Author of Beyond Baghdad: Postmodern War and Peace
Forwarded by Tom Dyer

April 13, 2005 — Last month, I sat in the office of Col. Jon “Dog” Davis, a veteran Marine aviator. While at war, the Corps' pilots had seen a rise in their accident rate. Davis was determined to do something about it. I wanted to be sympathetic, so I said, “Well, you're flying some very old aircraft.”

Davis, a taut, no-nonsense Marine, looked me in the eye and said, “They may be old, but they're good. That's no excuse.”

As commander of the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 out in Yuma, Ariz., Davis could have nodded and gone along, blaming the jets and helicopters. But he's a Marine. And Marines don't make excuses. They do their best with what the taxpayers give them. And their best is pretty damn good.

Contrast that with a recent conversation I had with two Air Force generals. I had written columns critical of the platinum-plated F/A-22, the most expensive fighter in history and an aircraft without a mission. So the Air Force decided to lobby me.

Those two generals spun the numbers until the stone-cold truth was buried under a mantra of “air dominance,” imaginary combat roles and financial slight-of-hand. Still, I wanted to be fair. I took them seriously and investigated their claims.

Not one thing they said held up under scrutiny.

Morally bankrupt, the Air Force is willing to turn a blind eye to the pressing needs of soldiers and Marines at war in order to get more of its $300-million-apiece junk fighters. With newer, far more costly aircraft than the Marines possess, the Air Force pleads that it just can't defend our country without devouring the nation's defense budget.

Meanwhile, Marine aviators fly combat missions in aging jets and ancient helicopters, doing their best for America - and refusing to beg, lie, cheat or blame their gear.

I had gone out to Yuma to speak to Dog Davis' Marines about future war. The truth is they should have been lecturing to me. There is nothing more inspiring than being around United States Marines (yes, a retired Army officer wrote that). The Corps does more with its limited resources than any other branch of government. The Marines are a bargain rivaled only by our under-funded Coast Guard.

Even the military installations are different. A Marine base is well- maintained and perfectly groomed, but utterly without frills. Guest quarters are Motel 6, not the St. Regis. Air Force bases are the country clubs of la vie militaire.

Meanwhile, the Air Force twiddles its thumbs and dreams of war with China. Its leaders would even revive the Soviet Union, if they could. Just to have something to do. If you go into the Pentagon these days, you'll find only half of the building is at war. The Army and Marine staffs (the latter in the Navy Annex) put in brutal hours and barely see their families. The Navy, at least, is grappling with the changed strategic environment.

Meanwhile, the Air Force staff haunts the Pentagon espresso bar and lobbies for more money. The Air Force hasn't forgotten how to fight. But it only wants to fight the other services.

Recently, the blue-suiters have been floating one of the most disgraceful propositions I've ever encountered in Washington (and that's saying something). I heard the con directly from one of the Air Force generals who tried to sell me on the worthless F/A-22. The poison goes like this: “The Air Force and Navy can dominate their battle space. Why can't the Army and Marines?”

Let me translate that: At a time when soldiers and Marines are fighting and dying in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the Air Force shamefully implies that our ground forces are incompetent, hinting that, if the Air Force ran the world, we'd get better results. How low can a service go? Not a single Air Force fighter pilot has lost his life in combat in Iraq. But the Air Force is willing to slander those who do our nation's fighting and dying.

As for the vile proposition itself, well, it's easy to “dominate your battle space” if you don't have anyone to battle. Our fighter-jock Air Force doesn't have an enemy (Air Force special-ops and transport crews, as well as ground-liaison personnel, serve magnificently - but the generals regard them as second-class citizens).

While courage is certainly required, Air Force and Navy combat challenges are engineering problems, matters of physics and geometry. Our Army and Marines, by contrast, face brutally human, knife-fight conflicts that require human solutions.

The Air Force is about metal. The Marines and Army deal in flesh and blood - in problems that don't have clear or easy solutions.

Hey, if the Air Force knows of a simple, by-the-numbers way to win the War on Terror, combat insurgents in urban terrain and help battered populations rebuild their countries, the generals in blue ought to share the wisdom. (They've certainly been paid enough for it.)

But the Air Force doesn't have any solutions. Just institutional greed. Their strategy? Trash our troops. Lie about capabilities and costs. Belittle the genuine dangers facing our country, while creating imaginary threats. Keep the F/A-22 buy alive, no matter what it takes. A little while ago I wrote that our Air Force needed to be saved from itself. Now I'm no longer sure salvation is possible.

If you want to see how to fly and fight, call in the Marines.


Toki Endo E-Mail is an engineer with Boeing. His brother, Nori, is a retired Navy fighter pilot, former Navpro Grumman, and F-14 project manager. He is retired and living in Annapolis. Here are Toki Endo’s comments about this article:

I have no qualms with Ralph Peters’ argument. The Air Force has been and always will be a fighter pilot mentality. Fighter Pilot Generals (FPGs) tell the procurement agencies what to buy. The problem with Air Force procurement system is that engineers make the technical decisions but receive the performance requirements from the FPGs. To illustrate the issues with technocrats buying warfighter equipment, I relate this little story:

I once attended an advanced electronic warfare course where an engineer from W-PAFB (procuring agency for electronic warfare equipment) proclaimed the infallibility of a jammer pod that was strapped on to an F4. A Wild Weasel WSO veteran in attendance asked the engineer why the pod was painted white. The engineer said it was required by the MIL-SPEC. A film was shown that had a split screen supposedly of an SA-3 radar acquisition screen and an optical view of the F4 inbound to the target at low altitude. My hats off to a WSO who asked what optics were used to track the F4. The engineer answered that is was a copy of the Russian ZSU 37mm gun layer optics. Amazingly, the jammer obliterated the acquisition radar . Meanwhile the gun optics operator dutifully kept his cross hairs on the shiny white spot beneath the F4's left wing. When I worked on the B-2 displays, the engineers designed the cockpit displays with engineering in mind. I had a heck of a time convincing them that an ordinary AF pilot didn't give a hoot about the numeric readout of the turbine blade vibration (TBV) but only if it was in limits, i.e., management by exception.

Guess what? When the USAF operational pilots evaluated the cockpit displays, TBV went to the warning and cautions display as a Red or Yellow panel light. Within the AF I understand that “bomber” general was top dog so the FPG's had to support the B-2 instead of their own pet projects. But let's face it, there's a limited budget and whoever is in political control of the military will win the largest part of the budget. When a Marine becomes CJCS, they will get a lion's share of the budget. Look back in history - the service with the CJCS, they got the biggest cut. Let's face it, it's politics that dictate weaponry.

I sincerely believe that the AF ought to reopen the A-10 Warthog production line. It's not only a great tank killer but an outstanding CAS weapon also. It should, though, be modified so that it can fire either the 30mm depleted uranium slugs for tank busting or 20mm for ground support. What the heck is wrong with bringing back the Spad but updated to a turboprop and installing a titanium tub around the pilot. That sucker had loiter time and could carry a whale of a weapons load.

The F-22 will never serve as a CAS or fighter bomber. If you start hanging ordnance on that beauty, speed and stealth die. So what is it built for? Air-to-air and nothing more. It's an F-15C replacement and that is it - end of story.