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Better Journalism, Please


For some reason, the Atlantic continues to attract love letters to aircraft. I had hoped that Robert Kaplan’s ode to the B-2 Spirit would be sufficient embarrassment to the magazine to make the editors think twice about a second paean to an airborne weapons system. Unfortunately, the generally-more-reliable Mark Bowden falls manages very nearly the same level of sloppy affection for the F-22 as Kaplan did for the B-2. While not descending into purple prose that should, again, have embarrassed his editors (“If the cost of air supremacy is not paid in dollars, it may be paid in blood”) Bowden’s account includes a number of distortions/omissions, including the following:

  • He claims that “independent analysts” have determined that the Air Force will require 381 F-22s. I have no doubt that this is, in some sense, correct; at the same time, numerous other “independent analysts” have determined that the Air Force requires zero F-22s.
  • Bowden accepts the economic claims of F-22 advocates without engaging in any serious scrutiny. It’s certainly correct to suggest that shutting down the F-22 line will put people out of work and close factories all over the nation. It’s just as true that the money spent on the F-22 could be used to create jobs in other ways, or to cut taxes, or to cut the deficit. Maybe the F-22 is among the best choices for economic stimulus. I don’t know, Lockheed doesn’t know, and Mark Bowden doesn’t know either; I wish he would have bothered to ask, however.
  • Bowden claims that skilled pilots have little chance against aircraft more advanced than their own, which is to say that technological superiority is the primary determinant of air combat victory. This argument, it is fair to say, has not been supported by the evidence; in Korea, Vietnam, and the various Arab-Israeli wars, pilot expertise proved a much more important determinant of success than technology.
  • Bowden claims that foreign built fighters have demonstrated superiority to the F-15. While I think that there may be a fair argument based on avionics data, Bowden resorts to description of the Cope India exercises, in which American pilots suffered losses against Indian aircraft. “Independent analysts,” such that they are, have long contended that these exercises were rigged, and essentially conducted in order to advertise for the F-22. Bowden doesn’t bother to address these arguments, instead allowing himself to get rolled by the (admittedly) super cool USAF fighter pilots.
  • Bowden detaches consideration of the F-15’s capabilities from any appreciation of strategic reality. Even if the Su-30 could be regarded as tactically superior to the F-15, and even if Venzuelan pilots could match the intensity and duration of training that American pilots enjoy, it’s unclear what the possession of a squadron or two of the aircraft would do to transform the US-Venezuelan relationship. Bowden simply accepts, without the merest protest, that the United States must have massive qualitative and quantitative advantage at all times with every type of weapon system in order to maintain its security. That the Venezuelan Su-30s would likely be destroyed on the ground before being shot down by better trained American pilots flying with substantial quantitative advantage doesn’t merit his attention.

See also Duss and Yglesias.

Cross-posted to TAPPED

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