Dec 19, 2014 ยท 17 minutes

KUWAIT CITY—This has been a classic week in the defense procurement industry. The armed services are trying to boost their worst aircraft, the totally worthless F-35, by trashing their best, the simple, effective, proven A-10 Warthog.

The A-10 is popular enough that the USAF had to come up with a reason for wanting to get rid of it, and the one it produced is the sort of thing that would make any psych-therapist chuckle with glee: The USAF said it needed maintenance personnel to handle its precious new high-priced fighter, the F-35…and that the only place it could get them from was the maintenance crews currently keeping the A-10 flying. Nope, there were no other options! The only way to find a good crew is to gut the one effective ground-attack aircraft the USAF has in its inventory, in favor of the worst fighter ever designed.

It makes no sense. I’ll just say that right up front. The reason it doesn’t seem to make any sense is that it doesn’t. There are no secret reasons here, no top-security considerations that justify any of this. It’s corruption, pure and simple. The sooner you understand that the US defense industry has nothing at all to do with defending America, and everything to do with making Dick Cheney’s buddies even richer, the more quickly you’ll be able to understand what’s going on.

I used to believe the Navy was the most corrupt of all the services, but going by recent form I’d have to say that slimed-up torch has been passed to a new service. The USAF now wins as the most deeply corrupt of all. In fact, it’s no contest.

What is the air force’s job? If you ask the USAF, it’s all Top Gun stuff: Owning the skies, downing enemy fighters in high-tech dogfights. That’s the mission they love, dream about—and spend their money on.

But there’s a problem with that. Nobody will play with us. It’s like investing your entire sports fund on a stable of polo ponies (except polo ponies are cheap compared to air-superiority fighters) and finding nobody in the neighborhood even knows what polo is, let alone wants to spend all that money to play against you.

What the USAF really gets called on to do is bombing raids, usually on small, low-value targets, and close air support (CAS) for US ground forces or their allies.

The problem with that is that the USAF hates that job. For all kinds of reasons. It’s not as glorious as dueling enemy fighters; it’s downright dangerous; and worst of all, it calls for really ugly, cheap airplanes like the A-10 Warthog.

The A-10 is one of the few US aircraft designed to focus on CAS. After the USAF spent a decade sending expensive, fast fighters to napalm the jungle, even the USAF’s speed freaks had to admit they needed something actually built to attack ground forces, spend more than a few seconds over the target, and survive. That’s why the A-10 entered the inventory way back in 1977.

But even after Vietnam, the A-10 couldn’t be billed as a counterinsurgency aircraft. It had to be sold for use in the great American defense fantasy, the NATO-Warsaw Pact ground war. But however they sold it, they built it right, with two priorities: air-to-ground firepower and survivability. So its primary weapon was a fantastically lethal 30mm nose-mounted Gatling gun that could shred a column of BMPs on a single strafing run, and its wings were reinforced to carry a huge payload of air-to-ground munitions. Its cockpit was enclosed in a titanium bubble to protect the pilot, the twin engines were mounted aft and to the rear, because simulations—some of the earliest simulations used in combat aircraft design—showed that that was the hardest place for ground-based guns to hit; and the entire electrical system was redundant.

It was, and still is, one of the most effective aircraft designs in history. And the USAF hated it, right from the start, for two reasons that have nothing to do with combat effectiveness. First, it required the Air Force to cooperate closely with ground forces, which revived all sorts of Officer’s Club feuds. Second, it was “ugly” (which it isn’t–it’s actually a beautiful design, but it doesn’t look like the paper-airplane silhouette the Air Force loves). I remember one quote from a bitchy fighter jock back when the Warthog first came into service: “It was designed to take a lot of hits, and boy is it going to take a lot of hits.” Har-dee-har-har. Maybe you hadda be there, or hadda be a snooty fighter jock, because those guys hated the idea of flying anything so stubby.

What they wanted was more fast, high-flying fighters. And back when the USSR was still a going concern, they were always able to scare the corrupt hicks in Congress into funding them. But then the Soviet Union went out of business, and we were fighting wars that would never, ever involve fighter duels. You know the old joke, “I went to a fight but a hockey game broke out”? Well, that outcome is a million times more likely than the USAF needing fast fighter jets against the Taleban, or Islamic State. That’s about as likely as “I went to a fight but a polo match broke out.”

After the first Gulf War, the USAF did one of its classic studies, comparing the effectiveness of all US attack aircraft. The fix was in, as usual. What the USAF wanted was a public-relations victory for its dumb-ass new “stealth” fighter, the F-117. But the truth is, the F-117 has never been a good aircraft, especially in ground-attack role. The real work of destroying Saddam’s armor from the air was done by the USAF’s only two reliable aircraft, the A-10 and F-16, especially the A-10, which carried the load all through the war. Everyone knew that, but the USAF couldn’t admit it, because that might risk the funding it wanted for its fancy, useless stealth fighter, the F-117.

That made for some awkward moments in the post-war report. Yes, the USAF admitted, the A-10 survived the war as well as its fast competitors; and yes, they had to admit that the A-10 flew more sorties per day because it took way less maintenance; and yeah, it was true that you could buy nine—that’s nine—A-10s for the price of one F-117. But the F-117 was new and fast and “stealth” and all black like the Batmobile—every childish high-tech BS mess the USAF has always loved, whereas the A-10 was slow and ugly and—worst of all—cheap.

So the postwar report did all it could to avoid praising the A-10.

Here’s the key paragraph, in which the USAF tries to find a way to avoid the obvious conclusion that the A-10 was just plain better at the key job of CAS than the F-117:

Based on its performance in Desert Storm, advocates of the F-117 can argue that it alone combined the advantages of stealth and LGBs, penetrated the most concentrated enemy defenses at will, permitted confidence in achieving desired bombing results, and had perfect survivability. Advocates of the A-10 can argue that it, unlike the F-117, operated both day or night; attacked both fixed and mobile targets employing both guided and unguided bombs; and like the F-117, it suffered no casualties when operating at night and at medium altitude. In short, the argument can be made that to buy more capability, in the quantitative sense, the most efficient decision could be to buy less costly aircraft. Moreover, to buy more capability in the qualitative sense, it may be a question of what specific capability, or mix of capabilities, one wants to buy: in the F-117 versus A-10 comparison, each aircraft has both strengths and limitations; each aircraft can do things the other cannot. Therefore, despite a sharp contrast in program unit costs, based on their use, performance, and effectiveness demonstrated in Desert Storm, we find it inappropriate to call one more generally "capable" than the other.

Did you catch that last line? It says straight out, “Yes, the A-10 is way cheaper and just as effective, but ‘we find it inappropriate’ to call it a better aircraft."

And the reason they found it inappropriate is as simple as a liquor store holdup: money. The USAF is about money, not defense, and there was huge money in the F-117 program. Especially because the aircraft didn’t work very well. One of the creepy, weird features of the US defense procurement business is that programs that don’t work make much more money for the big contractors than the ones that do what they promised. There’s money in those fixes, and re-fixes, and fixing the last fix. Trillions, in fact.

So the USAF has done its best to promote bad aircraft designs, and sabotage good ones, for decades. And now the USAF has a new aircraft design to love: the F-35. The USAF loves the F-35 more than any other project in history. You can guess why: Because it’s a disaster. The biggest, most expensive, most shameful procurement scandal in American history. I hear you asking, “Wait, wait—are you saying it’s even worse than the F-104 Starfighter, the plane the Bundeswehr called 'The Flying Coffin'?” Yes, I am. Because as bad as the F-104 was, it didn’t cost $337 million per plane. That’s the projected cost of this godawful flying pooch, the F-35. $337 million per plane. Yes, folks, for slightly more than one billion dollars, you get three very bad airplanes.

You can check off all the worst features of American military aircraft design programs, and the F-35 has every single one.

* Multiple-Service Design Input (required to satisfy demands of the USAF, the Marines, and the US Navy, guaranteeing endless expensive conflicts about design requirements for aircraft-carrier landing ability)? Check.

The F-35 is a crawling abortion from the JSF (“Joint Strike Fighter”) program, which was supposed to produce a single aircraft that both USAF and USN could use, just like the F-4 Phantom…and we know how well that worked out.

If you promise not to laugh, I’ll explain the three services’ different demands for the F-35’s design. I swear to you, this is like the story of the Three Bears, if each bowl of porridge cost a trillion tax dollars. OK, here’s how it goes: The USAF wants the F-35A, a relatively straightforward model that can land on ordinary runways.

But that wasn’t good enough for the Marines, because they’re still in love with their bullshit Harrier jump-jet toys. So the USMC demanded that its version of the F-35, the F-35B, have the ability to hover like a helicopter and take off and land vertically, like those cute and totally useless Harriers from back in the day.

And then the Navy chimed in to demand that its version, the F-35C, be reconfigured to take off and land on aircraft carriers. That’s almost too perfect: A useless, hugely expensive aircraft designed to land on an even more useless and expensive surface vessel. It’s a good quick explanation on why everyone in America who isn’t a personal friend of Dick Cheney is having such a hard time right now.

Every one of these design variants imposes a cost on the basic design, which is why the F-35 looks like a General Motors product from the bad old days.

You can usually tell whether a fighter aircraft is a good design or not by its design. You look at the F-35, with its fat fuselage and messy landing gear, and see that it is literally the product of a committee, and worse yet, an inter-services committee. It reminds me of the “Wagon Queen Family Truckster,” the lemon Clark Griswold got greased into taking across the country in National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Expert testimony confirms that this is, in fact, a flying version of the Wagon Queen. The RAND Corporation, not exactly a radical peacenik group, reviewed the test data on the F-35 and called it a “double-fail,” adding that it “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.” A less diplomatic reviewer called it “a dog,” plain and simple.

*Reliance on dated, steal-able stealth technology? Check.

The F-35, like the F-117 the USAF loved back in 1992, puts massive emphasis on stealth tech and anti-radar avionics which can be stolen by rival (i.e. Chinese) manufacturers. Can be stolen, and were, in fact, stolen, back in 2008.

And what hackers didn’t steal online, the PLA’s designers had delivered to their workshops, thanks to an F-117 stealth fighter that was shot down over Serbia in 1999.

If anyone in USAF could think clearly, that event alone would have ended all this crap about stealth. In the first place, a Serbian battery shot down the USAF’s precious F-117? The Serbs were a weary, aging, minor Balkan enclave—basically some gray-haired Chetnik veterans trying to keep the dream of an independent Serbia alive despite the fact that they were running on slivovitz fumes. And they managed to shoot down our supposedly undetectable stealth fighter? Yeah, really stealthy, guys. I bet with that kind of ninja-like stealth, you could manage to get arrested overflying WalMart.

And what happened to all that stealthy tech when it ended up face-down in a Serbian field? It was packed off to the Serbs’ backers, Russia. And, knowing Russia of that era, it was no doubt sold on to any buyers who could come up with the cash, such as…oh, I dunno, maybe Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group?

So all the design costs, all the hundreds of billions of dollars that went into stealth avionics and fuselage—it’s worthless now. Unless you happen to be a Lockheed Martin shareholder. Then, of course, it’s worth quite a lot to you.

*Repeated, mysterious failures to meet program deadlines, with unexplained no-shows at important milestone events? Check.

This summer, the F-35 was supposed to have its big international air-show debut in the UK. It didn’t show. Chuck Hagel, who just exudes confidence, said bravely, “This aircraft is the future,” which I think is what they call “Dystopia.” Because “this aircraft,” the F-35, wasn’t there.

Nobody was willing to risk the F-35 in the air, in front of all those non-Lockheed witnesses, because there’d been an unexplained engine fire in one just a week before the airshow.

This wasn’t the first, or even the tenth, time that the F-35 had bombed on a milestone. In fact, that’s the only kind of bombing it does well. Since 2007, the F-35 has been grounded 13 times because of problems dangerous enough to make it un-flyable.

Sooner or later, even a war fan like myself has to face a disgusting fact: the Defense industry has never cared about defending America. I didn’t really grasp how bad it is until 9/11. That’s when we found out, once and for all, that the United States Air Force wasn’t interested in defending American airspace.

When the USAF realized there were hijacked jets heading for a kamikaze strike on D.C., it was paralyzed, because—and I can’t say this loud enough—it had never given any thought to defending US airspace. There were no jets on patrol, and when a couple of smart pilots cut short their training mission to try to help, they were going to have to ram their jets into the hijacked planes, because there were no air-to-air missiles available to shoot down the hijacked jets on 9/11. The USAF had literally never thought about having to shoot down enemy jets over US airspace, so they didn’t have any missiles, and would have had to order pilots to ram the hijacked planes to bring them down.

Well, yeah, but they learned their lesson, right? The armed services probably flooded our borders with fully-armed fighters after 9/11, right?

Wrong. They patrolled America’s skies for a few months after the WTC attacks, then stopped. They just weren’t into it:

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the military flew 24-hour combat patrols over Washington and New York. Those round-the-clock patrols ended [in early 2002] after administration officials said stricter airport security, stronger cockpit doors and more federal marshals on flights had sufficiently reduced the threat of attacks.

The Air Force has always belonged to the fighter jocks, and these lunkheads aren’t interested in anything but dumb-ass Top Gun fantasies. They just can’t seem to get it through their buzz-cut heads that the golden age of the dogfight ended in 1945. They’ve always hated anything that might challenge the notion of manned fighters as apex predators, which is why the US had to buy its first drones from an Israeli company, despite the fact that all the early research on RPVs, as early drones were called, was done in the US. The USAF knew long ago—like 40 years ago—that drones were going to be very important in future warfare, but they just didn’t *like* them. It ruined their whole varsity-QB notions of being Top Gun. One of them said in an interview with Aviation Week—this was long, long ago, but I remember every word—one of ’em said, “Look, you don’t get promoted by managing toy airplanes. You get promoted flying fighters.”

That quote shocked me, gullible little patriot that I was back then. Didn’t they care that these RPVs could help America on tomorrow’s battlefields? Short answer: No, they didn’t. And they still don’t. These guys are in business, and their business flows easily as mercury across the divide between armed services and private industry. The very last thing they worry about is defending America.

There’s only one bit of good news here. The F-35 is a dog of a plane, yes. It’ll help to bankrupt this country’s hard-pressed taxpayers, absolutely. It’ll make a sleazy clique of contractors and Duke Cunninghams even richer, yup; but it may not make much difference in our military capabilities.

That’s because the whole notion of manned fighters, Top Gun crap, is over. If the US and China, or Russia, ever have that big war the DoD’s planners drool over, every manned aircraft will be blasted out of the sky in minutes. After that, it will be drone vs. drone, missile vs. missile. The Chinese manned fighters are way better than the F-35, as US simulations have shown conclusively, but they’ll vanish from the skies too. It will be a war fought by lumpy dweebs in recliners, flying drones and making embarrassing little video-game noises to themselves while feeling for the last Dorito in the bag, not fighter jocks in tailored uniforms.

I’ve said before that drones are already here, already capable of doing everything manned fighters do, only better.

The only reason they’re not the flagship of the US services already is the same reason the contemptible F-35 is still America’s main fighter: money. It’s a bitter thing for us guys who grew up on Jane’s and model glue and the entire Revell model catalogue, but this is all about money, and nothing to do with defense.

Nothing will get done. No one will go to jail for any of this filth. You can get 15 years for robbing a 7-11, but the filth in the three-letter agencies, the service procurement officers who slip into comfy industry jobs between administrations, the corrupt project managers socking it away on an aircraft they know is worthless; not one of those pigs will do a day in prison for any of it.