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This week in The Bunker: the Air Force fighter built for a threat that never was; Army’s top general warns his service is becoming a family business; hunger in the ranks; rebelling against widespread Confederate names; and more.
The F-22 vs. Russia
It was a coincidence, but it shouldn’t have been. The Air Force announced March 28 that it is scrapping 33 of its 186 F-22 fighters, a plane built to take on the Soviets. That happened just as the Russian military, the Soviets’ successor, was making clear how lousy it is—and how bad the U.S. is when it comes to assessing threats. “The resilience of Ukrainian resistance is embarrassing for a Western think-tank and military community that had confidently predicted that the Russians would conquer Ukraine in a matter of days,” Phillips Payson O’Brien, a strategic-studies professor at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, writes at The Atlantic. “Basically, many people had relied on the glamour of war, a sort of war pornography, to predict the outcome of Russia’s invasion of its neighbor.”
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The F-22’s fate tells us two things. First, it tells us that it was always the poster child for threat inflation. Secondly—because the Pentagon is siphoning the savings from scrapping nearly 20% of the F-22 fleet to invest in its next-generation hyper warplane (PDF)—it warns us that the U.S. military is all but certain to make the same mistake again.
The F-22 cost $370 million a copy. The Air Force planned to buy 750 when the program began in the 1980s, but that number kept falling, along with the misjudged Soviet threat: to 648 in 1991; 442 in 1993; 341 in 1998; 333 in 2001; 271 in 2005; before ending up at 186. Congress finally drove a stake through the F-22’s heart in 2009. Its development was a fiasco. Designing the plane cost $32 billion; buying it cost $34 billion. Its operation has been just as poor. “The F-22 fleet did not meet its annual aircraft availability or mission capable goals for any year from fiscal years 2011 through 2019,” the Government Accountability Office said (PDF) in a 2020 report.
The F-22 is not an old airplane. It went operational in 2005, and Lockheed delivered the last one less than a decade ago. Built to fly for 8,000 flight hours, the average F-22 had flown only 1,866 flight hours (PDF) through 2019, about 155 flight hours annually. Intended for high-intensity battles against sophisticated enemy aircraft, the F-22’s combat missions have been largely limited to bombing land targets in Syria and Afghanistan.
The F-22 was designed to replace the F-15 fighter, which has been operational since 1976 (PDF). The Air Force, in its 2023 budget announced the same day as the F-22 mothballing, said it plans to spend $1.4 billion on 24 new F-15 fighters, double this year’s buy. F-15s, of course, were the planes Pentagon officials said couldn’t handle the Soviet threat. That meant, the Air Force insisted, that they needed the F-22.
But these new F-15s aren’t designed to deter Russia. Major General James Peccia, the Air Force’s top uniformed budgeteer, said they are intended to deter China. Which raises the obvious question: if F-15s are good enough for China today, why weren’t they good enough for the Soviet Union 30 years ago?
A FAMILY BUSINESS
The Army’s growing reliance on kinfolk
The Army’s top officer says the service has to stop relying so much on the sons and daughters of veterans to fill its ranks. “Some people will talk about the Army and the military becoming a family business—a military family business,” General James McConville, the Army chief of staff, said March 31. “I'm not so sure that's best for the nation.” A stunning 79% of today’s Army recruits have a family member who served in uniform before them. “What happens is military kids are very comfortable going into the military. It’s like a family business,” he said. “Then we have other people who have no idea what the military is all about.”
The Bunker wrote a cover story for Time magazine warning of this trend in 2011. The cover line read “An Army Apart,” and the piece highlighted the sliver of the nation’s population that was actually wearing its uniform amid two long and grueling wars. “The job of putting on the uniform has become an almost tribal one: a growing share of active-duty troops has a sibling or had a parent in uniform; close to 100,000 troops are married to another service member,” it noted. “The number of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy who have a parent who also attended West Point has grown by 50% in the past generation.”
Dave Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general who commanded all allied troops in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, had two sons in the Army a decade ago. “It's a family business, and it's a very tough time to be in the family business," he told The Bunker back then. “As my kids deploy around the world, they're running into their playmates from when they were growing up, at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Lewis, in Kandahar and Jalalabad,” he said. “Their classmates as kids on military bases are the people they're fighting with.”
A democracy needs to be leery of a military caste that sees itself—and is also viewed by civilians—as separate from the rest of U.S. society. Such a chasm risks reducing public support for the military—and for military operations—because too few civilians have any kin in the game.
HUNGER IN THE RANKS
Well, at least for some
The latest Pentagon budget includes a congressionally-mandated Basic Needs Allowance. That’s a new monthly payment to troops whose household income is less than 130% of the federal government’s poverty guidelines for their family size and location. The Pentagon said it doesn’t know how much the new benefit will cost, although prior estimates said such payments might average about $400 monthly for eligible troops.
With inflation at 8% annually, some military personnel—largely those in the lower ranks with bigger families—are struggling. Last year, a National Military Families Association survey showed that 14% of the troops responding said that they or a family member had to rely on charity to put food on their tables over the prior year. “Our men and women in uniform and their families have enough to worry about,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said last fall as he ordered short-term fixes to grapple with the issue. “Basic necessities like food and housing shouldn't be among them.”
The Bunker is no economist (if he had been, he never would have become a reporter), but the launch of this program suggests a budget that is out of whack. While the number of active-duty troops dropped 40%, from 2.2 million in 1989 to 1.3 million today, U.S. military spending today is higher than it was during the Cold War, even after discounting for inflation.
And that, dear reader, explains why there is no Basic Needs Allowance for defense contractors.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
It’s not just Army bases anymore…
The Bunker was an early champion of changing the names of 10 Army posts named in honor of Confederate officers. Turns out that was just the tip of the iceberg. On March 30, the Naming Commission (officially the Commission on the Naming of Items of the Department of Defense that Commemorate the Confederate States of America or Any Person Who Served Voluntarily with the Confederate States of America) released a list of 757 potentially traitorous names for other U.S. military sites that are now also subject to being scrapped. And they’re not done yet. “This list is subject to change as we continue our work with the Department of Defense to identify all such assets across the service branches and the department,” the congressionally-created commission said. Its final report, with recommendations for removals and renamings, is due by October 1.
Embarrassments include streets and buildings at West Point named for (former student and superintendent) Robert E. Lee, who—asterisk alert!—also led the bloodiest war in U.S. history against the U.S. military. Caitlin M. Kenny and Bradley Peniston at Defense One counted the current Confederate candidates for change. They include “330 signs; 252 street names; 59 facilities; 26 markers, memorials, monuments, and statues; 24 buildings; 14 vessels; seven entry signs; nine structures; six recreation areas; six `land areas’; four `displays’; three paintings, plaques, and portraits; three `civil works’; and one water tank.”
These weren’t a handful of names painted on signs outside a few Army posts. They were—and remain—hundreds of deep stains on all those who swore an oath (PDF) to defend the nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
Prosecuting Vladimir Putin for war crimes in Ukraine will be difficult, and any resulting punishment unlikely to be enforced, NPR’s Bill Chappell wrote April 5.
The Air Force’s F-16s, operational since 1980, will fly for nearly 20 more years, making the cheap, lightweight fighter an even bigger bargain, John Tirpak reported in Air Force Magazine April 4.
More than two dozen retired Marine generals, including every former living Marine commandant, are storming the beaches to derail plans by General David Berger, the current commandant, to make the corps lighter and faster, Politico’s Paul McLeary and Lee Hudson reported April 1. (Berger’s rejoinder here.)
A bipartisan trio of lawmakers announced March 29 that they have introduced the Cost of War Act (PDF), requiring the Pentagon to post “the cost to each United States taxpayer” of U.S. combat actions “in an accessible and clear format.” Good luck with that: the Pentagon’s constellation of websites are typically silicon quicksand with slippery facts and misleading numbers.
The Navy announced March 31 that it will name one of its supply ships for the late Supreme Court justice.
The Air Force is investigating why one of its lumbering C-130 cargo planes made a 15-minute “unplanned stop” to pick up a vintage BMW motorcycle on Martha’s Vineyard, the Martha’s Vineyard Times reported March 25.
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