F-35 Follies: 3-Star Denounces A-10 Comparison Testing Amid Rhetorical Acrobatics


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Once upon a time, the Air Force created a special place for some of its generals to hang out and play. A place where facts are unwelcome, people are celebrated for saying outrageous things, and buffoonery reigns supreme. It’s a place dedicated to telling a story, irrespective of dignity, decorum, or respect. It’s a special carve-out from responsible public life where pesky, duty-driven notions like truth and wisdom have been subjugated to shrewd consequentialism … and imagined (perhaps imaginary) ends are believed to justify actual — and actually injurious — means.

It’s upon this special playground that the Air Force litigates in favor of the F-35 program. Like any playground, there are certain areas, usually the monkey bars, where denizens get hurt more often. The monkey bars on this playground are where the Air Force cultivates confusion amongst itself and everyone else concerning how the F-35 will and won’t replace the A-10. But as with any set of monkey bars, a kid falling off and breaking a limb doesn’t really register. Within a short time, others are back up there swinging around, engaging in much the same jackassery that got someone else six weeks in a cast.

Enter Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan. As the director of the F-35 program, he’s a regular on the playground, and has been there when others have injured themselves. Like that time Maj. Gen. James Post intimidated A-10 advocates by calling them traitors and got himself reprimanded. Or that time Mark Welsh and Deborah Lee James tried to sell Congress on the F-35 replacing the A-10 as a close air support (CAS) platform and got themselves publicly embarrassed by a freshman legislator (albeit a peculiarly capable one, especially on defense issues). Accidents are common on playgrounds, and this one is no different. 

But like any self-respecting merrymaker, Bogdan isn’t about to have his playtime cut short by the misfortune or unskillfulness of others. Not only does he continue to frolic in the unchained calamity that is the F-35’s rhetorical journey to virtual statehood (after all, it has a price tag equivalent of the GDP of Australia), he seems to be taking increasing joy in his work.

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Take, for instance, Bogdan’s remarks earlier this month at the ComDef Industry Conference, as reported by National Defense Magazine’s Sandra Erwin. In responding to questions about the F-35’s potential in the CAS mission, Bogdan chucked aside the sort of boring, sober dialogue we might expect, opting instead for a more entertaining routine of marginalizing opponents, questioning superiors, and misrepresenting truths, seeming to enjoy himself even as others wondered if he was coming a little bit unglued.

Bogdan expressed surprise that Defense Department officials planned to conduct a “fly-off” between the A-10 and F-35. It’s bizarre that this would catch him off-guard given that there was a very public dust-up about this subject in late August — one that created considerable embarrassment for CSAF after he himself seemed stunned (and miffed) that the department would deign to found a $1.4T taxpayer investment on a “silly” exploration of the F-35’s CAS capabilities using the unquestioned CAS champion of all time as a benchmark. 

But it’s even more bizarre that we would have someone in charge of the F-35 program who wouldn’t foresee — and wouldn’t himself seek out — such a fly-off. An investment this huge needs to prove itself, and to the extent it will “succeed but not replace” other platforms, the attendant risk needs to be noted and factored into defense planning. 

But Bogdan didn’t just seem surprised at the idea of the fly-off. He went further, into the realm of defiance, labeling the tests “meaningless.” This is more than a little insulting if you’re Michael Gilmore, the senior official who ordered the fly-off testing and who insists it was always part of the plan. It’s also more than a little insulting if you’re one of the tens of thousands of CAS practitioners and advocates who believe the A-10 shouldn’t be divested unless and until there is a viable replacement for the specialized capability it provides — whether that replacement is the F-35 or something else.

Bogdan added that he would be prepared for the tests despite his strong misgivings. “I serve the war fighter. I will go do that,” he said. The subtle implication is that he’s not doing it so much because it’s what departmental regulations and authorities require, or because it’s a responsible measure given the level of investment, but because of his desire to give the war fighter the best possible product. This is at once evidence of a disobedient mind and an admission that there is value in doing the fly-off testing.

Bogdan peppers this stew with the notion that he has a choice in the matter. If he really believes that, it recommends to suspicion that he might be “outgrowing his britches” to borrow a folksy midwestern colloquialism. Maybe Bogdan has been playing with so much money and standing close to the heat of so much military-industrial power for so long that he’s losing track of the fact that playing with Jesse James’ gun doesn’t make him Jesse James. Bogdan, we should remind ourselves as we process his comments, is a program manager, not a testing or evaluation official.

But more likely, his words were purposeful and carefully chosen — staged acrobatics rather than uncontrolled maneuvering — and the evident gleefulness was just evidence he enjoys his job. The core of Bogdan’s message was a reheated rehash of the same exhausted talking points the Air Force has been trotting out for years.

[Bogdan] called it a “myth” that legacy combat aircraft like the F-16 and the A-10 could compete on a level playing field against the F-35. “The F-16 and A-10 are awesome airplanes, have been for generations,” said Bogdan. “But they will not survive in a future battle space. They can’t do some of the missions that the F-35 has been designed to do.”

Cute, but misleading. There isn’t a single version of the future battlespace stretching across every warfighting scenario. There’s a segment of that future battlespace that we speculate will be lethal to non-stealth aircraft attempting to employ absent integration with electronic warfare assets. But beyond this envisaged segment where our as-yet-unnamed adversaries will be theoretically capable of employing advanced air defenses, there are other segments of the warfighting spectrum where the F-35’s stealth and sensor capabilities will be less relevant than the persistence, payload, loiter, and low cost-per-flying-hour of legacy platforms. If Bogdan truly values the warfighter over the bureaucrat, as his words imply, he should be thinking about the entire spectrum rather than just the version most conveniently supportive of pro-F-35 arguments.

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Bogdan’s not the first to embrace the skull-numbing logic of a future characterized solely by “high-end” warfare. It’s become an institutional habit for the Air Force, which has historically bucked against the idea of irregular warfare until forcefully led to the water and forced to drink. Air Force generals seek not just advantage, but dominance against the most dangerous threat they can imagine. They then assume that this dominance will be backwardly compatible with conflicts further “down” the intensity scale, and rest easy on the unspoken belief that it’s better to fail at low-intensity conflict than to fall short of dominance at the high end of the scale.

But the F-35 won’t be backwardly compatible, which Bogdan understands, which is why he doesn’t want to submit it to a contest with the A-10 … and the Air Force should never be permitted to actively contemplate falling short in one mode of warfare (especially the historically more common one) in order to push for total dominance in another — even if doing so conforms more neatly with institutional preferences that value modernization over utility and a list of budget priorities instead of a coherent service strategy.

This entire frame of mind is confounded by history. We’ve just about never fought the wars we expected, and our politicians — not their military advisors — ultimately choose where and to what extent we get involved. All of this argues for a balanced airpower portfolio capable of spanning the spectrum rather than a boutique one ill-suited to all but the least likely scenarios. We need to be ready to succeed, at a responsible level of risk, however we’re called to serve.

Don’t tell that to Lt. Gen. Bogdan, who says a CAS rehearsal comparing the A-10 and F-35 

“falls into the meaningless category”

and

“might not be the best use of taxpayer dollars.”

Gotta admit, it’s damn funny having the F-35 program manager lament a potential waste of taxpayer money. To borrow from the script of Apocalypse Now, policing wasted money in the F-35 program would be like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. And no, it’s not at all surprising that we find ourselves drawing from the mad lexicon of Vietnam to describe the myriad impossibilities of reason currently darkening the heart of modern airpower.

Now throw in reports that the F-35’s performance has been embellished and its capabilities quietly watered down to keep it on schedule, and it’s fair to suspect that the game being played on this playground is about hiding, discounting, and ignoring risk for the sake of expediency.

The F-35 is over-budget, late, under-performing, and increasingly the centerpiece of a propaganda effort that is raising public suspicion of deep-set problems to understandably high levels. This is a moment for recognizing shortcomings, admitting problems, and charting responsible strategies that take notice of counterarguments. All of which crystallizes why a playground, however fun, is no place to make defense policy.


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