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Winslow T. Wheeler

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Descent Into Ignominy: The Heritage Foundation Then and Now

Posted: 01/10/12 12:27 PM ET

Co-written by Thomas Christie, Pierre Sprey, and Chuck Spinney

Almost 30 years ago, in 1983, The Heritage Foundation stepped forward as a thoughtful, independent thinking participant in the then-raging debate over Ronald Reagan's defense budget increases. In one of its major policy publications, Heritage published an insightful analysis with an unambiguous conclusion: "The increased spending secured by President Reagan should afford significant improvements in force size. It does not." (See Agenda '83: A Mandate for Leadership Report, Richard N. Holwill, ed., The Heritage Foundation, 1983; see chapter 4, p. 69 of "Defense" by George W.S. Kuhn. Find it here.) The analysis was crammed with data and straightforward logic as it made the case for real reform in America's overpriced, underperforming defense budget.

Since then, Heritage has come a long way in defense policy analysis, all of it downward. On December 26, 2012 the Director of Heritage's Center for Foreign Policy Studies, Dr. James J. Carafano, published a commentary in the Washington Examiner, "What To Do about Obama's Pound-Foolish Air Force." (Find it here.) Without saying so explicitly, he implied that the legendary Col. John R. Boyd, "a fighter pilot's fighter pilot" in Dr. Carafano's words, would favor what the good doctor wants: to reopen production of the $411 million F-22 and to buy more $154 million F-35s. (Col. Boyd was much more than "a fighter pilot's fighter pilot." His revolutionary air-to-air tactics manual changed the way every major air force in the world flies. His brilliant energy-maneuverability approach to fighter design saved the F-15 from becoming a lumbering F-111-like disaster -- and created the extraordinarily successful F-16. Read more about him in the Naval Institute Proceedings article Genghis John (here) or better, in Robert Coram's excellent biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.

Each of us knew and worked closely with John Boyd. Invoking Boyd's legacy to endorse Carafano's ideas about the F-22 and the F-35 -- ideas that would have been anathema to Boyd -- profoundly offends us. Demonstrating ignorance about both John Boyd's thinking and about fighter aircraft fundamentals, the Carafano article's pervasive disregard for facts provides an excellent example of the ethical bankruptcy that lies at the core of our defense problems and our defense budget debate today. With this editorial by their Director for Foreign Policy Studies, Heritage signals a descent from serious analysis of the nation's defense needs to contemptible gimmicks for pushing the big-spending agenda of the Foundation's defense industry funders -- specifically, in this case, pushing the agenda of Lockheed-Martin, manufacturer of the F-22 and F-35 and major contributor to Heritage.

The starting point of Carafano's advocacy of more F-22 and F-35 spending, his spin on Boyd's profound analysis of why American F-86s outfought Russian MiG-15s in Korea, is both shallow and wrong. He claims Boyd found that the MiG-15's major advantages in altitude, speed and turn were overcome by the F-86's "bubble" canopy which enabled its pilots to see the MiGs first. In fact, Boyd's energy maneuverability analysis of the two fighters showed that the MiG had only small, relatively insignificant turning and accelerating advantages and that there were no speed differences of any tactical consequence. Boyd did indeed believe the superior rear visibility through the F-86's bubble canopy was an advantage (and insisted on an even better canopy for the F-16), not to see the enemy first but to avoid being "bounced" by surprise from the tail quadrant and to avoid losing sight of the opponent during dogfight maneuvers.

But Boyd's most important insight into the technical advantages of the F-86 escapes Carafano entirely. Boyd saw that the F-86's far quicker control response, due to its then-new hydraulic controls, allowed American pilots to transition far faster from one maneuver to the next. And those much faster transitions allowed the American pilots to confront the enemy with increasingly confusing and incomprehensible tactical moves and countermoves -- the key to gaining firing position and dogfight victory. And that crucial insight led directly to Boyd's seminal OODA (observe-orient-decide-act) loop concept, the foundation of the innovative and much more encompassing theories of human conflict that made Boyd the most important military thinker of the last century.

Not only did Carafano miss the boat on the technical differences between the F-86 and MiG-15, he ignored the even more important Boydian idea that, to win wars, people come first, ideas (i.e., tactics and strategy) are second, and hardware is a distant third. It was perfectly obvious to Boyd why two hundred F-86s achieved air superiority over 1,000 MiGs in Korea and shot down 5 to 10 enemies for every American loss. Our pilots were simply far more skilled than the Chinese and Russians by virtue of better selection, more rigorous and realistic training using better tactics and better exploitation of the skills of experienced pilots, and far more flying hours (the much more reliable F-86 flew 40 hours per month to the MiG's 10 or 12 hours). Had we changed aircraft with the enemy, our lop-sided victory tally in Korea would have been the same -- an insight repeated almost verbatim decades later by the Israeli Air Force commanders after the 1973 and 1982 wars, then again by the U.S commander of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Despite John Boyd's seminal role in designing the F-15 and F-16, he was always the first to point out that technical differences in friendly versus enemy aircraft are minor compared to differences in people skills -- and that applied with equal force to ground and naval weapons.

Which brings us to Carafano's relentless promotion of F-22 spending. His opening focus on the F-86's bubble canopy is ironic. The F-22 lacks such a bubble canopy and therefore has far less rearward visibility than the F-86 -- and far less than Boyd's F-16. The F-22 is an even worse step backwards -- a catastrophic one -- in the pilot skill dimension. The plane is not just incredibly expensive to buy (now at $411 million per copy in terms of total program cost, it is still growing), it is also far too unreliable, far too unmaintainable and far too expensive in operating cost (at $61,000 per hour and also growing) to provide even minimally adequate training. For four months in 2011, the entire fleet was grounded due to engine cooling air and oxygen system related failures that the Air Force still cannot explain; when it was flying, pilots only flew an abysmally inadequate eight to nine hours per month. This is only one-third to one-quarter of the flying hours that elite air forces use to train truly competent air-to-air fighter pilots. Thanks to the F-22's ludicrous eight to nine hours per month, our once-premier fighter force is decaying rapidly. To this Dr. Carafano is oblivious.

Moreover, even if technical performance were the dominant factor in air combat, the F-22 is no premier fighter. Its aerodynamic performance -- maneuverability, acceleration and range -- is a gigantic disappointment. The F-22 purports to compensate with technologies -- radar, radar warning and radar missiles -- that historically have failed time and time again; technologies that make the airplane more vulnerable to enemy countermeasures, not less. Finally, two of its hyper-touted "Fifth Generation" characteristics -- "stealth" and "supercruise" -- are, in truth, astonishingly limited. F-22 stealth is a delusion: every VHF (i.e. long wavelength) radar in the world can detect the F-22 at 150 to 200 miles, and the Russians, and others, have built and sold thousands of such radars. The F-22's "supercruise," that is, its ability to cruise supersonically, is unusably short in duration (due to inadequate onboard fuel capacity) -- so short that current Air Force training missions to exercise supercruising combat actually schedule one tanker refueling just before going supersonic and one more refueling before going home subsonically. Imagine having to schedule two tanker hook-ups for every F-22 sortie in the chaos of a serious shooting war!

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' decision to terminate F-22 production should be appreciated as his single most positive contribution to American air power -- and certainly one of the very few issues he would have seen eye to eye with John Boyd.

We say this, not just because of our various backgrounds in combat aircraft design, defense acquisition, weapons testing, defense budget analysis, and defense budget politics, but also because we know what John Boyd, Dr. Carafano's erstwhile icon, had to say about the F-22. He despised both the F-22's design and its acquisition program; it violated every idea he fought for in fighter design and every principle he formulated to help American forces prevail on the battlefield. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, before he died, Boyd often expressed his utter contempt for the F-22 to each one of us, always in terms too colorful to print.

It gets worse regarding the F-35. When Boyd died 15 years ago, the inevitable failure of the F-35 as a viable combat aircraft was already clear, though not as crushingly obvious as it is to today. In 2012, with the airplane just 20 percent through its entirely inadequate flight test plan (over 80 percent of the airplane's performance characteristics will remain untested in any planned flight test), we already know we are facing across-the-board failures to meet original specifications. Moreover, if the F-35 lived up to 100 percent of its depressingly modest design specifications, it would still be a complete failure in combat utility: a bomber of shorter range, lower payload and far higher vulnerability than the Vietnam War's appallingly flammable, underperforming F-105 Lead Sled; an air-to-air fighter so unmaneuverable and sluggish in acceleration that any ancient MiG-21 will tear it to shreds; and a close support fighter that is a menace to our troops on any battlefield, unable to hit camouflaged tactical targets and incapable of distinguishing friendly soldiers from enemies. Individually and collectively, we often fretted with Boyd on the irresponsibility of equipping our people with such foolishly complex weapons designs, so bereft of practical combat effectiveness -- and on the deep corruption of acquisition programs, such as the F-35's, that deliberately plan to buy a thousand or more units long before user testing has fully probed combat utility.

Dr. Carafano is free to pump out baloney that pleases his funders, but to invoke Boyd's legacy to promote F-22 and F-35 spending goes beyond simple, and perhaps willful, misrepresentation. Here is a paradigm of the moral decay so visible among contemporary Washington defense "intellectuals." These dabblers in defense pretend to serve seriously the real needs of our national defense and our people in uniform -- when, in fact, they are serving the needs of foundations, universities, non-profits or politicians funded by defense mega-corporations seeking to expand their sources of government largesse. And, even in a shrinking economy, these dabblers easily find comfortable home bases and plenty of venues to publish or broadcast their paeans to big-ticket programs and budgets.

It was not always like this. In 1983, a very long time ago, The Heritage Foundation courageously undertook some in-depth, independent, pro-defense analyses to strengthen our defenses while reforming spending and easing the taxpayer's burden. Today, Heritage's defense efforts are homilies supporting smaller forces, fewer people in uniform, and more dollars to buy fewer weapons of increasing ineffectiveness. How sad. How pathetic. How destructive to the security of Americans.

All these issues -- declining combat effectiveness, increasing acquisition mismanagement, inadequate training and the lack of ethics in defense advocacy -- merit serious discussion. If Dr. Carafano would like to engage in a public debate on these questions, we would be happy to accommodate him.

This piece was written by myself and three others, namely Thomas Christie, Pierre Sprey, Chuck Spinney and myself at Counterpunch at http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/01/09/the-heritage-foundation-then-and-now/. Find bios of each author at http://pogoarchives.org/labyrinth/about-the-authors.pdf. We are authors in the anthology "The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It." The book is available at no cost, and its co-authors have waived copyright protection, so there are no limits on reproduction or distribution. Find the book at http://dnipogo.org/labyrinth/.