War Nerd: The Worst Thing about Drones
All the talk about drones focusses on their “morality.” But there's a funny thing about morality talk: most of it seems to come down to money. This time's no different.
The worst thing about drones is that they’re cheap. That’s interfering with the vacation-home budgets of a lot of very sleazy DoD contractors and their pet Texas congressmen, and that’s why you’re hearing a consensus around how “immoral” drones are.
Remember this: Drones are a threat to the sleaziest acquisition program in the history of defense contracting: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. There have been some pretty disgusting lemons in the sorry history of the DoD — you just have to think back to SDI, also known as “Star Wars,” to find a weapons system that not only didn’t work but was never meant to work — but I’d have to say that the F-35 is an even bigger con job than Star Wars.
Don’t just take it from me — serious hawks who actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to military aviation are saying this. John McCain, who crashed a few fighter jets in his time, joined Robert Gates when he was still SecDef to go public with what every Pentagon insider already knew: The F-35 is a godawful piece of boondoggle junk, and nobody wants it.
I can’t sum up the F-35 better than McCain did:
"It has been an incredible waste of the taxpayers' dollar and it hurts the credibility of our acquisition process, our defense industry…[and]…reinforces the view of some of us that the military-industrial- congressional complex that President Eisenhower warned us about is alive and well."
So there’s the lineup: In the blue corner, everybody with any decency or sense. In the red corner, a bunch of Texas Congressmen who own stock in the companies involved. My money’s on the Texans, I’m sorry to say, because there’s just too much money to be made on the F-35 for these pigs to pass up.
I'm talking about more money than you can possibly imagine. Guess how much each F-35 is supposed to cost. (That’s not what it’s actually going to cost, which is always way more, just what they say it’ll cost.) You may think you know that fighters are expensive toys, but let’s play The Price Is Wrong — write down your guess.
The correct answer is “$200 million for the base model.” Two. Hundred. Million. For just one billion dollars, folks, you can get five of these dogs, which will do almost as well as an F-16 that cost about 8% of what we’re gonna pay for the F-35! That, folks, is what the F-35 backers consider a deal too wasteful to resist.
Now let’s move on to advanced math, with lots of extra zeroes, to figure out how much the whole program will cost. We’ll make it a story problem: “If the American people are stupid enough to pay $200 million for each barks-like-a-dog F-35, and they go through with the planned purchase of 2,443 of these flying cash dispensers, how many billions in treasury bonds will we have to sell to the Chinese just to line the pockets of some sleazy Texas congressmen and their contractor pals?”
Let’s see, that’s $200,000,000 X 2,443 = $488600000000. Call it five hundred billion dollars, with tax and gratuity. Half a trillion. Remember that scene in Austin Powers where the UN laughs when Dr Evil demands “one…MILLION…dollars”? Well, at DoD Procurement, they’d laugh even harder if he’d said, “One…BILLION…dollars.” They don’t even get excited until you’re into the hundred-billions. Millions and billions are for little people, like taxes.
And don’t even believe that it’ll stop at $500 billion. Some Federal accountants are already figuring that the real cost of this rotten plane will top a trillion dollars.
But you know what’s weird? It’s impossible to get “fiscal conservatives” angry about this stuff. I’ve tried, at my office. Every time I hear some poor sucker at work complaining about how he had to stand in line behind some “fat welfare-type buying steak with my tax dollars,” I want to tell him, “Well, you know you much one F-35 fighter is gonna cost? 200 million dollars. You can buy a lot of steaks — you could buy half of Argentina — for that kind of money. And it’s a dog of a plane, that’s the worst, it doesn’t even work.”
But I don’t bother telling them that at work any more, because it just doesn’t register with them. The average office slave can understand a $20 food stamp and wrap their hate around that, but when you say “$200 million times 2000” his brain just shorts out. Besides, this is supposedly about “defense,” and to the average sucker, that’s sacred ground. You can’t tell them it’s not about defense, that America would be much safer, and richer, without a fleet of gold-plated lemons like the F-35. I’ve tried, and what happens is they get this annoyed little frown. They just don’t get off on it the way they do hatin’ on that fat lady with the four kids and the food stamps.
Truth is, the Defense Department stopped being about defense a long, long time ago. Nobody even knows who we’re supposed to be defending ourselves from with this ultra-high tech (bad tech, too) fighter aircraft. Nobody wants to play “Dogfight in the Skies” with us any more. That’s why there wasn’t a dry eye in the Pentagon when the USSR went bust: “Who’s gonna play Red Team in our simulations now?”
Wars like the ones we fight in the real here and now, like the one against the Taliban, don’t offer a lot of scope for Top Gun dreamers. But nobody in the USAF wants to face that fact. They love Corvettes with wings. Always have. To them, drones are like buying a fleet of Toyota Corollas: They may get you where you want to go, but where’s the fun, man?
Even manned aircraft that actually have some use run into resistance from the USAF. The only really useful ground attack plane we have is the A-10, and the USAF hated that plane when it was being pushed through development. It was slow, it was ugly — seriously, that was one of their objections, the way the “Warthog” looked — it wasn’t sexy at all, wouldn’t make for good calendar photos for the fighter pilot brohs.
But drones are even worse than the A-10, because they don’t even need pilots. That not only puts fighter-wing officers out of a job (and fighter jocks are the core of the USAF brass), it ruins their profit margins. Don’t go thinking higher-ups in the USAF have to live on their salaries. They make the big bucks by playing the system, rotating from DoD jobs to private contractors or lobbying companies, or “consulting” about how to fix the overpriced, gold-plated weapons they signed on to buy when they were officially working for the gummint ... Then they go back to a DoD job and start the whole circle of graft all over again. It’s a wonderful little Disneyland ride — you could call it “Kickbackland,” with a chorus of international kiddies singing, “It’s a lucrative scam after all, it’s a lucrative, lucrative scam!” and wads of money hanging off the fake audio-animatronic trees to be grabbed as you float by.
And if drones replace manned fighters — which they could, right now — all that wonderful cash will be out of reach, because as I keep saying here, drones have this one unforgivable flaw: They’re cheap. The MQ1 Predator, our main attack drone, costs $4 million per copy. That’s about two percent of what the F-35’s planned cost, and since you can safely double the planned cost, the MQ1 really costs about 1% of what the F-35 will cost.
One percent. For a lot of suffering USAF procurement officers, Texas congressmen, and DoD contractors out there, that’s the difference between a Maserati and a mere Porsche, a beach house in La Jolla vs. one in Oceanside, where beaches are infested with non-millionaires. It’s a real-live moral dilemma, a heart-rending tragedy, which is why they’ve triggered their tame pundits and the media outlets they place ads in to start moaning about how eeeeeevul drones are.
Big, big money. And where’s it go? The simplest answer is “in the pockets of some sleazy Congressmen from Texas, naturally.” “Texas”: that’s the answer to a lot of questions, like, “What’s America’s biggest cross to bear?” Texas, Texas, Texas. U. S. Grant knew it long ago; you read his memoirs and you can tell that for him the worst part of the Mexican War was that we killed all those poor campesino conscripts just to please the Anglo Tejanos, a group Grant hates with every cell in his body, especially as they repaid the favor of being liberated from Mexico at US taxpayer expense by seceding and fighting to bring down the US just twelve years later.
These guys breed true, unfortunately, so now, 150 years later, we’ve got a whole cowboy cabal from Texas fighting to make sure the US wastes a trillion dollars on this dog, the F-35. The leader of this pack of jackals is Congressman Mike McCaul. I have to tell you a little about him, because it’s so incredibly gross you won’t believe it without the details.
McCaul’s the wealthiest member of Congress, but not because he’s another Bill Gates. Nope, McCaul picked an older, sleazier but just as effective method of getting rich: he married a rich woman who happened to be the daughter of the guy who owns Clear Channel, a huge conservative/Southern media conglomerate. Yep, that’s one way to get rich that doesn’t take any skills at all beyond sneaking a peek at your sweetie’s bank statement and then telling her with a straight face, “Awww, darlin’ of course ah luv U fer U an’ not yer daddy’s money, an’ by the way how soon can we tap that well once we’re hitched?” Boom, a few quick pickup lines, then one quick wedding and McCaul was worth $300 million.
With that kind of connection — not just money, but friendly media coverage guaranteed — McCaul had an easy ride to Congress, where his main claim to fame (before he started pushing the F-35) was forcing the Army to hold Christian ceremonies for every dead soldier, even the atheists, or Muslims, or Jews, or goddamn Zoroastrians. That’s the kind of thing that goes over big with Texas voters, and like all this “moral” crap, it also happens to work perfectly when you want to siphon off a huge chunk of tax money, because the suckers just can’t follow all the math in that stuff. All they know is “He’s for prayer.”
When the VA complained that McCaul was forcing Christian ceremonies on non-believers, he squawked back that the VA had “banned” Christian prayer. That was a flat-out lie, and the VA said so and proved it, but you can bet it played huge with his idiot constituents in the Dallas suburbs. This shit is why I can’t watch King of the Hill: I grew up with these people, it’s not cute to me. Makes me dream of crop dusters with tanks of nerve gas making a nice lazy slow pass over Hank Hill’s house, and Dr. Oz would probably say that’s unhealthy or something. You might think Hank Hill is cute, but he voted for McCaul, and he will again unless ... oh yeah, nice slow easy passes, the sweet vapor drifting down on the Dallas suburbs …
McCaul moved from prayer to stock shares in one hot Texas second, as soon as the Secretary of Defense and a few other more or less sincere defense specialists decided it’d be crazy to buy a brand new engine from Pratt & Whitney to put in the F-35. You see, McCaul’s portfolio includes $750,000 in Pratt & Whitney shares. You might think, “God, a guy worth $300 million could afford to let those shares sink a little,” but that’s exactly why you’re not in Congress and he is. No male golddigger ever born is gonna let a chance to make more money off the taxpayer go by, no matter how much he’s already got.
So McCaul started this thing called the “F-35 Caucus,” to force the DoD to buy the plane with all the trimmings, even though nobody with a conscience wants anything to do with it. He got his fellow Texas rep. Kenny Marchant, to join the club, and hey, that’s got nuthin’ to do with the fact that Marchant also owns Pratt & Whitney stock. Marchant’s another bright star of the Texas GOP, a graduate of Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, OK, and a major oil stockholder along with his P&W stock. I’m telling you: morality on top, sleazy money under it. That’s the pattern you need to keep in mind to understand all this anti-drone chatter.
For years now, this brain trust from Dallas has been forcing the services to take the F-35 even after they’ve said, yelled even, that it’s a dog and they don’t want it. It’s incredible. And you don’t hear a thing about it, because the right just kneels down and licks the boots of anybody in uniform, and the few lefties are too stiff to see any difference between sane defense spending and this crap.
And for years, the F-35 cabal’s gobstopper argument was, “Well what else is there? We need a new fighter and this is what we’ve got!” Now that’s not true, for starters; we DON’T need a new fighter. We could hold off all the Air Forces in the world, and a few alien spacecraft too, with what we’ve got now, and the idea that the F-35 is any kind of improvement on a magnificent plane like the F-16 is a joke.
But that argument was enough to bluff the ignorant, which is to say most people in this poor mess of a country — until drones started to show what they could do.
That didn’t happen, in the US, until after 9/11. But that’s not because drones weren’t ready long before that. They were, and the IDF was using them way back in the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The IDF took out all Syria’s air defenses using drones as their first wave, destroying 82 Syrian aircraft and losing only one. How did the US armed forces respond? By ignoring it, and sending in A-6 and A-7 attack planes, typical Navy shit-planes, as agile and elusive as garbage trucks, to attack Syrian positions in the hills. The Navy instantly lost one of each of these old Plymouths’o’the sky — one more than the IDF lost in the whole war — but if you think they started rethinking drone tech, you don’t understand peacetime armed forces. They made a point of not thinking about drones until we were really in need, after 9/11 — at which point the services went, hat in hand, to an Israeli contractor who’d ripped off our old, unused drone tech to sell to the IDF, and asked him, “Kin you pleeeeze make us one a those, like you got in Israel pleeeze?” He said sure; they said, “Can you make the engine a little quieter too?” He said, “Sure, if there’s money in it”; they shoved giant wads of cash into his hands, and the Predator was born.
It’s evolved very quickly, for two reasons: We’re at war, and wartime military tech evolves ten times faster than it does in peacetime; but also, the tech was all there already, waiting to be used, begging to be used. There was no sane military reason that it took us so long to use drones; the reasons are money and snobbery and careers.
From the start, the Predator drone was a huge success. And that’s why we stopped buying it after getting a miserable 200 of them. At a miserable $4 million per, the Predator just isn’t interesting to the Services. Of course the makers of the Predator did their best, coming up with a gold-plated heavy version called the Reaper, but even that only costs $37 million, one sixth of what you can make off an F-35. The fact that these drones work great is totally irrelevant; they’re not going to make anybody Top Gun, they’re not going to make Mike McCaul any richer, and they’re manufactured by a small ad hoc company with the dorky name of “General Atomics” and no clout whatsoever.
You know who makes the F-35? Main contractor is Lockheed Martin, otherwise known as Godzilla Inc. This monster is the result of the merger of two huge Defense vampire contractors, Lockheed and Martin Marietta. The combined operation averages $45 billion in defense contract money per year. You can bribe a lot of Texas congressmen with that —with a lot less than that, actually, but it’s nice to have a cushion.
Lockheed Marietta dealt with the objections to the F-35 — you know, that it’s a dog, won’t work, can’t fly, keeps having monster cost overruns, little stuff like that — the way any defense contractor would. If you guessed, “Uh…by improving the product?” you flunk; go back to your lemonade stand, sucker, this ain’t the “free market” or any of that libertarian shit, this is the DoD. Lockheed did the savvy, sleazy thing, and started a huge PR/bribery campaign. They flooded Washington DC with billboards and other ads telling the suckers that our country was doomed, doomed, DOOMED unless we paid them a trillion dollars for their crap plane. But that was just the start. Mostly, they bought journalism. And they’re still buying it, even in Canada. That’s right, poor old Canada is about to get stuck with the F-35 too, which is why I just came across this hilarious article in the National Post, the Canuck print version of Fox News, called “Armed Drones Are A Useful Tool, But Canada Needs Manned Warplanes.”
Speaking of useful tools, the author, Matt Gurney, isn’t actually arguing that “Canada needs manned warplanes,” because nobody ever said they didn’t. What he’s actually doing is shilling for a particular manned airplane. Let’s see if you’ve learned enough about the procurement biz to guess which one. That’s right, our old overpriced useless friend the F-35. Gurney’s argument is that since the Iranians captured a recon drone (model RQ 170, a delta-winged stealth model) last year, probably by overriding its guidance system, drones can never be trusted.
This is roughly like arguing that computers aren’t practical because they take up a whole room; you’re talking about a massively underfunded, orphaned technology and taking for granted that it can never move beyond its current state. I feel pretty damn sure that if the USAF had invested as much time and money in armed drones as it’s put into the F-35, the override problem would be solved by now. Drones are “in their infancy,” as tech gurus love to say, and it was an infancy without a lotta love, unlike manned fighters’ pampered prep school childhood.
Even with the guidance problem, you could just as easily point out all kinds of things about drones that lean in favor of unmanned craft. Like, uh, death and capture. You bring down an F-35 and a pilot, trained at incredible expense and very hard to replace, is either killed or captured. If he’s dead, your investment is dead too. If he’s alive, he’s a bargaining chip for your enemy and a great candidate to make demoralizing, weepy “Forgive me, peace loving people of wherever I am-land!” videos.
No drone has ever made one of those videos. When a drone is brought down, the operator gets up from his chair and has to file a report. Then he moves to the next drone. No loss of trained personnel whatsoever, no casualties, no torture, no goddamn peacenik videos.
And as far as performance goes … well, the biggest design limitation, and I mean by far, on a manned plane is the man, or the woman — the meat bag sitting in the cockpit. It’s a huge drag on the potential maneuverability of the airframe. Take that drag out of the picture and you can build drones that can out-manuever anything in the sky — never mind F-35s, but real planes like the F-15. In real war, where the rotten gets weeded out fast, manned planes would be boutique items within a few months, and the skies would be filled with drones sporting the stencils of whatever power had the sense to adopt them bigtime.
Then there’s that other advantage, the one that isn’t really an advantage at all — in fact, it’s the reason we’re gonna get stuck for 2500 F-35s but we’ve ended drone buys at a piddling 200 Predators and 57 Reapers: Drones are cheap. And that is one thing that the defense industry really thinks is immoral.