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The Spirit

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Robert Kaplan’s Atlantic article on the B-2 is an embarassment, both for himself and for the Air Force personnel that he interviewed. It’s all fine and well to find a particular kind of military hardware appealing, but Kaplan’s enthusiasm for the B-2 leads him to make laughably idiotic assertions about its capabilities and effect, and to produce what can only be referred to as an extended mash-note for its operators. Indeed, I feel kind of bad for “Nuke” and “Genghis”, a pair of B-2 pilots that Kaplan spoke with:

Nuke and Genghis are both of average height, with taut bodies–Price weighs only 126 pounds–and tense expressions. Their physiques match their quiet, precise personalities.

After detailing the faith and physiques of the pilots, Kaplan goes on to spout the most ridiculous nonsense about the capacity of the aircraft.

The 1999 conflict represented a breakthrough for the Air Force: Rather than a multiplane carpet-bombing strategy, we deployed just a few B-2s, each one hitting multiple targets with the superaccuracy of a fighter jet. Suddenly, aerial warfare was no longer about how many planes were needed to take out a big target, but about how many targets could be taken out with a single plane. The conflict in Kosovo also demonstrated that technology could permit the waging of limited wars. The B-2 allowed President Bill Clinton, who had little appetite for incurring casualties in a humanitarian intervention, to launch strikes with minimal risk to the pilots.

Well, that, and we also used tremendous numbers of fighter and attack aircraft to hit targets repeatedly all over the country. Our B-2-less allies joined in with airstrikes of their own. Indeed, in the Kosovo Campaign we learned that the largest and most powerful military alliance ever created could successfully coerce a country of eleven million after just seventy-eight days of bombing and the threat of a ground invasion. Air power has truly come of age, I suppose.

The B-2 has subsequently been used in Afghanistan and Iraq, where, as Colonel Wheeler noted, “The B-2 makes a statement. And that statement is, ‘We mean business!'” He banged his fist on the table. Wheeler is the classic intense Air Force intellectual. He has degrees in both engineering and strategic studies and is a veteran of three wars and a diplomatic posting in Europe. His insights came in hyperactive bursts between sips from a quart-sized plastic coffee mug.

“The deterrence effect of this airplane may be as important as its destructive capability,” he went on. “Any adversary knows that the B-2 can enter relatively unseen with the power and accuracy to destroy. Merely by having the B-2, we can better influence the decision-making process in rogue nations and encourage any other countries to perhaps go another route in their national defense. The stealth bomber is a diplomatic instrument as much as it is a military instrument.” Wheeler didn’t say this explicitly, but for rogue nations, you should read “Iran and North Korea”; for other countries read “China and a resurgent, nationalistic Russia.”

For an “intellectual”, it’s unclear to me that Colonel Wheeler has given any thought to the uses of air power; indeed, I’d like to see one iota of evidence that the existence of the B-2 (apart from the rest of US military capacity) has changed the behavior of a single state in the world. Does he really think that Iran and North Korea are hardening potential target sites because of the capacity of the B-2 to evade radar? How long, I wonder, does Colonel Wheeler (or Kaplan, who channels this tripe) think that the Iranian air defense network would last against a dedicated US air attack? Nevertheless, I’m happy to allow that Wheeler (and Charles Dunlap, as I’ll discuss in another post) is a “classic” Air Force intellectual; air power enthusiasts have been making indefensible, evidence free assertions about the revolutionary nature of air warfare since the First World War.

The following quote helps explain why the Air Force has such an attraction for conservative foreign policy hacks. From a DOD official who had retired from the Air Force:

He explained further: “It’s a pride thing. We’re the B-2. We not only kick down your door, we go in and out of your country without you even knowing it. We take out your head of state, your nuke and chem-bio plants, your SAM [surface-to-air missile] sites. ‘Follow us. We clear the path,’ we say to the other aerial platforms.”

Of course, the B-2 has never done any of those things, and probably never will. There’s no evidence that it can decapitate enemy leaders or destroy enemy nuclear infrastructure; such goals have far more to do with intelligence than with any single weapon platform. Indeed, it’s unclear what the point of decapitation would be. But the DOD official is right that it’s a pride thing; even though the weapon doesn’t add to US capabilities in any noticeable way, and even though there’s no evidence that it has affected anyone’s behavior, conservatives love it because it’s a weapon that no one else has. It rains death from above; not as well as a forty year old B-52, but nevertheless. The B-2, like so many weapons before it, promises the quick, easy destruction of as many enemies as we care to destroy. As the currently most advanced weapon system in the US arsenal, the B-2 is the star of the moment for a particular concept of war; one that envisions the destruction of whomever the US chooses whenever we choose without significant cost to ourselves. It isn’t the first star of the show, and it won’t be the last. I do suspect, though, that down the road it will be seen as the biggest boondoggle, given its expense and the use to which it has been put.

I suppose that Kaplan deserves some mild credit for pointing out that the B-2 is currently engaged in attacks on small groups of insurgents who lack SAM sites, expensive radars, and fast interceptor aircraft, although he forgets to note that these attacks often go awry, killing civilians and undermining their own purpose. I suppose also that this may be a trying period for conservative defense intellectuals; do they laud the latest piece of gadgetry that the Air Force is trying push on them, or do they listen to Golden Boy Petraeus when he argues (correctly) that the use of air power directly contradicts the goals of counter-insurgency?

Cross-posted to TAPPED.

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