesn’t face a significant tactical threat. For example, it can carry cruise missiles and fire them from a stand-off position.

      The problem here, as Farley points out, is these bunker-buster bombs are gravity dropped. They only have steering, no propulsion, because they’re so fkn heavy to begin with. So the B-52 has to be right over the target, give or take a mile or so depending on altitude and wind.

      • patrick II

        They are also heavy and dropped (not steered much horizontally) because vertical inertia is what drives them into the ground. So, getting high and nearly above the target is necessary if you want the thing to penetrate bunkers.

      • James

        Additionally, there is (or at least can be) merit in the ability to carry a great deal of ordinance over long distances and with considerable loiter times; that the Air Force doesn’t understand how to use its assets does it doesn’t follow that those assets have not value. For example, the Air Force should not be entrusted with a pocket knife, and yet I am able to carry one and find considerable utility with it. And of course, small children have safely enjoyed cap-guns for years.

        In addition to being an excellent missile bus — it is a pity the Navy doesn’t own any; 48 AGM-84s on a flight of four aircraft is a pretty serious anti-shipping punch, and while it wouldn’t be effective in the ASW role, it would be a very useful platform for many of the other missions of the P8, although far from a replacement. I have concerns about the P8, because I don’t trust aircraft procurement these days and because I always worry we won’t buy enough of what we need, but it is a capability we need.

        • James

          Oh, for an edit button

      • cpinva

        “So the B-52 has to be right over the target, give or take a mile or so depending on altitude and wind.”

        a 15K bomb is probably going to reach terminal velocity shortly after being dropped. I’m not sure altitude/wind is going to have a material effect on its trajectory.

        • Wind does have an effect, although some newer bombs are “wind corrected” by GPS.

          We had some bombing accuracy problems in Desert Storm because the wind model in our bombing computer didn’t accurately reflect actual conditions.

  • Gwen

    The “Bomb Iran” caucus cannot be reasoned with.

    And given that the Israeli response to the Iranian nuclear negotiations has basically amounted to a temper tantrum —

    “but… but… we were gonna bomb Iran! you promised! no fair!”

    — I would hesitate to give them any weapons more powerful than a cap gun until their attitude improves.

  • Gwen

    It’s also possible, though, fwiw, that Deptula is just showing the sort of bias that technical people often display when asked the question, “can we do this?”

    Technical people love to say “yes,” even when the answer, for all intents and purposes, should be “no.”

    Is it possible that I could create my own blogging platform using nothing but a little bit of bash scripting, GNU utilities, a paperclip and some string? Yes! Yes it is!

    Do I have the time, money and patience to actually do it? Heck no. But that wasn’t the question!

    So imagine the scenario:

    Right-wing professor — “Hey Deptula, could Israel wipe Iran’s nuclear program off the map without using nuclear weapons?”

    Deptula — “Of course! All we need is a MOP, a B-52, some unobtainium, and a paperclip and some string!”

    Right-wing professor — “Great! Can you put that in writing?”

    Deptula — “Happily!”

    • Anna in PDX

      That’s how I imagine it going too. Only I am not as funny as you. You and SEK should combine forces and write dialog for screenplays.

      • Barry Freed

        Just make sure SEK shaves before making his pitch.

        • Trollhattan

          Twenty snark quatloos are awarded!

        • Max Bialystock

          I don’t see why he needs to do that.

  • Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

    It’s worth remembering the North Vietnamese encounters with the B-52. They shot down enough BUFFs to make their own ‘Blitz myth’ of the 1972 Christmas bombings a compelling (and true) tale of defiance and victory.

  • njorl

    F-35 empty weight: 29,300 lbs
    F-35 fully fueled weight: 49,540 lbs.
    MOP weight 30,000 lbs.
    F-35 max takeoff weight: 70,000 lbs.

    take off with a half tank of fuel, refuel twice on the outbound trip (in Saudi airspace!) refuel once on the way home (again in Saudi airspace!)

    You might need to modify the landing gear to fit that giant thing under the F-35.

    As crazy as all that is, it is less crazy than sending a B-52 to get shot down.

    • Stan Gable

      As crazy as all that is, it is less crazy than sending a B-52 to get shot down.

      Maybe getting the B-52 shot down is the goal.

      • gman

        Now you are thinking! Imagine the (manufactured)”OUTRAGE”!

      • Colin Day

        In The Guns of August, Tuchman relates an exchange between a French officer and a British officer. The British officer asks the French officer what the smallest practicable British force would be. The French officer replies (something like) a single British soldier, and I will see that he is killed.

        • James

          It was Foch, to Sir Henry Wilson.

    • Gwen

      How maneuverable would an F-35 be though at close to maximum weight?

      Also, distributing the weight would be key — you’d probably want it on the center of the aircraft, but are their hardpoints there, and if so, are they capable of handling that amount of force without failing?

      • Kurzleg

        How maneuverable would an F-35 be though at close to maximum weight?

        And assuming that the bomb is externally mounted, how much is the stealth compromised as a result?

        • Ann Outhouse

          Also, too, draaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaag. Lots of draaaaaaaaaaag.

        • njorl

          That’s a good point. The F-35 has a small bomb bay, which is unusual for a fighter. It has this so it can carry munitions without ruining stealth. I think it’s about 10 inches too narrow for the MOP. The presence of the bomb bay probably means there’s no hard points under the fuselage to mount it externally.

          I guess it’s time for Operation European Swallow, in which 2 F-35s carry it between them on a line.

          • John F

            shove it out a C-130’s rear cargo door

            • Gwen

              Drop elephants on them, just like in the charming Disney film “Operation Dumbo Drop.”

              But without a parachute, of course. This is war after all.

              • Hannibal

                If only I’d had a few C-130s…

              • Slocum

                God as my witness, I thought elephants could fly.

      • Stan Gable

        I think the Germans ran into this problem with the ME-262 program. I’ve always understood that Hitler in particular wanted it to be a bomber but the conversion completely negated the speed benefit such that it was relatively easy to intercept with piston-engined planes.

        • stickler

          That’s sort of a myth concocted after the war, and like most of them it conveniently blamed Hitler alone. The real problem was shortages of certain high-grade alloys, which made the jet engines brittle and short-lived. Also prone to flame-outs at low speed (which, to be fair, British jet engines suffered from too). Once at speed and elevation, the Me262 was untouchable by Allied fighters — the alleged bomber conversion had no effect.

    • Anonymous

      Why return the F-35? Nose dive, and then it penetrates to 251 ft vs the original 200 ft. Plus you can then blame the loss on the other side and pay another billion to build one (across 435 districts that’s $2.3 million per).

  • Gwen

    But if we go this route, a more plausible alternative might be an F-111B (which I think the Israelis have, or at least once had, in their inventory).

    Also, why can’t the B1-B handle this? Granted, I wouldn’t give the B1B to Israel, either, but it seems less absurd than either a B2 or a B52.

    • The Israelis never had F-111s.

      Australia is the only country besides the US that ever had F-111s.

    • Mike G

      No-one ever operated the F-111 except the USAF and the Australians. All are retired now.

      • James

        What is their status though? The condition of aircraft at Davis-Monthan is pretty variable (some if not ready to fly, pretty close to it, others basically hulks).

        And how hard would it be to convert some back to the FB-111? I mean, if we are really looking for a way to execute a stupid idea as well as possible.

  • FMguru

    A dozen B52-Hs in storage? I presume they’re sitting in the desert outside of Davis/Montham AFB in Tucson, covered in tarps and waiting to get called up to the big show.

    Looking up Davis/Montham is a good way to kill 15 minutes on Google Maps satellite view. How many different planes can YOU identify?

    • Kurzleg

      I was out there years ago, and it blew my mind how many planes were mothballed out there. IIRC, there’s an air museum there too with the last propeller-driven Air Force One, an SR-71 and a B-52. I was disappointed that you weren’t allowed inside the B-52.

      • Kurzleg

        Correction: the AFO was the last 707 used before they switched to the 747.

      • FMguru

        I really do need to go visit that sometime. Maybe next winter.

        There’s a decommissioned Titan missile silo west of Tucson (in Green Valley) that’s open as a museum. Very cool and terrifying. Take the tour down to the bunker, sit in a chair and turn one of the keys. Fun for the whole family!

        • I took that tour in October. It was super weird.

        • Kurzleg

          If you’re a aircraft enthusiast, it’s pretty cool. You can get a flavor of what they have by doing the Google Earth thing.

        • Stan Gable

          Turn your key, sir.

          • FMguru

            WARGAMES was one of my favorite movies of my 1980s family VCR days; I wonder how well it’s held up?

            • Stan Gable

              Awesomely? I watch it every once in a while, it’s still very watchable:

              General Beringer: [smiles sarcastically at McKittrick] Mr. McKittrick, after very careful consideration, sir, I’ve come to the conclusion that your new defense system sucks.
              McKittrick: I don’t have to take that, you pig-eyed sack of shit.

              • Kurzleg

                That’s McKittrick’s actual line? I don’t believe it, not in a movie with that nice boy Matthew Broderick.

                • Yes, along with this one:

                  Jennifer: He wasn’t very old.

                  David Lightman: No, he was pretty old. He was 41.

                  Jennifer: Oh yeah? Oh, that’s old.

      • cpinva

        there are only 3 SR-71’s, none of them located any farther west than Huntsville, AL. the 3 are situated at:

        1. in front of the main entrance to the visitor’s center, at the NASA Manned Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL.

        2. at the air force museum, located just outside of eglin AFB, in FL.

        3. in front of the entrance to air museum, located just in front of Richmond AP, in sandston, va.

        I’ve seen all 3. I want one!

        • Derelict

          No. 4 is in the Dulles Annex of Air & Space. They also have a D-21 drone!

          And, if you’re in Tuscon and you’re an airplane enthusiast, you MUST visit the Pima Air Museum. My wife and I were lucky enough to visit just after it opened and before they actually had the displays together. We spent hours wandering around while I squealed like a little kid at Christmas: “Ooooh! The YC-14 prototype!”

          They have many one-off prototypes there. Just an amazing place.

          • Kurzleg

            I could swear I saw an SR-71 at Pima back in the mid 90s. Has it been moved?

            I also recall seeing one on the deck of the USS Intrepid in the late 90s. But AAccording to Wikipedia, that was a Lockheed A-12, predecessor to the SR-71.

        • wengler

          There’s one at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS. That’s actually a pretty good space museum in the middle of nowhere.

        • Hanspeter
          • Kurzleg

            Yeah, I thought I remembered seeing one at Pima.

        • trollhattan

          The good people of Atwater, CA must wonder what the hell this is.

          http://www.sr-71.org/museums/castle/index.php?aircraft=SR-71A

          The museum at Boeing Field has the more rare A12, in bare titanium, which is in some ways cooler looking than the SR71 black paint.

    • efgoldman

      In the mid-50s, my dad was stationed at Aberdeen (MD) proving ground. We were driving on some back road toward Edgewood Arsenal (a chemical warfare center at the time), when we cam upon a field full of WW2 aircraft: B24s, B25s, B26s, P38s, I don’t remember what else. I was maybe 11 years old, and in absolute heaven for the hour or two we spent exploring.

  • Trollhattan

    Jeez, instead of deploying batshit insane Air Force proxies to propose idiodic policy, why don’t they cut out the middlemen and pass a Constitutional amendment allowing Likud Party members to run for president? This method seems so…inefficient.

    Can I get an “amen” from the Krauthammer Korner?

  • Ralph Hitchens

    Jeez, this article (Op-Ed in the WSJ, of course!) is not about the roles & missions of the US Air Force or why it should be abolished. It’s about a couple of retirees who’ve drunk the “bomb Iran” Kool-Aid. As if Iran would be more of a threat (To us? To Israel? To who?) with a few undeliverable nuclear weapons. Opinions of a couple of guys who used to wield a hammer and saw everything as a nail. Why drag the Air Force into it? You’re sounding like a broken record. If somebody in this or another administration has the monumentally stupid notion of selling BUFFs to Israel, it won’t be a patented Air Force idea. It’ll be those damned neocons again, who never saw a war they didn’t love, so long as they never had to fight in it.

    • Ralph: the point is that the so-called experts aren’t even expert on their own technical subject.

    • Kurzleg
  • Francis

    My favorite bit was the use of the word “just” in this sentence: they would just have to be refurbished and retrofitted to carry the MOP.

    A 55-year old plane that’s been sitting in a boneyard for a decade? Just run it through a carwash, a quick polish and she’s good to go. Really.

    Without knowing a damn thing about military hardware, I have a sneaking suspicion that “just” refurbishing and retrofitting this plane would be pretty much exactly as expensive as restarting the production line and building a new one.

    • Kurzleg

      All that’s required is the Will and Leadership!

    • rea

      We may have some more recently retired B-52Hs, as they are included in the number of nuclear capable systems covered by the recent New Start Treaty

    • James

      The readiness state of aircraft at Davis-Monthan varies pretty widely. Some aircraft are kept in a state that leaves them ready to return to service quickly –the Air Force currently flies some F-16s that had previously been stored there, for example — and at the other end some are being broken down for parts.

      But a major reason that the Boneyard is there is to keep the aircraft viable as long as possible. There is no reason to assume that the technical obstacles are vast. This isn’t the kind of thing done all the time, but it isn’t exactly rare

      Using them to bomb Iran is still an incredibly stupid idea.

  • Mojo

    Blimps.

    • Gwen

      Trebuchets.

    • Gwen

      Although lighter-than-air would definitely be more comical.

      Best plan I can think of — lots of helium party balloons. You know, like way more than Larry Walters used to float a lawnchair over Los Angeles.

  • bph

    “The bomber will always gets through.”

    • Zombie Stanley Baldwin

      “I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through, The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves…”

  • mike in dc

    Give Israel B-52s?! WTF?! WTFF?! Hey, why don’t we decommission an Ohio class sub and give them one of those, too? A strategic bomber is an explicitly offensive weapon, that is, one explicitly intended for offense rather than fighter-bomber, which at least superficially can be seen as a weapon with a defensive function.

    That is the most batshit crazy proposal I’ve heard of in a very long time.

  • wengler

    I thought we were giving all our bombers to Ukraine.

  • Strategic bombers are terribly expensive weapons to maintain and operate. Even China only has medium bombers (home built TU-16s). Only the United States and Russia can even afford then.

    • rea

      Only the United States and Russia can even have them, even though they cannot afford then.

  • tensor

    … the point is that the so-called experts aren’t even expert on their own technical subject.

    What part of “neocon published in the Wall Street Journal” did anyone not understand?

  • Ken

    I keep thinking I must be missing something. Is the argument really: We have the materiel, but because of that pesky Constitution we can’t bomb Iran. Israel doesn’t have the materiel, but could manage the political side. So we just give Israel the planes and bombs, because there isn’t any law against that?

    Oh, wait, I see what I’m missing – Farley’s summary “This is insane.”

  • The landing and takoff runways for B-52s would not fit in Israel.

    • SAC runways were 12,000′ by 300′ wide but you only need 10,000 feet long by 200 feet wide for a B-52.

      I can’t say whether or not the Israelis have anything that size but it’s quite possible.

  • jkay

    Aww, poor Likud-neocon Party warmongers. Peace has broken out….

    The USAF connection’s that even their “best and brighest” assigned to defense have shown stupid-neocon in Ukraine.

    Gwen, how is a MEDIA HACK remotely an engineer? Much less a LOBBYIST.

    This ENGINEER thinks Israel ought nmot to get money if they use it for starting war or ethnic cleansing. And I understand MAD’d work on Iran as well, especially since the regime has been clearly rational and learned from early mistakes well.

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