Latest F-35 Talking Points Abuse Airpower History


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Remember, ladies and gentlemen: when you ask the Air Force a question about the F-35, you’re not going to get a candid answer … you’re going to get a scripted one.

We know this because F-35 discussions are governed not by unguarded insights or unvarnished opinions, but by strictly controlled flows of information and message discipline that would make a presidential campaign blush.

As I wrote back in September in the midst of exposing a previous wave of F-35 propaganda, such scripting seeks to portray an authorized narrative about the F-35 rather than the bare truth of the program. It is therefore fundamentally dishonest. This makes it antithetical to the Air Force’s core vale of integrity, making a lie out of its professed allergy to lying.

This sets off waves of cognitive dissonance across the service and among its key stakeholders. It also raises suspicion about the F-35 program … a $1.5T behemoth so impressive it needs thousands of publicists and star-adorned mouthpieces spouting pre-fabricated word pictures to sustain approval for its runaway funding.

Feast your eyes on the latest. Bring an extra huge fork to work your way through this heaping mound of buzzword salad.

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Most of this is utterly unremarkable, though Gen. Welsh’s argument about a 1-v-1 fight between 4th- and 5th-generation fighters is good for a laugh. It assumes an adversary capable of buying and fielding five or six 4th-generation fighters for the price of a single 5th-generation counterpart wouldn’t do so. If Welsh really wanted to have a debate about this subject, he’d let someone ask him how a single F-35 would fare against five F-16s, and give an honest answer not drawn from a memo stored under a publicity heat lamp.

But the real gem is this quote from Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. 

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This is a misreading of history. And here is my shocked face.

James seems to be referring to the fielding of the F-86, which was a superb fighter in its own right, but was actually inferior in many respects to its communist counterpart, the MiG-15. By the end of the war, the updated F-86 had slight edges in speed and maneuver, but initial versions suffered from across-the-board performance disadvantages. 

It wasn’t technological advantage or the “synergy between man and machine” that led Air Force fighter pilots to a 3:1 kill ratio over their Soviet adversaries in Korea. It was the experience base and superior training of those airmen — especially the 39 F-86 aces who accounted for more than a third of the enemy fighters downed in MiG Alley.

This is readily discoverable in the Air Force’s own historical record of the Korean War, and is at fingertip reach of any novice airpower historian. Take this excerpt from an excellent study on MiG Alley found on the Air Force Historical Studies Division website:

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In other words, James has drawn exactly the wrong lesson from Korea, which should make us wonder about the decisions informed by that lesson. If training and experience matter more in aerial combat than technological advantage, the Air Force budget is eminently assailable for the imbalance it strikes between these things.

This sort of abuse of history is not uncommon among politicians, which is the most accurate categorization of James’ role. But a more careful review exposes a deeply flawed reading of important events that, if allowed to stand and unchallenged and get robotically repeated by publicists, could lead the public and the Air Force to the wrong conclusions about why air forces succeed and fail. And thereafter, the wrong decisions. MiG Alley stands for the proposition that technical advantage is no match for superior tactics and techniques forged in the crucible of superior training. In fairness to James, she’s not the first to make this error. This is an oft-forgotten lesson of Air Force history that has been frequently re-learned at a high cost in blood and treasure.

It’s often said or implied by contemporary Air Force leaders that without a modernized fleet, training will be irrelevant. What should also be acknowledged is that the opposite is also true: without a commitment to world-class training (including the time and mental capacity to properly participate in and absorb it), all the technological advantage in the world won’t matter.

It’s embarrassing how little the Secretary seems to understand the history of the service she is charged to lead. It’s even more embarrassing that thousands of publicists are complicit in amplifying and giving public force to her misapprehensions. You would think with all of those publicists, at least one would open a history book and fact-check her claims before re-transmitting them to a global audience.

Bottom line: if we’re going to spend well in excess of a trillion dollars on a weapon system while leveraging the future of the American Air Force on it, let’s do it from a basis of fact and truth rather than a pedestal of tortured and misrepresentative propaganda.

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