How does the world’s leading advocate of air power ― the U.S. ― wind up using the wrong planes?

Unfortunately, a lot more than battlefield requirements goes into the design of war planes.

Using a bomber such as the B-1 against the Islamic State endangers civilians even more than fighter attacks. (Photo: Christopher Ebdon / Flickr Commons)

Using a bomber such as the B-1 against the Islamic State endangers civilians even more than fighter attacks. (Photo: Christopher Ebdon / Flickr Commons)

In Harper’s, Andrew Cockburn writes:

President Obama’s war against the Islamic State will represent, by a rough count, the eighth time the U.S. air-power lobby has promised to crush a foe without setting boot or foot on the ground. Yet from World War II to Yemen, the record is clear: such promises have invariably been proven empty and worthless.

However, “such realities … are of little concern to the lobby, which measures success” instead “in terms of budgets and contracts. Therefore,”

… in assessing progress in the anti-IS crusade, observers should be aware that the choice of weapons and associated equipment being deployed will be dictated by Pentagon politics, not the requirements of the battlefield. Hence the appearance, in late August, of the $300 million B-1 bomber in the skies over Iraq.

Cockburn explains that its “advertised function” was “to carry nuclear weapons to Moscow at supersonic speeds, the B-1 was developed principally to bolster Republican electoral fortunes in California, where it was built. Always a technical disappointment—with a full load of bombs, it cannot climb high enough to cross the Rockies—it has nonetheless been tenderly cherished by the Air Force brass.


Like someone finding a job for a down-at-the-heels relative, the service has assigned the B-1 the task of attacking enemy troops and supporting friendly troops on the battlefield, a mission for which it is manifestly unsuited.

Because it requires “cooperation with ground troops,”

Close air support, as it is called, has always been considered a lowly and demeaning task by the Air Force. … Thus the service is striving mightily to discard the A-10, a plane developed specifically for the job … while insisting that the lumbering bomber is a perfectly adequate substitute.

Besides the lack of its agility as a large plane, another key drawback exists.

In contrast to the A-10, which can maneuver easily at low level, allowing pilots to see with their own eyes what they are shooting at, the B-1 flies high and relies instead on electronic images or map coordinates. Thanks to these and other limitations, B-1s have already left a trail of havoc in Afghanistan in the form of dead civilians and soldiers.

Including a June 9 incident in Kandahar when five U.S. Special Operations soldiers and one Afghan soldier were killed by a B-1’s friendly fire. Read the rest of this enlightening article to find out how flaws in the B-1’s design led to the incident.

The B-1’s mismatch for battlefield requirements made me think of how the Air Force railroaded through the development of another plane. Not, not the F-22 stealth, tactical fighter (also, coincidentally, deployed against ISIS) ― you remember, the one that caused some of its pilots to lose consciousness. But the even more problematic F-35. In August 2013, at War Is Boring on Medium, David Axe wrote:

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — a do-it-all strike jet being designed by Lockheed Martin to evade enemy radars, bomb ground targets and shoot down rival fighters — is as troubled as ever.

… Owing to heavy design compromises foisted on the plane mostly by the Marine Corps, the F-35 is an inferior combatant, seriously outclassed by even older Russian and Chinese jets that can fly faster and farther and maneuver better. In a fast-moving aerial battle, the JSF “is a dog … overweight and underpowered,” according to Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C.

And future enemy planes, designed strictly with air combat in mind, could prove even deadlier to the compromised JSF.

… And that could mean a death sentence for American pilots required to fly the vulnerable F-35.

How, of all the air forces in the world, does the U.S. Air Force wind up with inferior planes? Axe again:

What you have to understand is that problems with the F-35 are the result of a pathological decision-making patterns that go back at least to the 1960s,” explained Chuck Spinney, a retired Defense Department analyst and whistleblower whom one senator called the “conscience of the Pentagon.”

Among the pathologies inherent in the F-35’s design, by far the most damaging is the result of a peculiar institutional obsession by one of the new plane’s three main customers. Early on, the Marine Corps contrived to equip the JSF as a “jump jet,” able to take off and land vertically like a helicopter — a gimmick that the Marines have long insisted would make its fighters more flexible, but which has rarely worked in combat.

Engineering compromises forced on the F-35 by this unprecedented need for versatility have taken their toll on the new jet’s performance. Largely because of the wide vertical-takeoff fan the Marines demanded, the JSF is wide, heavy and has high drag, and is neither as quick as an F-16 nor as toughly constructed as an A-10. The jack-of-all-trades JSF has become the master of none.

All you really need to know is:

It was, in part, the outcome of a focused influence campaign by the Lockheed, the company most likely to win the competition to build the new plane.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus Blog Focal Points.

Categories: War/Security

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3 replies »

  1. The only thing that boggles my mind is the question in the title.
    It should be blatantly obvious there is no operational intellegence in the U.S. policy…

  2. There are two interesting points here. One is of course how bad planes (and tanks and guns and anything else) get chosen and a lot of soldiers have to die before the shoddy equipment is quietly buried in the back yard (or the Mojave Desert.)

    But the more interesting one, I think, is the almost touching belief in air power, despite the fact that air power’s never won a single battle/war, save perhaps the atomic bombing of Japan. I’ve always chalked it up to a very American desire for quick results with minimal work, sort of like marketers who overspend on advertising campaigns. But it’s not really expressly American–the Germans seem to love the idea, too, e.g., London in WWII.

    It’s a bit like submarines or paratroopers–ploys that can make the enemy miserable and play a support role in bigger efforts, but not up to the bigger job.

    And yet, they still get overhyped.

    Damn you, Billy Mitchell, damn you!

  3. Your editorial is inaccurate and is not based on facts. As a B-1 aviator I cannot get past your blatant untruths about the B-1( we can fly over Mt Everest fully loaded) to provide critical commentary about your wild eyed oppinions.