Opinion

The Great Debate

Pentagon’s big budget F-35 fighter ‘can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run’

A F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is seen at the Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River

Americans should be worried.

The U.S. military has grounded all its new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters following an incident on June 23, when one of the high-tech warplanes caught fire on the runway of a Florida air base. The no-fly order — which affects at least 50 F-35s at training and test bases in Florida, Arizona, California and Maryland — began on the evening of July 3 and continued through July 11.

All those F-35s sitting idle could be a preview of a future in which potentially thousands of the Pentagon’s warplanes can’t reliably fly.

Handout photo of three F-35 Joint Strike Fighters flying over Edwards Air Force BaseTo be fair, the Pentagon routinely grounds warplanes on a temporary basis following accidents and malfunctions to buy investigators time to identify problems and to give engineers time to fix them.

But there’s real reason to worry. The June incident might reflect serious design flaws that could render the F-35 unsuitable for combat.

For starters, the Lockheed Martin-built F-35 — which can avoid sensor detection thanks to its special shape and coating — simply doesn’t work very well. The Pentagon has had to temporarily ground F-35s no fewer than 13 times since 2007, mostly due to problems with the plane’s Pratt & Whitney-made F135 engine, in particular, with the engines’ turbine blades. The stand-downs lasted at most a few weeks.

Watch out, that freighter may actually be a warship

131206-N-MJ645-142

U.S. military operations now increasingly begin and end at sea — aboard a growing fleet of vessels that the Pentagon has specifically outfitted as floating command facilities, barracks and launch pads.

The daring U.S. commando raid into Libya to capture Ahmed Abu Khatallah, the Benghazi terror suspect, opened a window into Washington’s new approach to war and counterterrorism. The Navy warship New York was central to the military’s mission in seizing Khatallah and transporting him to the United States for trial.

New York and other “sea bases,” as the military calls them, are more mobile, better defended and potentially cheaper than long-term U.S. facilities built on foreign soil. These ships sail and anchor in international waters, so they offer legal and diplomatic advantages over former land bases.

Counterterrorism: Where are Obama’s policy changes?

It is now roughly five months since President Barack Obama announced a new direction for U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

“America is at a crossroads,” Obama said at the National Defense University in May. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.”

The president proceeded to set out his post-war vision for the nation — the peace dividend earned for the last 12 years of a complicated, costly and at times tragically misguided counterterrorism policy. The president, as usual, gave a good speech. Where he’s weak is on the follow-through, however.

Saving Defense dollars: From BRAC to ORAC

While the government shutdown continues because of the Democrats’ and Republicans’ profound disagreement, the real issue facing the nation is something that both parties agree on, in principle: the need to reduce the size of the federal deficit.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 and sequestration have made some steps in this direction, though aiming indiscriminately at certain parts of government far more than others. Half of all cuts, for example, come from the Defense Department.

There are a wide range of options for domestic spending reduction. But military spending cuts are more narrow and difficult. They can be done responsibly, however. Sequestration’s reductions are severe, perhaps excessive (especially early on), with $500 billion in 10-year cuts, on top of the $500 billion already accepted back in 2011. That said, tens of billions can undoubtedly be saved through smart economies and business practices — without cutting muscle or breaking faith with the men and women in uniform.

The robots of war

Air Force airman performs tests on a Talon robot in Afghanistan in 2011. Photo from Air Force.

Here are just a few of the robots assigned to the U.S. Army’s last combat brigade in Afghanistan: Tractor-size robots that trawl ahead of foot patrols, probing for buried bombs. Smaller ‘bots that help blow up the uncovered incendiary devices. Unmanned aerial vehicles — from tiny, hand-thrown models to a high-endurance version the size of a Cessna. Silent robot sentries that watch over sleeping U.S. troops.

The automaton warriors of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, deployed to volatile Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan since December represent the highs and lows of more than a decade of military robot development.

The case for sea-based drones

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator is towed into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), May 13, 2013. CREDIT: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter

If all goes according to plan, sometime on Tuesday the military balance of power in the Pacific Ocean could tilt to America’s advantage. The U.S. Navy’s main warships, whose firepower now cannot match the range of Chinese missiles, could gain a new weapon that more than levels the playing field.

It all boils down to a 62-foot-wide, hook-nosed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle built by Northrop Grumman. This new drone is set to launch off the 1,092-foot-long flight deck of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, known in Navy parlance as CVN-77 and until Tuesday morning docked at the sprawling naval base in Norfolk, Virginia.

A sequestration solution for the Pentagon

The sequestration drama in Washington is less severe and intractable than you have heard. A partial solution: Block the across-the-board cut of $42.5 billion in military funds this year — the Pentagon’s portion of $85 billion due March 1 — and spread the savings over several years by tweaking military spending caps already on the books.

Because this option preserves deficit reduction without raising taxes and lets the military drawdown intelligently, a congressional majority might support it.

Pentagon leaders are sounding the alarm — warning about the impending sequester and the additional $500 billion reduction in spending over a decade. Furloughed civilian employees, extended deployments, reduced naval patrols and procurement delays, they say, will leave the military unable to perform its job and deter U.S. enemies.

A battleground for weapons of the future

More than a week after a U.S.-Egyptian brokered ceasefire brought a fragile peace to Gaza, military analysts are busily assessing the fighting between Israel and Hamas. Their goal: Apply lessons from the eight-day battle to weaponry still in development.

Israel’s frequent conflicts with its Arab neighbors have historically been proving grounds for the latest in battlefield technology. Arab-Israeli wars inspired the first operational aerial drones, radar-evading stealth warplanes and projectile-defeating armor. All are now staples of the world’s leading militaries.

Analysts now say this recent fighting could spur the proliferation of highly accurate, fast-firing defenses against rocket barrages, a threat that has long flummoxed military planners. The solution could be inspired by Israel’s now-famous Iron Dome, a rocket-intercepting missile system that shot down hundreds of Hamas’ rockets before they could strike Israeli settlements.

The U.S. war in Iraq is over. Who won?

The end of America’s combat mission, after seven and a half costly years, has raised questions that will provide fodder for argument for a long time to come: Was it worth it? And who, if anyone, won?

It’s too early to answer the first question, according to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a man of sober judgment. “It really requires a historian’s perspective in terms of what happens here in the long run … How it all weighs in the balance over time remains to be seen.”

For a sizeable group of Middle East experts, the second question is easier to answer than the first. “So, who won the war in Iraq? Iran,” says the headline over an analysis by scholar Mohammed Bazzi for the Council on Foreign relations, a New York-based think-tank. His argument: “The U.S. ousted Tehran’s sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein, from power. Then Washington helped install a Shi’ite government for the first time in Iraq’s modern history.

U.S. military power: When is enough enough?

– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. —

The numbers tell the story of a superpower addicted to overwhelming military might: the United States accounts for five percent of the world’s population, around 23 percent of its economic output and more than 40 percent of its military spending. America spends as much on its soldiers and weapons as the next 18 countries put together.

Why such a huge margin? The question is rarely asked although there is spirited debate over specific big-ticket weapons systems whose conception dates back to the days when the United States was not the only superpower and large-scale conventional war against the other superpower, the Soviet Union, was an ever-present possibility. Those days are over.

  •