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Sympathy for the JSF

By Taylor Marvin

F-35B in testing. Lockheed Martin photo.

In Foreign Policy, Wilson Wheeler calls for the cancellation of the troubled F-35 program:

“If the F-35’s performance were spectacular, it might be worth the cost and wait. But it is not. Even if the aircraft lived up to its original specifications — and it will not — it would be a huge disappointment. The reason it is such a mediocrity also explains why it is unaffordable and, for years to come, unobtainable.”

The F-35 program is a disaster, and one that will haunt the US defense-industrial complex for decades. Two decades into development, incredibly, there’s still a major chance the program won’t succeed: when naval analyst Raymond Pritchett recently called the program not too big to fail but “way too big to ever possibly succeed,” he wasn’t exaggerating.

Maybe the F-35 program is on the cusp of finally coming together. But even if the JSF program does result in anywhere near the number of planes its architects intend, the opportunity costs are enormous. The F-35 program is currently 38 percent of all current DoD procurement (via Galrahn). That’s a mind-boggling chunk of the Pentagon’s budget, and one that would buy a lot of weapons systems nowhere near as risky as the JSF. The F-35 isn’t a good plane, and its bloat snuffed out a lot of potentially better, less comprehensive alternatives over the last two decades.

But calls to cancel the mammoth program aren’t ultimately going anywhere. “Too big to succeed” aside, the JSF really is to big to fail — no one in the tangled Pentagon bureaucracy is going to gut a program they’ve invested 20 years in, and Congress isn’t either. As the only manned US multirole fighter aircraft currently under development, the F-35 is the only game in town — optimistic talk of more capable drones aside, if the USAF wants to buy new non-legacy fighter airframes before the 2040s it has to be the F-35. The Navy’s nascent F/A-XX program and open Super Hornet production lines gives it greater flexibility, but a next generation Navy fighter that isn’t the F-35C won’t arrive until the 2030s, at the earliest.

Cutting the JSF program would force the US military to rely on F/A-18E/Fs and F-15 C/Es through the first half of the 20th century, at least. While these alternatives are capable aircraft, no amount of upgrades will change the fact that these non-stealthy fighters are based on airframes designed four decades ago. Modernization aside, the American defense community is right to be worried the mid-century competitiveness and deterrence value of aircraft with roots in the 1970s, especially when Russian and China are both embarking on ambitious fifth-generation development efforts. Similarly, while rapid advances in air defense radar means that the F-35s moderate level of stealthing will lose effectiveness through its delayed lifetime, it’s hard to argue that non-stealthy Super Hornets and Strike Eagles are a better strike option in a world where advanced air defense is rapidly proliferating.

Whether the F-35 will be competitive with its bigger, and likely significantly more affordable, Russian and Chinese rivals is another, and contentious, question. But if the F-35 is canceled the only real option is to rely on legacy platforms until advanced, air-to-air capable drones come online. Whether that’s a less risky option than sticking with the F-35 is debatable, but it is difficult to imagine the Pentagon or congress taking such a drastic change of course.

Anyway, normative discussions of the F-35 family’s strategic utility are useless at this point. Rumors of large cuts aside, the Pentagon has invested to much into the JSF to seriously consider major downsizes to the program, and the massive opportunity costs of a decade of serious F-35 development have eaten up funds that conceivably would have otherwise gone to other, less ambitious manned fighter projects. At least in the medium-term, US tactical airpower lives and dies on the success of the F-35. Even the controversial F-35B — the Marine Corp’s short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) variant — isn’t likely to be cut. Major defense procurement initiatives get canceled after spending billions in development costs all the time, but the JSF program’s multi-service nature will likely insulate the Marine’s specific variant from elimination.

F-35B test landing. Lockheed Martin photo.

F-35B test landing. Lockheed Martin photo.

The Marines’ F-35B is the most troubled, and vulnerable, variant. How useful is it? Looking strictly at it’s abilities, it’s difficult to justify its 300 million per aircraft flyaway cost. But there’s reason to suspect that the F-35B’s STOVL capabilities are important.

Last year I defended the F-35B as an important component of future American airpower:

“However, the F-35B is a valuable program and shouldn’t  be cut. It’s certainly true that cutting military spending that’s far, far beyond what is needed to defend the country and dangerously swells that national debt for no benefit is an issue of pressing importance. Also, all the criticisms of the F-35B are true — it will be more expensive and less capable than its sister variants. However, advocates of the F-35B are stressing the wrong attributes of the aircraft because it hints at an uncomfortable truth: the value of STOVL is that it decentralizes US military assets that probably aren’t survivable in a major conflict.”

Nuclear aircraft carriers are a remarkably versatile platform for projecting power, and will remain so through this century (the fact that the Chinese Navy is investing considerable effort in acquiring their own flattops is a sign that they don’t see big carriers becoming obsolete any time soon). But there’s increasing skepticism about large carriers survivability in a major war. Rapidly improving Chinese anti-access/area-denial weapons like the DF-21 D anti-ship ballistic missile stand a reasonable chance of successfully destroying any US carrier that strays within range. Carrier battle groups field impressive defenses, but it’s unlikely that they would be able to successfully counter large numbers of ballistic anti-ship missiles — it will always be easier to saturate an existing missile defense system than build one capable of countering advanced threats. Chinese A2/AD capabilities will make the US hesitant to commit a vulnerable carrier to a crisis in the South China Sea, or at least force the US Navy to remain 3,000 km offshore, outside the range of Chinese ASBMs. Of course, amphibious assault ships aren’t anywhere near expendable. But if the United States deems it prudent to possess the ability to operate in a contested Western Pacific, naval fighters able to operate off smaller ships are valuable. It’s unlikely that US threats to operate CVNs within the range of ASBMs will ever be credible. The F-35B isn’t a magic bullet, but its STOVL capability is valuable. Whether that’s worth the cost is another discussion.

The real takeaway from the JSF fiasco is that advances in anti-air defenses and AA/AD strategies and exponentially increasing complexity is making all ambitious aircraft development programs more expensive. Baselining a multirole aircraft built for three services around a supersonic STOVL variant was an unfortunate idea, and the F-35 is a uniquely bad program. But the root causes of the slowly ongoing F-35 disaster aren’t unique, and the hour’s too late for regrets.

Update 9/15/2015: I added a link to an October 2011 post by Raymond Pritchett, who earlier argued that an independent Marine STOVL fighter likely would have been cut. I should cited him in the original post; my apologies.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Cristobal Rojas, "La Muerte de Giradot en Bárbula", 1883. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

No binary choice for the US in the Middle East.

Mona Eltahawy’s “Why do they hate us?” is a must read. Monica L. Marks dissents.

Chairman Bernanke should listen to Professor Bernanke. Ezra Klein elaborates.

Richard J. Evans reviews  David Stahel’s Kiev 1941: Hitler’s Battle for Supremacy in the East.

A realistic epitaph for the Space Shuttle.

“All histories of Rome are histories of empire.”

I missed this earlier in the month, but worth reading: Neil deGrasse Tyson on asteroid defense.

Freedy Johnson – Across the Avenue.

Torturing Enemies, Not People

By Taylor Marvin

Yes, this is another one of those posts.

Alyssa Rosenberg discusses the depiction of torture in last Sunday’s episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones:

“Joffrey and Harrenhal’s interrogators are torturing people not out of fits of temper, and not because they think there’s information for them to get out of the people they’re targeting. Joffrey doesn’t have questions that he wants to ask Ros and Daisy. The Harrenhal interrogators ask the same set of questions to every person they talk to, no matter where that person comes from or their likelihood of knowing any relevant information. These people are torturing their victims because they enjoy doing so. These scenes are all about giving us information about the torturers, to draw a line between the characters who behave like human beings and those who exist and act beyond the laws that govern the rest of us.”

I’m not sure if I agree with this characterization. In the book A Clash of Kings, the source material for Game of Thrones season two, the Tickler — the torturer nicknamed by nine year old narrator Arya Stark for how he ‘tickles’ his victims — is depicted as a sociopath who enjoys his work. As I perceived it, Sunday’s show went a different direction with the scene. Here the Tickler’s only half interested in his victims; as Rosenberg notes, he asks all captives the same questions even if it’s obvious they don’t know the answers, and he’s just as focused on eating his pear as their screams. Torturing is just a job, and’s as routine as any job can be. The Tickler and the other Lannister soldiers don’t have enough of an emotional investment in their victims to really be said to “enjoy” torturing them, because they don’t see Gendry and the other smallfolk they murder as people at all.

16th century depiction of torture. Via Wikimedia.

16th century depiction of torture. Via Wikimedia.

The binary mindset of us vs. them is a necessity of medieval warfare. By the late pre-gunpowder period fortification technology had advanced to their point that capturing a defended castle required a long siege often more expensive to mount than it was worth. With frequent sieges prohibitively costly, wide scale devastation of the undefended countryside was an effective tool to coerce a fortified opponent into battle or, preferably, capitulation. Contrary to romanticized perception of medieval warfare as knightly combat, atrocities against the peasant populations were widespread, and when garrisons that declined to surrender were captured they were slaughtered to disincentivize future costly resistance. This type of normalized brutality requires viewing the target population as less than human. Game of Thrones doesn’t draw the line between characters who behave like human beings and sociopaths — casual brutality is unquestioned by nearly everyone, and that what makes it so harrowing.

Link to video via Sullivan.

Cover the Night

By Taylor Marvin

Image via Jezebel.

Image via Jezebel.

Earlier posts on Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign here and here.

From Jezebel, Invisible Children’s ‘Cover the Night’ event, intended to draw massive public attention to Joseph Kony and increased lobbying for American military invention in central Africa, was less a bang than a wimper — Jezebel reports seeing one “Kony 2012” flier in Chicago. In San Diego, I spotted one yesterday at the San Ysidro border crossing, and a friend a single letter-sized poster downtown. Remember, Invisible Children’s founder attended UCSD, and the organization is based in San Diego: if ‘Cover the Night’ was a non-event here, it likely was everywhere.

I legitimately do not understand why Invisible Children scheduled their flagship event — remember, the famous ‘Kony 2012’ viral documentary was at its core a instruction video for ‘Cover the Night’ — on April 20th, America’s unofficial celebration of weed. Invisible Children is a college campus-centered movement, and the liberal college campuses most prone to grassroots organizing also tend to take note of 4/20 — presumably the audiences overlap. I’m not claiming the ‘Cover the Night’ would have done better if it was scheduled on another day, but why compete? Did IC not believe that 4/20 would have a detrimental effect on activists’ enthusiasm for hanging posters? Or was Invisible Childrens’ evangelical-leaning leadership not aware of April 20’s implications?

Any ideas? I’m very curious.

Update: A friend in Santa Monica just told me that there’s Kony 2012 posters all over LA. Anyone outside SD or LA have updates on their city?

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

François Barraud, Le Philateliste, 1929. Via Wikimedia.

François Barraud, "Le Philateliste", 1929. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Human trophies are as old as war itself.

A medic confronts the open wound of Afghanistan (via Defense Tech).

Frum reads Robert Caro’s new LBJ biography. Chris Jones’ profile of Caro is also worth a read, as is Charles McGrath’s.

Presidents and their beards.

Remembering why we are fighting in Afghanistan.

Oil dispute may yield Africa’s newest war.

Depressing predictions about the global robot population (via Kevin Drum).

Orangutan engineers build safe and comfortable treetop beds.

Political cartoons don’t deserve a Pulitzer.

Probably the best comic I’ve seen on a professor’s door at UCSD.

Kid Cudi + Florence and the Machine Mash-up – Falling Star (by R3K).

Humiliation in Islamabad

By Taylor Marvin

Agni 5 missile launch. Reuters image, via the New York Times.

Agni 5 missile launch. Reuters image, via the New York Times.

From the New York Times, India has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile with a over 3,000 mile range. Unlike previous Indian missile development, the Agni 5’s extended range makes it clear that the intended target of the missile’s deterrence — and by extension coercion — value is China, not India’s historical nemesis Pakistan. Islamabad must be grinding its teeth: not only is Pakistan having trouble competing with India’s growing technological acumen, the US’s diplomatic shift towards a strong alliance with democratic India illustrates that America views it as a major future power, one worth antagonizing Pakistan to align with. Throughout the Cold War era America and the rest of the world viewed India and Pakistan as something closer to near-peer rivals. Losing the vindication of that near-equal status with its great rival feeds the Pakistani military’s paranoia and is at least partially responsible for the ISI’s support for the Taliban, which it sees as a long-term hedge against Indian encirclement.

Now India is publicly demonstrating that it sees its future strategic outlook centered around an adversarial relationship with China, not Pakistan. It’s hard to imagine a greater insult. Given how much that Pakistani military leadership’s motivations are dominated by rivalry with — and fears of — India, this humiliation does not bode well for Pakistan’s cooperation in a future bipolar Asian community dominated by India and China.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

José Clemente Orozco, Omniciencia, 1925. Via Wikimedia.

José Clemente Orozco, "Omniciencia", 1925. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Who was behind the Stuxnet attack? (via Longreads).

Inside the Army’s secret Cold War ice base.

Why the US military needs Taiwan.

An incredibly detailed statistical Hunger Games survival analysis.

European eyes on Africa (via Sullivan).

Yesterday Tyler Cowen linked to a fascinating 1998 paper “Long-Term Growth As A Sequence of Exponential Modes” by Robin Hanson.

Amazing photos of the nenets of Siberia.

The perils of panflation

There is no invisible hand (via Counterparties).

Photos from oak ridge, the US government’s top secret town.

My so-called ex-gay life.

Zilla Rocca feat. Has-Lo – Full Spectrum.

Flying in the 1930s

By Taylor Marvin

Via Wikimedia.

Via Wikimedia.

Here’s a fantastic picture I was lucky enough to recently stumble across on Wikimedia: a 1931 snapshot of a British Imperial Airways Handley Page H.P.42 airliner refueling in Samakh, Palestine. The aircraft itself is gorgeous, but there’s many other interesting facets to the photograph. With their small internal volume the range of early prop-driven aircraft was poor, necessitating many refueling stops at rugged way stations that otherwise wouldn’t see much traffic. Flying in the 1930s was restricted to the wealthy, and was considered luxurious — the small ram-air generator on the right side of the fuselage likely provided electricity to the passengers, a novelty by the standards of the era.

If you’re flying anywhere in the next few weeks, be grateful you live in the 21st century.

On Terminology, Cont.

By Taylor Marvin

More on the often clumsy terminology used to describe world cultural blocks.

Today I was reading Michael McDevitt’s chapter “Sea Denial with Chinese Characteristics” in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force when I came across an interesting sentence:

“The Chinese are still smarting from the Century of Humiliation when they suffered significant losses of sovereignty from the Western nations (including Japan) that came from the sea.”

Is this a mistake, with McDevitt intending to write “as well as Japan”? Or just that Japan, a modern developed world democracy with an imperialist past, has so much in common with Europe and the developed European post-colonial states that, vast cultural differences aside, it should be included under the vague definition of “the West”?

I’d say this classification is actually a useful fiction. Obviously Japan’s culture has much more in common with its East Asian neighbors than with the countries we’d typically think of as the West. But when looking at specific aspects of modern Japan, this comparison can make sense. Japan’s recent history more closely parallels Western Europe and America’s than anything else, and Japan’s feudal era of historical development arguably has more in common with the European medieval period than other Asian nations. If we’re interested in economic or diplomatic comparisons, the “Western” label isn’t inherently ridiculous, though it is extremely condescending. Cultures and economies are endlessly complex, and no labeling system — say, “developed world” or the entirely uninformative “Global South” —  is comprehensive.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen, Capturing Damietta, 1625. Via Wikimedia.

Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen, 'Capturing Damietta', 1625. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Femicide in Guatemala (via Longreads).

The two-state solution on its deathbed.

California high-speed rail circles the drain (via Hot Air). It’s increasingly hard to imagine any useful infrastructure coming out of this project at a reasonable cost.

Why Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala wants to run the World Bank.

Slow waltz on Syria.

Obama’s call to culture war.

I’m sure everyone’s seen this by now, but Texts from Hilary is very funny.

The new age of Israeli missile defense.

African agriculture: Dirt poor.

The hell of the American prison system.