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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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