Monday, April 02, 2007

"Informed" Analysis

Reading some of the offerings at Slate, Harper's, the Atlantic Monthly, or other MSM outlets, I'm always wondering: how do you get a gig writing about defense issues at one of those publications? Apparently, coherence and logic are not part of the job description, because some of their recent articles on the Air Force's recapitalization efforts--namely, the F-22 and F-25 programs--are ill-informed (at best), and in many cases, just downright dumb.

Consider Ken Silverstein's recent "debunking" of conservative, think tank analysis of China's F-10 fighter program, which provided a convenient forum for attacking the F-22 Raptor. Mr. Silverstein believes the Raptor is a Cold War relic, a program largely sustained on over-inflated estimates of the Chinese threat, including the F-10. As we pointed out in our own analysis, the F-10 (though hardly a world-beater), is the best fighter the PRC has ever produced, with performance and weaponry equal to late model F-16s and similar European fighters.

Moreover, we also noted that Mr. Silverstein conveniently omits important considerations from his analysis. The F-10 isn't the only new fighter in the PRC arsenal; Beijing is also buying at least 200 Russian-made SU-27/30 Flankers, which are more than a match for our own, fourth-generation jets. Coupling these Chinese aircraft with improvements air tactics, battle management, force projection and information warfare, you'll see that a China-Taiwan scenario does, indeed, make the case for the F-22. As we see it, the bottom line is rather simple: do you want a fighter that can completely dominate the skies, or do you prefer to slug it out in a battle of attrition against a foe with aircraft--and weapons--of similar quality? With U.S. strategy predicated on control of the skies, the answer should be obvious.

The operative word here is "should," because the same type of specious reasoning is evident in Gregg Easterbrook's new "analysis" on our bomber fleet. "B-52 Where Are You" is posted at Slate, and according to Mr. Easterbrook, the Pentagon is hiding a dirty little secret from Congress and you, the taxpayers: it's long-range bombers finally work, but the brass still want to spend $322 billion on advanced fighters like the F-22 and F-35.

At the Weekly Reader level of military analysis, Easterbrook seems to have an argument. Why invest all that money in fifth-generation fighters, when platforms like the B-1 and B-52 can dump far more bombs on a target, with the same degree of precision accuracy. With weaponry like JDAM, heavy bombers can finally deliver the promise of Douhet, Billy Mitchell and other airpower theorists, who predicted about fleets of long-range bombers that could devastate enemy centers of gravity, at great range and with relatively little collateral damage.

But you'll also find a few false assumptions in Easterbrook's analysis, including his contention that the Air Force basically "gave up" on the idea of using bombers in a conventional role:

"One reason is that the emergence of the accurate bomber just wasn't in anyone's playbook. From Air Force pioneer Billy Mitchell on, air-power advocates kept promising high-altitude bombing would win wars, allow "surgical strikes," and so on. When this hadn't happened by the 1990s, the Air Force seemed to admit defeat and gave up on bombers for conventional war. Suddenly, precision bombing works, but the message has yet to sink in."

Huh? After reading that statement, I had to scratch my head, unsure if Easterbrook was actually referring to the U.S. Air Force. With the end of the Cold War, the service spent billions reconfiguring its remaining B-52s and B-1s for conventional attack, including JDAM employment. One reason that the venerable "Buff" was used so successfully in the first Gulf War (and Kosovo) is that far-sighted Air Force leaders understood that the B-52 could still play a vital role in conventional and unconventional wars. The same holds true for the B-1, although its adaptation for conventional conflicts was delayed by problems with its ECM system and other issues. By comparison, the newer B-2 was easily adapted for non-nuclear conflicts; it was simply a matter of flight testing the aircraft with new munitions, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Easterbrook also manages to understate the difficulty of designing--and flying--bomber aircraft:

"Piloting modern bombers is not meaningfully different from flying Boeing 737s for Southwest AirlinesĂ‚—there's no nailed-to-your-seat maneuvering, no sense of rocketing through the sky. Air Force leaders know that a new bomber designed for satellite-guided weapons would likely be a vanilla aircraftĂ‚—a modified Boeing airliner could fill the role. In Afghanistan and the second Iraq campaign, bombers have mainly "orbited," or turned lazy circles, until the time came to release self-guided munitions."

That description works as long as you're flying a bomber in a totally permissive air defensenvironmentnt, like Iraq and Afghanistan. Put the aircraft in moderately-defended airspace (say, Syria or Iran), or heavily-defended skies (think Russia or China), and it becomes a totally different proposition. Against legitimate air defense threats, you need either a stealthy platform (for penetration missions), or a platform capable of standing off and delivering weaponry, even against long-range systems like the Russian-made SA-20 SAM (already in service in Russia and China). In that sort of environment, a "generic" bomber (with a huge radar cross-section) is hardly sufficient, and you'll need more than a disinterested "airline" crew to put iron on target.

Additionally, the "cost" of fielding a new manned bomber is not something that can be accomplished on the cheap. The B-2 costs more than $1 billion a copy--in part, because past administrations stopped production after on 21 were produced. Even with a larger "buy," the next generation bomber will be equally expensive, and we'll wind up with far fewer aircraft than we'll get for the $322 billion fighter program.

But couldn't a smaller number of advanced bombers deliver more precision munitions than those fighters? The real answer is "no," for a variety of reasons. First, there's the issue of persistence. The success of an air campaign hinges on our ability to apply--and sustain---pressure on an enemy at all levels of conflict, simultaneously. You can meet that requirement more easily with a mix of fighter and bomber aircraft, all capable of evading enemy air defenses and delivering precision munitions.

Then, there's the basing issue. For various geopolitical reasons, a lot of U.S. allies aren't keen on the prospect of hosting our bombers, particularly if those aircraft are also capable of carrying nuclear weapons. In fact, you can almost count the number of "overseas" bomber bases on on hand: Fairford in the U.K; Moron, Spain, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and Andersen AFB, Guam. Those "options" mean that a B-1, B-52 or B-2 is at least four hours away from its nearest target, bringing us back to the operational requirements of timeliness and persistence that usually favor fighters, stationed closer to the battlefield. Admittedly, a bomber's loiter time can partially offset the basing/distance issues, but only if the threat environment is permissive. In that regard, Iraq and Afghanistan may be the exception, not the rule.

And finally, we still have a need for aircraft that can take on--and defeat--enemy aircraft in air combat, a mission for which bombers are ill-suited. With China amassing more than 300 fourth-generation fighters along the Taiwan Strait, our bomber crews certainly appreciate the need for fighters that can neutralize that threat, and minimize the risk to their aircraft.

The concept of a "cheap" bomber, dropping tons of precision weapons with impunity, is hardly new. Back in the 1970s, the Air Force considered a modified Boeing 747, which fire dozens of cruise missiles from launchers in its cargo bay. Support for that proposal faded with the realization that the former Soviet Union wouldn't allow that huge aircraft to simply fly toward its border and shoot scores of cruise missiles into its airspace. Development of the SU-27, the MiG-31 Foxhound and long-range SAMs eventually nixed the 747 in favor of something more advanced--and survivable--like the B-1 and B-2.

Similar considerations will influence the decision this time around. To meet a variety of future threats, we need a mix of fighter and bomber aircraft, capable of performing in low, medium and high-threat scenarios. "Doing it all" (or doing most of it) with bombers is still something of an airpower myth, just as it was when Douhet wrote "Command of the Air." and the Air Corps Tactical School was hammering out the doctrine for daylight precision bombing--without fighter escort.

As for the editors at Harper's, Slate and the Atlantic--who same folks who keep serving this stuff as "informed" analysis, here's a suggestion. Consider hiring someone who can give your readers a little bit more than half-baked ideas and recycled concepts. If you're interested, I'm available, but I don't work cheap.


anonymous said...

"I'm always wondering: how do you get a gig writing about defense issues at one of those publications?"

I think the problem is the editors aren't qualified to judge the competence of the authors and don't care or know that they aren't. Ignorance is like a blind spot, you don't know it's there.

As an software engineer, I can tell you that part of the dot com crash was because many high tech managers couldn't tell the competent engineers from the incompetent ones. Except that the incompetent ones hid their faults behind a confident personality and a glib tongue earning promotions that resulted in the failure of the company.

Maybe it's why readership in the msm newspapers is going down too (the newspaper crash?).

SMSgt Mac said...

Actually, I think the accuracy of his article is somewhat better than you've given him credit for, but he IS truly off the mark in several places and oversimplifies greatly in others.
Thanks for doing the work and finding--this INCLUDING reading Slate. I really couldn't stomach most of their stuff anymore and gave up on the site early last year, but this is a great find and warrants further dissection.
Thanks Again & Regards

jamminedward said...

It is consistently infuriating how poor, yet how puffed up and egoistic editors can be about technical topics, like this. There's a discussion over at about a lady's day at the range and an editor's modification of the newspaper article to suggest that as she fired, .357 mag. brass sprang from her revolver, clanging on the floor. Great laughs all round--the reporter/writer had seen and actually written about the markswoman's .22 auto. The bad part is lotsa people read and credit such drivel and no one in MSM has the gonads to throw the B.S. flag. Thanks for your real insight.