Oh, I Have Slipped the Surly Bonds of Earth…

Flight of the Valkyries

...and Danced the Skies on Laughter Silvered Wings.

A friend, reader, and one of my rare post responders asked me to read the below article and opine on it at his request.  Ask and ye shall receive!  The article’s link is:


The author, Mark Helprin looks to have written a good number of books and have served randomly in various country’s armed services.  This itself speaks to him patently not being a fighter pilot nor educated on air power doctrine and the larger picture of how the Air Force projects power around the world.  I sympathize with his sentiments in the article, but I don’t agree.

I have to give my credentials upfront – while I admit I am not expert, I feel my opinion needs to count just as much if not more than this WSJ opinionator.  I am an graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, honorably discharged officer of the Air Force, and I was a pilot in the Air Force.  I however was NOT a fighter pilot.  I received extensive air power education to include formal training on doctrine, theory, and application both in military classes at the Air Force Academy and as a Lieutenant pilot and graduate of the Air Force’s ASBC – their ‘LT school’ located at Maxwell AFB.  Billy Mitchell and Claire Chennault were before their times, and we should have had linebacker III, IV, and V until we were blasting big pieces of Vietnamese ruins into smaller pieces of ruins.  I sound like Curtis LeMay, don’t I?

I like how Haplrin starts off.  He’s got it right.  It is a damn shame that we’re cancelling the F-22 after only a 180-some planes.  Even worse, we are bankrupting ourselves, losing our American ‘can-do’ spirit, and falling into a moral morass based on being PC, appealing to the lowest common denominator, and the popularity of the TV show ‘The Bachelor’.

   What I can’t abide by though is his assumption that the F-22 in all of its expense and basic single-purpose usage is the end all and be all of our force projection around the world and the key to our national defense as his article suggests.

   Let me hit some of the highlights of his article before I recap with my single point.  Be forewarned, I agree with him in some points and point them out, but I also disagree.  I actually give you some history behind my side of things and I try not to jump to conclusions.

His arguments:

1) We can’t forego our conventional forces.  Amen!  I agree.  But how does our focus on small elite forces and predator drones sharpen the Chinese training regimen?  As he states when he says: ‘…the penalty for this (holiday of military power) will be Chinese military parity, Russia again a threat to Europe, a nuclear-armed Iran…  He goes on.
   This assumption is borne by the fact that somehow our conventional force is diminished by having greater capabilities in elite units and that we need to have all these extra divisions just standing around waiting to defend ourselves from foreign agression and then to counter-attack and to invade the Fulda gap and Tiananmen Square.  The world doesn’t work that way anymore.  I wouln’t call these countries our friends by any stretch, but at the same time what do they have to gain by attacking us?  Everything is interconnected.  They have more to lose than we do by attacking us – its beyond just politics and embargoes, but with money and economics.  Those are the real things that keep everyone playing nice.  If anything, I see ourselves falling under some Chinese yolk economically because of the dollar-pegging game we allow them to play with the yuan, their export surplus with us, and all their ownership of our debt (and our wasteful debt service on it).  That is the real threat.
As for Iran, it does threaten violence, but it is a Middle-Eastern destabilizing kind of violence if they get a nuke.  Everyone knows and fears this, no-one more than the Israelis.  I fear them doing to Iran what they did to Saddam and his nuclear program if they get wind Iran is getting close to having a bomb.  That scenario is what should worry you.  How do you think the arab world will feel when Israel does what it has to do for its own security by repeating their exprience with Iraq in the 80s and sending in a four ship of F-16s to go below Iranian radar and drop some daisy-cutters on Iran’s nuclear facilities?

2) Control of Panama Canal – what?

3) Less ships doesn’t mean less capability.  What can one carrier group do today compared to what 5 WWII era groups could do?  What about planes?  I promise you, those 4 F-22s in that pictures could amass more kills than a whole squadron of F-15s – and that is our next best air to air fighter (which is still better than anything China makes – I’ll get to that one though)

4)  Missile defense shield – good point, but do we really need to spend the money and piss off the Russians?  Israel will unfortunately do everyone’s job for them if we’re worried about a couple of nuclear tipped rockets.  See the end of #1 above if you need a re-cap.

5)  We still have plenty of nuclear weapons to irradiate the world a couple dozen times over.  How many times do you have to sterilize the world and kill the global warming debate with a nuclear winter?

6) 150 Planes in Europe does not equal roman foot-soldiers in Europe.  That was a lot further for them back then.  Besides, we shouldn’t have to defend the Europeans anymore from the Soviets.  The Marshall Plan worked and now they’re on their own two feet.  They’re also our ALLIES not the conquered distant regions of our empire.

7) We spent and wasted a lot of money on new planes during the Cold War because  it was faster and cheaper back then.  We also had a real threat from a real, conventional enemy.  Technology also wasn’t as good and thus breakthroughs came faster.  Each of those meant newer, better designs.  Finally, we won the Cold War by bankrupting the Soviets.  We didn’t do it through having bake-sales and fund-raisers.  The soviets could not build bombers AND feed ther people in their centrally controlled economy.  It simply could not keep up with our capitalist system and its ability to build bombers among other things.  We could feed our people AND make our weapons of war.   Its is oversimplified, but tThe Soviets had to pick, and they chose not to feed their people.  The people get pissed and foment revolution when you do that long enough – hence its collapse.

8 ) A flight of F-22s IS a wall of death.  Now that those pilots have been training in these birds for a while, they don’t get shot down in the simulations.  I’m surprised he doesn’t have more recent data.

9)  The F-22 program has been decades in the making, since the late 70s.  Hence it is a product of the cold war.  That original number of 750 is actually down from a larger orginal number, I want to say closer to 1300 or so.  They imagined them replacing every F-15, which just starting coming off the line at the time.

10)  China’s 5th generation fighter.  What does their 4th gen fighter look like?  Its either an F-16 or something bought from the Russians.  Either way, its not as good as even our F-15s, like I’ve said.  China is not known for its aeronautical know-how.

11) The F-35 or the ‘Joint Strike Fighter’ (JSF) is designed to be the multi-role plane that we can make a lot of and sell to our allies.  It is part of a high-low concept.  It being the ‘low’ plane and the F-22 being the ‘high’ plane.  Its capabilies and our pilots still far outshine ANYTHING out there short of the F-22.  I actually worry about its production being cut much more so than the F-22 since  by design, it is supposed to be the work-horse of our air forces.

12) We won’t send out pilots into combat with a plane that doesn’t work.  The design and testing of the JSF isn’t complete.  To characterize the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps as being incompetent enough to not know what they’re doing and go into production with a rushed plane is insulting.  That is in part why you hear about cost over-runs and set backs.  Development is never perfect, but the guys at Boeing, Lockheed, General Dynamics, and the rest want to get it right.  They know they owe it to their customers – our troops and the tax-payer. 

13)  The Air Army Air Corps established air superiority over the skies of Europe during WWII.  It is how we helped the boys on the ground.  We didn’t own every stretch of the sky, but we owned most of it – which let us dictate the terms to Hitler in the air instead of the other way around.  Today, the US Air Force has air dominance or some call it air supremacy.  We even own the birds that are flying around.  Nothing moves in the air unless we give it the say so.  Everyone knows its a wasted effort to go up against the US in the air.   Saddam knew that by the end of the Desert Storm and started burying his planes to save them!
    The training of our pilots, the capabilities of our weapons systems (planes and missiles), and the level of aerial refueling and inter-communication ensures that no-one can compete with the US.  These are things that are built on the backs of many planes in the sky not just the one that gets all the glory.  Planes that do all the hard work, the KC-135s, KC-10s, J-STARS, AWACS.  They keep the air war together and going.

    The F-22 doesn’t do squat for this besides be the tip of the spear (if used).  What I mean by this is that the F-22 was designed to replace the F-15C.  Do you know what F-15C do day in and day out?  They are an ‘air superiority tactical fighter’ – meaning they are built for dog-fighting.  Since no-one can match us in the air, they burn holes in the sky all day long.  Maybe they get tasked with dropping a random JDAM or two, but that is not what the plane was designed for.  It is a testament to our force that we can train and equip a single-role fighter into a multi-role fighter.  When they do fight, like in the Desert Storm, they wipe the board with the competition.  As a footnote to this point, the Air Force knew that opponents of the F-22 would have similar concerns.  Hence, they made it the F/A-22.  The ‘A’ stands for attack.  That means that the plane can do more than dog-fight.  We knew this already as flexibility is the key to air power, but this nuance is a twist for politicians to sell the funding for the program.   

15)  I agree with Mr. Helprin that we must defend our country, but we must do it in a fiscally intelligent matter.  Government, to include military expenditures is fraught with waste.  Congressmen give support to military programs because it means they can go back to their voters and claim that they got their district jobs.  That means that the F-22 is no joke, built in something like 47 states.  How cost inefficient is that?  I am not against defense at all, but its how we spend our money that is the underlying problem.  Fix that and we can have more hardware for less.

14)  Piggy-backing on my previous point, no other country in the world can project air power like we can.  No nation, and I mean no nation can project their air forces across continents and oceans on the level that we can.   It is an art and science that takes time and know-how to master.  We have bases around the world and have been deploying our flying assets overseas for over half a century.  Any nation that would be a genuine threat to the United States would have to significantly bolster their capability and we’d easily know what they were up to and we could react accordingly.  

    The bottom line from me is that I hear Mr. Helprin, but I believe he over simplified the matter.  Our best military assets are its people.  We see this when our experience and training in Iraq and Afghanistan in nation building helps us with relief efforts in Haiti.  Our troops are finally getting good at nation building (we’ve always been good at nation-leveling).  That distinction is what could have won us the Vietnam War.  I digress, but the point is that our pilots are better trained and prepared for aerial combat.  When we last flew against the Chinese as proxies in Vietnam, we had learned from our experience against them as proxies in the Korean War.  In Korea, our kill ratio had fallen to 6 to 1.  Pretty good – especially when our F-86 Sabre WAS outclassed by the Mig-15.  For every pilot of ours shot down, we shot down 6 of theirs. 
   Actually, it wasn’t good enough.  We trained and honed our edge and got our kill ratio up to 12 to 1 by the end of the war and increased that ratio in every air war since.  Even if the Chinese  bought Russian stealth-fighters we’d shoot them out of the sky, we have such better pilots because we have the budget and numbers to train them that way.  Hence we’d still own the skies.

   Who is Mr. Helprin to say that if we got into a conventional WWIII with a country like China that we wouldn’t rally around the flag?  Other countries roll their eyes at our patriotism.  They do it partly out of how much we do it, but they also do it because they know that we truly love our country more than they love theirs.  I don’t apologize.  Most Americans don’t.  We have the most advanced military and military industrial complex the world has even known – but it pales in comparison to the total mobilization during WWII.  Imagine the whole modern economy bent to military production and winning a war like it was in WWII.  Its unimaginable, but I believe if we had to, we could do it again.

    Remember – The US, its citizens, and the can-do spirit brought forth by that combination invented the  nuclear bomb, stealth technology, the airplane, laser guided munitions, night vision, bunker busters, cluster bombs, kevlar, armored warships, the MOAB, the repeating rifle, and the US Marine Corps.  Woe to those on the other end.

  You are always going to need a good soldier with a rifle.  Our professional military leaders know this and they have the correct focus despte Mr. Helprin’s concerns.

No war was ever won without boots on the ground.

– G.S.


7 Responses to Oh, I Have Slipped the Surly Bonds of Earth…

  1. DL says:

    I didn’t read the entire WSJ article so you’ll have to forgive me on that one.

    Don’t forget that a single B-52 bomber carries more bombs than an entire squadron of B-17s from WWII.

    The F-22 is also mini-AWACS thanks to the advanced radar and computer/communication systems on-board.

    Also, the US service member on the ground has not had to worry about being attacked from the air since the Korean War. That’s over 50+ years of small and large engagements all over the globe that our troops have fought in without ever worrying about being bombed or strafed. And all because we train harder and smarter than anyone else and our aircraft are better than anyone else’s (even the oldest one still flying).

    Our future holds an increasing number of small wars vs a few big ones. Like you said, every country, even old enemies, is too interconnected to risk a full on war. We do need to focus more on building more flexible and cheaper aircraft to help us win these small wars, however there will always be a need for the top line fighters just not in the mass numbers originally planned.

    I love your statement that Americans love the US more than most other countries’ citizens love their own homelands. Which is why everyone is always trying to immigrate to America.

    We should not forsake our conventional forces to increase our special operations forces (SOF). Rather we should be training the conventional forces to handle some of the tasks done by our SOF troops, such as civil affairs, training militia, and direct action assaults on high value targets. Our larger conventional forces need to be more flexible and adaptable, which will take a lot of effort from the highest levels of command to change. The Cold War is over, but unfortunately all of our senior military leaders were trained and groomed during that era and sometimes you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.


    • gadsdensnake says:

      Thanks for the reply DL. Such is the balance with the military – the leadership takes 20 – 30 years of service to get there and by then, the face of warfare has changed. As I’ve said in the past, flexibility is the key to air power. Well, its pretty much required in all military disciplines…you know, the old ‘adapt and overcome’ bit.

      And isn’t it amazing that a plane only 2 generations removed (B-17 flying fortress, then B-29 super fortress , then B-52 stratofortress) can have so much more capability than its ‘grand-daddy’ if you will. Just think what those young B-17 pilots who made the military a career and rose thru the ranks to run a squdron thought once they had a whole outfit of B-52s at their command! It wasn’t that large a span of time!

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      Very fair, especially when you don’t put a post up for 2 years…we’ll see if I can keep back into form. As to media, its more about commentary and a relevant image – I recognize it is unpopularly long and wordy, but its because I have something substantive and different to say. I can’t get it all in with a 15 second sound bite. I also think that is part of the appeal.

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