The Sexiest Plane Ever…

The B1-B is hot. The plane is, in my opinion, the best looking airframe ever built. The bomber also has a stunning list of attributes; very low RCS (its stealthy), the ability to fly at over 600 mph at low altitudes, and an impressive payload of over 70,000 lbs.

It is also a plane without a mission.

When President Obama said this week that politics would not play a roll in defense policy, I was unable to suppress a chuckle; U.S. defense policy has been guided by politics for over 50 years now. Most of the nation assumes that Republicans plus up spending, and that Democrats reduce it; but politicos from both parties jump on board when local bases and factories are involved. The debate on Afghanistan is all politics; for a country with no history of national identity, the notion of building a state that can defend itself is ridiculous. Whether to send in more troops, or remove them all together is a political calculation for the Obama Administration; as with all Democratic administrations, they are vulnerable to “soft on defense” charges.

Just ask President Carter. The B1 was designed pursuant to a SAC strategy called “saber-penetrator”; where the Air Force portion of the nuclear triad would be carried out by “penetrator” aircraft dropping nuclear bombs, and stand-off platforms firing nuclear cruise missiles. The B-1 was intended to be the penetrator until the B-2 Stealth was ready for the role, at which point the B-1 would act as the stand-off element. The Air Force high command and President Carter both came to the conclusion that B-52s and FB-111’s could hold down the fort until the B-2’s arrived. That combined with the realization that the Navy’s version of the triad (with its Ohio class SSBN’s having a probability of mission failure as close to zero as possible in war) was the only one that was needed.

Carter canceled the program. Reagan jumped on Carter. When Reagan won, he restarted the program. The program exists today entirely because of politics. I have found it comical seeing a multi-billion dollar system, designed to penetrate the most advanced integrated air-defense system in the world, orbiting defenseless targets in Iraq and Afghanistan with the mission of delivering laser guided bombs that other existing systems could handle with equal efficiency.

Again…a gorgeous and dynamic airframe…but with no point. President Carter fully funded a number of programs the fill that role admirably; from the Tomahawk, B-52 upgrades, FB-111, to the F-117. Politics, politics, politics.

Both Gulf Wars were exercises in shared targeting; how many weapons systems can we get kills for before the war ends? The F-15E, a dubious use of the most effective role fulfilling airframe in military history, was pushed into missions that would have (and eventually did once the F-15E’s suffered loses) go to the infinitely more survivable A-10. F-16’s designed as lightweight dogfighters and used as tactical bombers in roles that Navy A-6’s and Air Force FB-111’s could handle. Politics, politics, politics.

Now, folks are screaming about F-22’s, the Seawolf project, and the European missile shield. Secretary Gates recommended that the current shield plan, with ten interceptors and one radar station (and a deployment date of 2017), be replaced by a seagoing version with proven SM-3 interceptors that could be on-station in months. The Seawolf submarines are hunters without targets, whereas the Virginia class littoral subs, built on Seawolf keels, are purpose designed for modern, shallow-water combat. The F-22 is a manned interceptor designed to replace the F-15 (an airframe that remains, literally, undefeated). Most observers reluctantly acknowledge that the next U.S. interceptor should be, sadly, unmanned. Hey, I wanted to be a fighter-jock, but the fact is that unmanned planes can carry higher warloads in stealthier airframes that can pull more g’s than manned versions. Politics, politics, politics.In a perfect world, military planners would update threat assessments and formulate strategies that would be supported by specific programs funded appropriately.

Contractor/lobbyists and congressional aides should not decide what is in our interest. If contractors were held to account and programs were designed without political interference, the budget would not be an issue. The former problem, as Senator McCain pointed out in the campaign, is the largest one. Contractors are essentially above market pressures, and they act like it. Boeing put a brand new design, the 777, into production less than 8 years after it was proposed, and the SR-71 was proposed, designed, and flown in about the same time frame. Both are cutting-edge platforms. On the other hand, the specification for the F-22 (called the advanced tactical fighter) was issued in the 80’s and took twice as long as the above aircraft to fly first. Every year of development costs money…lots of it.

President Obama would like to believe that politics will not come into question, even though his first defense budget (an increase over the last Bush budget) was blasted for “cuts”. Still, he has the power to make it about the mission and the men, if only he has the political courage of his convictions. Perhaps Senator McCain will tell the leadership of his party to suck eggs and become the President’s point man on the issue. I am not so sure though. As much as the rational middle would like this issue addressed, the retrenched ideological warfare that has consumed our democracy makes me skeptical.

We wait in hope for your commentary….