« Comment Policy and Thoughts on Commenting | Main | More On The Obama-Gates Defense Budget »

April 6, 2009

Obama's B-1A?

Will this be Obama's B-1A?


If you're not aware, it's the F-22 Raptor, and Secretary of Defense Gates announced today that production would be stopped at 187 airplanes. This from a planned force of 339 aircraft to have been completed in 2013. However even this 339 figure is down from the 648 the Air Force had originally requested in 1991 Follow the link for the full story on how the figure has gone steadily down.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that I think this was a bad decision.

I'm not going to set up links to every weapons system mentioned here. If you want information I find the Federation of American Scientists the best source, but Wikipedia is good also.

In 1977 President Carter cancelled the B-1A. Because he didn't want to look weak, he justified his decision by revealing that we were working on a "stealth" bomber that would perform better than the B-1A anyway. Partially because he canceled the B-1a, and partially because he revealed the existence of a stealth bomber program, the entire affair was very controversial. As a candidate for president, Ronald Reagan used the incident against Carter to great effect. It ended up hurting Carter, and was one of many things that contributed to his looking weak on defense.


After he was elected, Reagan resurrected the B-1 program. As technology had advanced, Rockwell updated the design and 100 B-1B bombers were built, all of which (except for a few which were destroyed in accidents) 66 are in active status today with another 24 in mothballs.

Will Obama's cancellation of the F-22 be his B-1A? Maybe I'm getting carried away, but maybe I'm not. Of course parallels are never exact, which is why they call them analogies.

Our Current Inventory

This section consists of stuff that I've written before and am just going to copy and paste

Let's not be overconfident or arrogant with regard to our own capabilities. This attitude got a lot of US pilots killed during the early days of the Vietnam War, when we discovered that the MiG-21 was the equivalent of our F-4 Phantom, and their pilots nearly as good.

Further, some of our weapons are getting very old. The F-15 first flew in 1972. The F-16 in 1979, and the F-18 1982. The first Los Angeles class submarine was launched in 1976. The CH-53 first flew in 1981, and the H47 in 1962. You get the point.

Yes all of the above systems have undergone major upgrades. I know all this. But you can only do so much with an old airframe. Sure, we could build a new helicopter instead of the tilt-rotor V-22 and it would be better than what is in the inventory. But we are really at about the limit of what you can do with helicopter technology, so it would be an exercise in the point of diminishing returns.

Instead of the F-22 Raptor we could rely on the somewhat less expensive F-35 Lightning II JSF. This, however, would have been the equivalent of canceling the F-15 and relying on the F-16. Ask any pilot about the wisdom of that potential decision.

Everything new goes through growing pains. Every roll out a new software platform at work and not have it go perfectly? Build a WAN and not have everyone be able to talk to each other the first time 'round? Years ago I bought a book on the X-planes. What struck me is that there seemed to be at least one crash in every single program.

There was criticism of the B-1A, and also the B-1B about various things that didn't work right. I'm sure if you dig you can find something on the F-22. Remember that the P-51 was a failure with it's early Allison engine, and didn't perform as the superior fighter we remember it to be until upgraded with the Rolls Royce engines.

Some will say that the "real question" is bang for the buck. Yes, I understand.

But there's a certain group who are against every weapons system that comes down the pike. They're always in favor of some future program that's still in development, or yet to be conceived. We see this especially with regards to Missile Defense, where it's "research forever, build never." There comes a point where you just have to freeze research and development and just build the thing. As you'll see below, our potential enemies are building new weapons.

Potential Enemies

It is said that "generals always want to refight the last war," but in this case I think it's the civilians. It is said that all we'll have to worry about is insurgencies and counter-terrorism. This I believe is a mistake. There are plenty of places where we could get into a traditional air-to-air shootout. China primarily comes to mind, but Chavez in Venezuela is intent on arming his country, and the Iranians or even North Korea could even acquire more advanced aircraft. Recall also that we sold Pakistan F-16s and that country could fall apart at any moment.

Russia and China are building new aircraft like there's no tomorrow. See this list at the Federation of American Scientists. The newer aircraft are very good, and are being exported to many countries around the world. Besides the Russian and Chinese aircraft, the ones coming out of Europe are very good and they hope to sell them to countries that, who knows, we may have to fight one day.

Mig-29 "Fulcrum"


Supporters of the decision to cut further production of the F-22 need to hope that we don't get into any shooting wars in which our planes are shot down, and ex-pilots start going on TV saying "if only we'd had the F-22..." No matter how good Obama's diplomacy, events can spiral out of control. Right or left I think we can all agree that there are a lot of crazies running countries right now.

These past 10 years or so the entire USAF has centered around the F-22. I know people who have worked as civilian contractors and as civilian DOD employees, and they've told me that the entire message from on high was that their future as a fighting force depended on this weapon.

I remember throughout the 1980s all of the weapons systems developed under Reagan were derided as "gold plated," too expensive, wouldn't work as advertised, and too complicated for our troops to handle. The B-1b was one of them. Then came the Gulf War and what do you know but most all of them worked as well or better than expected. The only shortfall was the Patriot Pac3, and that was a rushed early ABM system anyway.

Potential adversaries aren't just building new aircraft, but new ships, subs, and anti-aircraft systems as well. I don't have time here to detail it all now.

Relying on the F-35 Lightning II

I don't have specifics, but it looks like President Obama has been persuaded that the F-35 Lightning II "Joint Strike Fighter" can hold the fort for the next few decades. It's a good aircraft, but is to the F-22 what the F-16 was to the F-15; not designed as the primary front-line fighter meant to take on the best the world could throw at us.


The Dangers

The danger is not just a traditional shootout with ad adversary like China, though that is a possibility. It's also the message it sends; we're not serious about remaining the world's superpower. It sends a green light to our adversaries that they can poke us and get away with it.

Our adversaries are testing Obama, and they're looking at what he's doing with our defense budget. The incident with the Chinese harassment of the USNS Impeccable was a test. If they see weakness, they'll pounce.

I think we're seeing weakness from Obama.

SecDef Gates announced cuts in Missile Defense. More on this later, but it strikes me as incredibly bad timing to cut back on efforts there just after North Korea tried to intimidate us with the recent launch of their Taepo Dong-2, and when Obama wants to open negotiations with Iran. In both cases the clear message to each is that we're not serious about stopping or even countering them. Diplomacy only stands a chance if backed by military force.

Of course, this budget has to get through Congress. Lawmakers whose districts are impacted will not want their constituents thrown out of work. My guess is that Obama won't get all of the cuts he wants.

More to come.

Posted by Tom at April 6, 2009 9:45 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Supporters of the decision to cut further production of the F-22 need to hope that we don't get into any shooting wars in which our planes are shot down, and ex-pilots start going on TV saying "if only we'd had the F-22..."

Well since Gate's budget calls for 187 F-22's the question would be why 187 is dismissed as nothing but 381 is magically enough? Unlike the B-1 analogy, we currently do have a significant number in service right now should we suddenly find ourselves in a hot war with China or Russia or some other power with a non-trivial air force.

I noticed you also didn't say much about what is getting increased, unmanned planes, counter-insurgency systems and greater investment in human capital (medical research, wounded care, child/spousal support....).

I'll be the first to admit I'm as much a layman on military matters as you'll find but it does appear to me that:

1. This is really Gates budget, many of these ideas would have been proposed even if Bush had a 3rd term.

2. The adage about 'fighting the last' war remains true. Unmanned drones and counter insurgency are getting a big boost, Cold War style weapons are getting cut back (although not really eliminated....). [Also there's more emphasis on boots on the ground which you can do with a huge number of disposable men or a smaller number with greater emphasis on retention, professionalism and minimal casualities] What the future would bring is anyone's guess but I would bet that future wars are still going to look more like Iraq and Afghanistan and less like World War II.

3. Granted we are beyond the days when you could just roll new systems off the assembly line in a few days. I'm sure something like the F-22 takes quite a while to build and if we are in a war where it becomes clear we need more of them we can't just place an order for 100 and get them by month's end. On the other hand it seems to me that since the shape of future wars are unpredictable massive cost and investment should be counted as a strong negative when evaluating proposed weapons systems. Consider an unmaned drone that could be rapidly adapted to fire on enemy aircraft. Such a weapon offers a great amount of flexibility since it can be used against a diverse array of enemies from terrorists huddled in tents to a conventional airforce. A weapon that takes a long time to build, represents a massive diversion of resources, and is only applicable to a limited set of engagements seems to come with a major amount of baggage. That's not to say it shouldn't be built, only that this should be given consideration in resource allocation.

Posted by: Boonton at April 7, 2009 12:42 PM

Weakening the US has always been Obama's strength. He believes he can resolve conflict using his wonderful oratory skills.

North Korea, China, Russia and Iran are counting on Him to continue to weaken the US military capability.

Posted by: MAS1916 at April 8, 2009 1:10 PM

Thank you for stopping by, MAS1916. I think this is the first time I've seen you here.

Thank you also for stopping by, Boonton. You raise good points and have stated them well.

Who knows, you may be right. Years from now, we might look back and be think it was the right decision to stop further production. And your point #3 is well taken, just remember that it cuts both ways. If we do run into a situation where we need a super high tech fighter and don't have enough F-22s it'll take a long time to restart the production line, and even longer to get a totally new one going from design to production.

Further, I do like some of what I see in the Obama-Gates budget. I'll call it Obama-Gates because although I understand your point about it being Gates' budget Obama is President so he has to take ultimate responsibility. But let's move past that.

Consider the story of the B-1 that I related. Today we have less than 100 B-52H Stratofortresses, and about 20 B-2 Spirit bombers. The B-52 is too old and vulnerable to be used in high-threat environments, and although very capable there are too few B-2s. The B-1B is our most useful heavy bomber right now in that we have enough of them to make a difference, and it is a semi-stealthy aircraft with good speed and ECM protection. Without it our air power would be much less effective.

Understand that I sincerely hope that we're never faced with a situation where we would need the F-22 Raptor, an ABM shield, or anything else, for that matter. I hope that President Obama and his team are able to secure our country through peaceful means.

But whatever you want to think about foreign policy or national defense, I trust we can both agree that the world is full of bad regimes who would do us harm if they could. Others, like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are nominally our allies today but could fall to hostile takeover by Islamist elements and become our enemies tomorrow. The former is armed with F-16s and the latter F-15s. It could happen, regardless of how good a job Obama and his team do. Recall that Iran has F-14s that we sold to the Shah that are still flying today.

I look around the world and see potential adversaries sizing us up. They're looking for any weakness and will at the very least become more aggressive if they see it.

So it's more that I think that terminating production of the F-22 sends the wrong message to potential adversaries, and that it puts our forces at a disadvantage if it does come down to a shootout. The F-15 and F-16 are old aircraft, and won't be useful as front line fighters for much longer. Thankfully I didn't read about any cutbacks in the F-35 JSF, which is a good aircraft.

I trust you can at least understand my argument even if you disagree. You can also have the last word if you'd like.

Posted by: Tom the Redhunter at April 8, 2009 7:41 PM

How many new bombers and fighter jeys do we need Tom? Wait. I know the answer. It's from the old CCR song Fortunate Son. MOre more more.

We have more nuclear weapons and conventional weapons than every other country. Building 186 jets instead of 336 doesn't send any other message to the world than we like building new jets.

I have always considered defense spending as not so much for our defense, but to provide jobs in Districts with defense contractors.

I'm all for jobs and government investment. I just think the money we save on new jets because we "want to send the right message" would be better invested in technology that frees us from dependence on foreign energy and many other useful purposes.

Posted by: truth101 at April 8, 2009 8:30 PM

Hi Tom,

It's been a while but I've been reading your blog again since the elections. Stimulating as ever.

I do think that you're cutting the Obama/Gates budget short shrift, though. The fact is that it's a 6% increase in military spending, even in a recession year. A truly peacenik administration would have had political cover for reducing spending, what with all the other priorities at the moment (bailout, stimulus, national debt, etc...)

But in a year with zero inflation, Obama is committing more resources to the military than Bush did. That deserves some recognition.

And within this military budget, resources are being diverted away from wars that America might one day have to fight MAYBE, towards wars that America is fighting NOW. And that's got to be the right call.

America's fire-power when it comes to shock-and-awe is not really challenged by any country. Even if the Chinese are trying to catch up it'll be decades before they come close. I think everyone knows this. I've often read your blog posts that sketch out war-game scenarios with China, and they strike me as slightly fantastical, strongly flavoured by Tom Clancy novels. But you also admit that the last time the USAF had its air supremacy challenged was in the Vietnam War, over forty years ago. The prospect of US pilots dog-fighting with the Chinese seems pretty remote - if the Chinese wanted to ramp up tensions with America they'd probably do it through a trade war or monkeying with the national debt, wouldn't they? Do you really think they'd try an old-fashioned shooting war?

On the other hand America's ability to fight counter-insurgency wars IS very much in doubt at the moment. Iraq was only stabilised late in the day, through the surge tactics that the Obama-Gates budget supports. Afghanistan is touch-and-go. All the realistic war scenarios on the horizon will be low-tech, counter-insurgency wars: Pakistan, Iran, Somalia (God forbid...) The watching world has good reason to doubt America's ability to win these wars, and ramping up counter-insurgency spending sends a message just as much as splurging on cool new fighter-planes does.

I guess what I'm saying is... every dollar that gets cut from developing next-gen technology that may never be used, is a dollar that goes into fighting the wars that are being fought now. That seems very sensible to me - from a propaganda point of view as well as a practical one.

Posted by: Mylne Karimov at April 10, 2009 6:25 AM

But whatever you want to think about foreign policy or national defense, I trust we can both agree that the world is full of bad regimes who would do us harm if they could. Others, like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are nominally our allies today but could fall to hostile takeover by Islamist elements and become our enemies tomorrow.

The resource allocation question is tricky not only because you can't be sure who tomorrow's threat will be but also because tomorrows threat may change based on what you do today.

For example, a huge amount invested in missile defense may make it more or less impossible for a country like North Korea to strike us even if they have a dozen or so working ICBMs. But they might respond with a covert mission to smuggle a bomb in through covert means. One day Tokoyo goes up and no one is even sure where the bomb came from or who did it.

I suppose some rules of thumb would be:

1. Toss out countries that have trivial armed forces right now. Saudi Arabia might someday use its money to get a real air force. But even if they buy the planes ready made today they will need time to build up experienced pilots. That would give us time to tweak our budget accordingly.

2. Take existing major powers and compare our armed forces to them. How does our air force stack up against China right now? Russia right now. and so on. Correct imbalances (here though you need realistic simulations of conflict...not just one type of plane versus another but how our combined armed forces would deal with an air to air war w/China)

3. Assuming imbalances are resolved from #2 then the budget should be projecting future conflicts and trying to get the most flexibility for the buck (since we know most projections end up being very wrong no matter how smart the people making them).

Posted by: Boonton at April 10, 2009 1:43 PM

Excellent and most thoughtful comments from everyone! Whether I agree with you or not I'm universally impressed.

Mylne Karimov, it is indeed good to see you again! How can I forget the exhaustive conversation you had with one of my commenters about the history of Texas & our war with Mexico?

Mylne Karimov wrote "The fact is that it's a 6% increase in military spending, even in a recession year. ... Obama is committing more resources to the military than Bush did."

I'm afraid this isn't so. As the Washington Times editorialized, "it represents a mere 4 percent increase over the previous year, which is an inflation-adjusted flatline" Indeed, a quick visit to dol.gov shows the CPI at .4% which is a monthly figure, so multiply by 12 and you get an annual inflation rate of 4.8%.

Mylne Karimov also wrote "America's fire-power when it comes to shock-and-awe is not really challenged by any country. Even if the Chinese are trying to catch up it'll be decades before they come close."

The first part is true in the aggregate, but remember that our forces are spread throughout the world, whereas our enemies can concentrate theirs. We can bring more forces to any area, but there are limits.

To be sure, our Army will get additional funding, which is a good thing. Our Navy, however, is taking a hit. Right now we have 11 active aircraft carriers, with one being built and two more planned. The Obama-Gates budget will take us down to 9 active carriers. This is the lowest number since I think just after WWII, maybe the 30s. They're great ships and will be better once we get the F-35 on board, but two more problems; with so few ships we have to spread them out a lot, and two, if we lose one in battle we take a greater percentage loss than if we had more ships.

I've written extensively about US v PRC military strength, see here, here, and here for starters. Suffice it to say that we could very easily end up on the short end of the stick in a confrontation.

Posted by: Tom the Redhunter at April 10, 2009 8:41 PM

A spat over inflation statistics is never very edifying, but I think your calculations are off.

If you extrapolate annual inflation from just one month (Jan 2009), then yes, you can get a figure of 4.8%. But if you look over inflation from Mar 2008-Feb 2009, you'll see that total inflation comes to just 0.3%. That's because for the second half of last year prices were actually deflationary in the US economy.

So no, not zero, but very nearly.

Now to be sure, inflation figures can be argued over till the cows come home, and I can believe that defense spending costs have a way of creeping up more than most. I don't know where the Washington Times got their figures, they don't say. But even if we take them at face value, how can they complain that the budget increase is "merely" 4%, in a year when the tax base will shrink dramatically? In what world do we expect military budgets to forever increase relative to GDP?

The figures I quote are US Bureau of Labor Statistics:


Posted by: Mylne Karimov at April 11, 2009 5:42 AM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)