This piece was originally published at www.johnqpublic.com.
By Tony Carr
Recently, the Air Force’s F-35 program has been facing fresh skepticism and new scrutiny. Interestingly, it’s not the program’s trillion-dollar price tag, dubious design, or stunted development raising new doubts, but something more fundamental: senior officials speaking for the program are hemorrhaging public credibility with transparently desperate misrepresentations aimed at putting a positive face on a failing program.
Media, members of Congress, thought leaders, and even airmen themselves are growing uncomfortable with the risks lurking in the program, notwithstanding endless streams of reassuring propaganda, much of it paid for with public funds.
The origins of this problem are a dozen years old, and have to do with variance between the original vision for the F-35 (stealthy, adaptable, precision strike aircraft with enough air-to-air capability to defend itself) and what it’s now being asked to do (everything).
This variance was introduced by a confluence of forces, from declining budgets, anemic defense planning, and unforeseen global requirements to a downscaled F-22 purchase. All of which is interesting, but irrelevant to the present conduct of senior generals bent on fielding a weapon that threatens to break the bank while narrowing defense capabilities by necessitating divestiture of complementary capabilities. This at a time of global instability and uncertainty arguing for a broader conception of readiness.
Recently, the frequency and quality of gaffes have heightened. Gen. Mark Welsh claimed the F-35 wouldn’t replace the A-10, contradicting an official service position to the contrary and unintentionally crystallizing that the F-35 may succeed the Hawg but will never replace it in the Close Air Support mission. Welsh also went off the rails in his acrimonious rejection of an F-35/A-10 fly-off, something he had to publicly walk back after it was revealed the test had been directed by the Department of Defense’s chief of operational test and evaluation.
After he walked it back, Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, who manages the F-35 program, persisted in denouncing the idea, unleashing a comical tirade in the process. Last week, Gen. Herbert Carlisle admitted what had been long denied by Air Force officials when he explained that the F-35 would not dogfight, leaving the definitive, core Air Force mission to the service’s small stable of F-22s. This often contradictory and always entertaining furball of rhetoric happens against the backdrop of twin revelations that the Marine Corps overstated F-35 performance during operational trials and that the Air Force quietly tuned down program requirements to stay on its developmental timeline.
With this noticeably negative trajectory and the F-35 program under formal departmental review, what will the Air Force, which plans to purchase 1,763 F-35s, do to shore up credibility? The answer, rather than leveling with the public and engaging in straight talk, is to double-down.
An eight-page propaganda plan obtained by JQP — labeled “F-35A Public Affairs Guidance” and shared in entirety below — lays out in painstaking (and painful) detail the authorized answers to public questions about the program.
Here are 10 things you should know before reading it yourself.
1. It Reeks of Desperation.
Nothing says “even we are worried about this program” like an eight-page wall of single-spaced text extolling virtues that should, by now, be self-evident. The timing is noteworthy as well. With the F-35A less than a year away from initial operational capability, it shouldn’t need much of a sales pitch to sustain it at this point. The fact it does demonstrates how vulnerable senior officials feel about the program.
2. It’s a Cure for Insomnia.
If you’re going to do propaganda, make it count. This thing is a lullaby for a speed freak. Like most Air Force propaganda, it’s a festival of banal buzzwords, with numerous applications of such delights as “adaptive”(4), “survivable” (6), “lethal” (13), “emerging”(6), and “contested” (6). For all of the talent in the Air Force’s public affairs community, it’s still not registering that this stuff makes people’s eyes glaze over in nanoseconds.
3. It Doesn’t Include the Word “Congress.”
This is an odd omission for a plan built to cement the notion that an objectively exorbitant expense to the taxpayer is justified. The omission might reveal that the Air Force already assumes Congress is in its pocket. Or, it might expose a kind of corporate hubris … an embedded belief that Congress doesn’t know what it’s doing on defense and will, in the end, defer to the experts. Either way, the omission glares.
4. It’s Based on a $1.4T Assumption.
The language of this “guidance” assumes the F-35 is a foregone conclusion. This is interesting for a couple of reasons.
First, it raises the question of why such a sales pitch is necessary in the first place. If the money will be spent no matter what anyone thinks about the program or how it actually performs from this point forward, why spend resources persuading anyone?
But more importantly, it exposes just how far in front of the cart the horse has galloped. The F-35 hasn’t proven anything. If the Air Force were properly safeguarding the taxpayer dollar, it would look upon the program with healthy skepticism, forcing it to justify itself with performance rather than lending it perceptual justification that may or may not be borne out by the end result.
Should the military services propagandize the public to secure funding for weapons? That question, as old as the hills, is renewed by this document.
5. It’s Hostile to the Target Audience.
“[N]arratives have emerged in the news media stating the aircraft is too expensive, consistently behind schedule and is not able to achieve its’ stated missions. Air Force communicators must be prepared to consistently confront these inaccurate narratives.”
That’s Swahili for ‘the media is getting it wrong, and this is how we will set them straight.’ Not exactly a recipe for the kind of fulsome and candid public discourse essential to the F-35 publicly proving itself. If the official point of departure is an adversarial attitude toward those in the media interested in telling the F-35 story, there’s scarce common ground available for a constructive relationship.
6. It Makes No Mention of the Actual F-35 Program.
This document is about a chosen, authorized narrative of the F-35, not the F-35 itself. Given that it purports to be about the F-35, but is really about a chosen image of the F-35, it’s a fundamentally dishonest exercise.
This is true of all propaganda, which is why the Air Force, which claims the mantle of integrity, shouldn’t engage in it. Every time it does, it repeats the mistake of making a lie out of its professed allergy to lying.
7. It is Antithetical to Critical Thinking.
The F-35, by many accounts, is in crisis. What it needs more than anything is a heavy infusion of creative, innovative thought untethered from political considerations. This document strangles any chance of that by telling everyone exactly what to say, which is a way of telling everyone exactly what to think … at least to the limited extent it expects words to authentically align with thoughts.
8. It Injures the Air Force Public Affairs Community.
Documents like this support the increasingly frequent contention that the USAF has reduced its public communications to centrally directed, carefully vetted propaganda. This means nothing emerging from the public affairs community can be assumed authentic or candid. None of it can be trusted or taken at face value. This compromises the credibility of the thousands of airmen trying to tell the Air Force story. It underscores the notion that propaganda and journalistic activity cannot feasibly co-exist in the same organization.
9. It Will Make Things Worse.
The F-35 is already in trouble. More re-warmed, rehearsed, and useless claptrap is only going to make things worse. This is an attempt to substitute for having something constructive to say, but it will bury the needles on bullshit detectors. The ultimate message (desperation) will be roughly the opposite of what was intended (confidence), and will hurt rather than help.
10. You Weren’t Supposed to See It.
Only in the 2015 Air Force, which is doing its best to bring Joseph Heller’s vision to life, can you find public affairs guidance allegedly created for a public audience, yet so “sensitive” that it can’t be shared with the public.
In this case, the paradox is laughable, with the word “public” appearing twice in the same quarter-inch space, at once communicating and restricting the same information.
The fact the Air Force doesn’t want this guidance shared is the most revealing thing of all. Apparently, the purpose here is not so much to communicate as to distract, obfuscate, and dazzle … and dazzling is only possible if the audience hasn’t been predisposed. But with a trillion-plus dollars and the future of national defense at stake, attempts to dazzle are not just inappropriate, but irresponsible. This is a moment for transparency.
In that spirit, we lay bare the Air Force’s F-35 Public Affairs Guidance. Read it for yourself and form your own opinion. It’s unclassified, so share it freely. An informed public is more likely than an uninformed one to make and influence the best choices about defending itself with diminishing resources.