America's Junk Weapons

Leftist thinking is so pervasive that it often slips into conservative thought without anybody being aware of it. (No? How about “capitalism,” or “HUAC”?) One such case involves U.S. defense policy, specifically U.S. vs. Soviet, Russian, or Chinese weapons systems.

We’ve already covered the tendency to credit the Russians (and the Chinese, and who knows, the Inuit) with world-beating weapons they couldn’t possibly have. Another such axiom exists governing American defense: that all U.S. weapons are junk, won’t work, can’t compete, are overpriced, will lead to disaster, and must be cancelled immediately. This is a thesis that has achieved the status of a meme: all communist weapons are the technological equivalent of Excalibur or Mjölnir, while all American weapons are Acme fireworks that will inevitably send us over the cliff.

As with most such notions, there exists a grain of truth in this. A small one, and misleading one, in this case going all the way back to the Korean War.

Korea was the first jet war, and the reason for this was an aircraft called the MiG-15. Jets appeared in the last months of WW II, first from Germany, then the UK, and then the U.S. In all cases but two -- the Messerschmidt Me-262 and the Arado-234 – too late to go into combat. After VE-Day, research and application into jet-propelled flight went into high gear, much of it occurring in the U.S: the sound barrier shattered by the X-1, the first production second-generation jets, the first jet bombers (the B-45 and B-47), and so on. The British were scarcely a step behind, and the Russians…

Well, the USSR simply couldn’t get traction. Though they got their share of German aeronautics scientists and engineers, their own efforts were pathetic. Their first jet fighter design, the MiG-9, was a grotesque machine with a large cannon placed right smack in the middle of the air intake, which must have done wonders for airflow when it was fired.

And so it came as a shock when the first MiG-15s appeared in the skies above North Korea. Here was a fully developed second-generation jet fighter, with swept wings, heavy armament, a first-rate engine, that was capable of overwhelming anything the UN forces could put up against it. The U.S. was forced to rush the F-86 Sabre,  just coming into general squadron service, to Japan and South Korea to go up against the MiGs. Even then, it was touch and go – the MiG was slightly faster and more maneuverable at altitude, and was more heavily armed with 20 and 30 mm cannon. For over a year the air war above the Yalu seesawed until at last an upgraded F-86E with cannon and hydraulic controls – a first for a fighter aircraft – came into action, quickly putting the MiG-15 in its place.

The response to the MiG-15 was worldwide shock. The historic impression of Russia as a primitive country populated by muzhiks with manure on their boots was shelved, replaced with a vision of the Soviet man as Wellsian superbeing, capable of anything. Something mysterious and unfathomable had occurred behind the Iron Curtain, and it was a sure bet that Marxism was the cause. Communism was a scientific doctrine, so it made sense that communists would be better at tech than the backward, capitalist West.

It was all a mirage. The simple truth was that all the “science” and “technology” embodied by the MiG-15 came directly from Western sources. That outstanding engine was the Rolls-Royce Nene,  built under a license granted in a fit a suicidal madness by the Atlee Labour government. And the rest…

The rest was a gift to the comrades by the Rosenberg spy network. Along with data on the Manhattan Project, Ethel and Julius also sent east anything else available. One member of the network was William Perl, a physicist and aeronautical researcher for the National Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor of NASA. Perl was the source of all kinds of swell material, including the full developmental data on the P-80, the first U.S. jet, but even more important, the wind tunnel data for the F-86.

This was nearly as important as the A-bomb material. In fact, it may have killed Ethel and Julius. Judge Irving Kaufmann, who handed down the death sentence, was beside himself over the fact that Americans were being killed in Korea using information turned over by the Rosenbergs even as the trial proceeded. This could only have referred to the F-86 data. (Perl himself lucked out, serving only two concurrent five-year terms for perjury.)

But the myth of Soviet superiority continued, set in concrete by the “bomber gap” and the launch of Sputnik (The U.S., in fact, had a Jupiter C ready to fly at Cape Canaveral for a year before Sputnik was launched, but President Eisenhower forbade it. Jupiter C was an Army project, and he didn’t want the military to send up the first satellite. Instead, all effort was put into the useless and flawed Vanguard program, which was run by… the U.S. Navy.)

At the same time the U.S. carried out the most remarkable armaments program in world history. During the 1950s, the U.S. went from a handful of intercontinental jet bombers to nearly 1700, a fully integrated air defense system consisting of three separate radar warning lines, one of them, the DEW line, above the Arctic Circle (Russia, for its part, had a 400-500-mile gap in its radar coverage across northern Siberia. If war had ever broken out, the entire U.S. bomber force could have entered Russia through this gap and attacked its targets before the Russians even knew it was there). By the end of the decade, the U.S. was fielding a fully operational submarine missile force along with emplacement of the first ICBM, the Atlas. (A rocket, incredibly enough, still flying for NASA as the Atlas V).

A pretty good record. But as the 60s opened up, it was largely ignored. It was the early 60s that saw the “Russian superweapon” doctrine supplemented by yet another, the contention that all American weapons were dangerous, useless junk.

This was largely the legacy of one individual, Robert S. McNamara, whose middle initial stood for the very appropriate “Strange.” McNamara had leapt at the chance to become secretary of defense in a kind of desperation move, since his recent activities at Ford had left him with few prospects with the company. Historians of the future will marvel at the fact that for nearly a decade, the defense of the U.S. was placed in the hands of one of the men responsible for the Edsel.

McNamara had served in the Army Air Force in the waning months of WW II, and nursed a bitter grudge over his treatment at the hands of his fellows officer concerning his robotic demeanor, his goofy glasses, and his insistence that everything be worked out to the eighth decimal place. He came to the DoD as a man thirsting for vengeance.

Of course, he didn’t put it that way. He insisted that he and his “whiz kids” –  managerial elitists in the classic mode, all advanced degrees, pocket protectors, and no real-world experience – could show all the zipperheaded soldiers how to run the military in a more efficient, effective, and humane manner. To be fair, some of his initiatives were well founded, particularly as involved cancelling certain useless programs, among them the SM-62 Snark, an asinine attempt at an “intercontinental cruise missile” that was totally redundant in the age of the ICBM.  He also ordered the USAF to adapt the Navy’s F-4 Phantom as an all-purpose fighter, the Air Force lacking such a necessary asset due to wasting the previous ten years developing the “Century series” fighters, a group of oddities devoted to niche roles, and mostly handling those poorly.

But in general, his tenure was a disaster. Along with the Vietnam War and Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), McNamara bequeathed the country the habit of canceling weapons systems because we could.

The two major victims were the B-70 Valkyrie and the GAM-87 Skybolt missile.

The B-70 was a remarkable aircraft, the sole example of a type flown only at that time and never since. Looking more like something out of “Trek” than an airplane designed in the 1950s, the B-70 was an eight-engine behemoth capable of cruising at 2,000 mph at an altitude of over 70,000 feet. And yet this beast of a machine was one of the most graceful airplanes ever designed, looking like a gigantic swan evolved in some biosphere far advanced over ours.

The B-70, as an airplane at the very cutting edge of contemporary aeronautics, went through a lengthy and complicated development process. (this is true of most U.S. weapons systems. Whereas the drawback of Soviet weapons is that they’re clunkers, obsolescent before they’re even used. U.S. weapons, on the contrary, are pioneering tech, with all the difficulties implied.) This, along with its high visibility, made it a clear target for McNamara’s budget-cutting. Throw in the fact that its capabilities would undermine McNamara’s pet “MAD” theory – that parity between U.S. and Soviet weapons would preserve the peace through “Mutual Assured Destruction,” and it’s clear that the B-70 was doomed as soon as McNamara took over the Pentagon.

The B-70 went through an immensely successful test program. The USAF had an epoch-making aircraft on its hands, one that would render every other bomber immediately obsolete as soon as it was operational. No matter – on March 28, 1961 the program was “reoriented” toward testing and development – a sneaky method of cancelling it without saying so. The ostensible reason was that the downing of the U-2 over the USSR on May I, 1960 demonstrated that it was too vulnerable to Soviet SAMs. (In fact, it wasn’t until years later that the public learned the Gary Powers’ U-2 had flamed out at its cruising altitude of 70,000 ft. and had glided down to 40,000 ft. before is was struck by a SAM).

Only two B-70s were actually built. One was lost in silly PR stunt at Edwards AFB on June 8, 1966. The other can be seen at the National Museum of the USAF at Wright-Patterson AFB, towering above every other aircraft at the site.

The Skybolt missile was an attempt to build an air-launched ballistic missile in order to beat upgrades in Soviet air defenses such as those that brought down the U-2. A number of launch failures, typical of new missiles at the time (and not so rare even today), set it up for cancellation, something McNamara was in favor of due to the fact that the Skybolt also conflicted with his MAD strategic voodoo. After a lengthy controversy, he finally persuaded John F. Kennedy to cancel the missile on December 22, 1962 in a speech claiming that it was obviously “beyond our present technical capabilities.”

The problem was that the Air Force had scheduled a test for the next day, which was successful. This being the pre-internet era, newspapers featured the stories on the same day, one headline quoting JFK’s speech facing another announcing the outstanding test results. So the Skybolt was eliminated with prejudice, along with the career of the poor USAF PR officer, who likely spent the rest of his days at Thule AB in Greenland.

If the Skybolt had been deployed with the B-70 – something that would inevitably have occurred had both gone into production – the result would have been a gigantic leap in USAF capabilities. Even a couple of dozen B-70s armed with the missile would have complicated Soviet strategic calculations to the point of frustration. Instead, McNamara’s policies enabled the Soviets to build both their nuclear bomber and ICBM forces to parity with those of the U.S., when, according to McNamara’s calculations, they would stop and coexist happily amid MAD’s balance of terror. But instead the Soviets kept on building all through the late 60s and 70s until their nuclear forces far outweighed those of the U.S.

The USAF learned useful lessons from this episode, among them the folly of giving weapons flashy names before they were in production. A cut-down version of the Skybolt was christened with the dull acronym SRAM (Short-Range Attack Missile) and went into production without attracting the attention of anyone. Unfortunately, the left learned as well – namely how to kill any proposed weapon which aroused its ire, which for all practical purposes meant all of them.

Over the next two decades leftists in government, media, academia, and the NGOs fought to halt the Safeguard ABM system, the M-16, the M-1 Abrams tank, the M-2 Bradley IFV, the B-1 Lancer, the F-14 Tomcat, the MX Peacekeeper missile, the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), the Tomahawk cruise missile, the Maverick and Hellfire missiles, the Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) system in all its aspects. They succeeded in delaying or cancelling several of these, but not all of them, and not for good. If they had, we’d have pretty much been reduced to defending the U.S. with rocks and pointed sticks.

A few such cancellations were fully justified – the AH-56 Cheyenne, a weird composite airplane-helicopter, and the DIVAD antiaircraft gun, ruined by the Army’s endless tinkering and second thoughts. But by far the largest portion were targeted by leftists because they were American, and just might work. (One weapon system relatively safe from cutting was McNamara’s pet program, the F-111, which he promoted as an all-purpose, all-service airplane that could do anything. While the Navy version was cancelled for the good reason that it didn’t work, the USAF model was pushed through against all resistance. Eventually the Air Force found a use for it as a low-level attack bomber, which was worlds away from its original mission.)

This continues today as we have seen regarding both the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II. Both of these aircraft got the standard treatment as technologically flawed, too expensive, and a threat to unicorns and butterflies, but with a heightened intensity due to the fact that predecessor aircraft utilizing stealth technology, the F-117 and the B-2, were developed as “black” programs immune to political interference.

The opposition to the F-22 involved two elements not previously seen in the debate over weapons acquisition. First, a demonstration that a program can be cancelled even after it has reached full series production. The F-22 was cancelled on behalf of Barack Obama by defense secretary Robert Gates, after the plane was accepted by the USAF and hundreds were in the production pipeline. Production was capped at 190, just over half of what the Air Force claimed was necessary. As with most decisions made by the Lightbringer, no serious reason was ever given. Today it’s regarded as one of the worst defense-related decisions ever. Even Gates himself calls it the worst decision he ever made – and this is the man who smoothed the way for pedophiles to join the Boy Scouts.

The second is disquieting evidence that opponents of an adequate American defense now appear to understand the thinking behind weapons acquisition better than its supporters. The F-22 and F-35 were designed as components of the “High/Low mix,” in which an air force’s fighter assets are of two types: a high-performance air-superiority plane along with a slightly less capable fighter-bomber. Such a mix is versatile enough to cover most combat contingencies. This arrangement had proved itself during WW II with the Spitfire/Hurricane and Mustang/Thunderbolt teams, and over Korea with the Sabre/ThunderJet team. It was this factor that the USAF ignored in purchasing the Century series fighters, to its lasting dismay over Vietnam. The balance was restored in the 1970s with the F-15 Eagle/F-16 Viper team, the most effective example of the High/Low principle in the annals of air warfare.

The F-22 was supposed to be the “High” element and the F-35 the “Low.” So, when the F-22 was cancelled, opponents began to attack the F-35 on the grounds that it was not suited for the air-superiority role – a function for which it was not designed. Supporters of a strong military apparently had no grasp of the High/Low philosophy and were left largely flummoxed. The F-35 survived in large part not due to the efforts of supporters, but because of simple fact that it was the only game in town -- if it was cancelled, the USAF, along with NATO and much of the rest of the Western world, would have scarcely any fifth-generation fighters at all.

The arguments against the F-22 and F-35 are generally of the level that developmental delays and flaws that required reworking or workarounds rendered the planes worthless, particularly in light of the aircraft that preceded them. (Even some of these were outright lies, such as the “flaw” in the F-22’s oxygen system that turned out to be a stuck valve in a flight suit.) But suppose these same standards had been applied to earlier designs. The B-17 Flying Fortress crashed on its first official flight. The P-51 Mustang was originally underpowered, incapable of matching other fighters at operating altitude. The B-29 Superfortress was plagued throughout its career by engine failures that often resulted in fatal crashes. The F-86 Sabre was nicknamed the “lieutenant eater” for its tendency to kill rookie pilots. The B-47 Stratojet developed a tendency to shed its wings due to unforeseen metal fatigue.

All these cases would have resulted in cancellation by our standards – even though all those aircraft had brilliant careers and several were war-winning weapons. It’s clear that our current ideas about weapons development have no connection with reality and serve to seriously undermine our military and our national defense.

In truth, the “junk weapon” is the flip side of the “communist superweapon” coin. Both, based on historic myths, are concepts adapted by the left in order to undermine American security and our ability to defend American interests and project American power in the international arena.  

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