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Tomgram: William Astore, Enabling Armageddon

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Remember Donald Trump's magical plan to turn $200 billion in federal money... hey, presto!... into $1.5 trillion in investment in America's aging, underfunded infrastructure (to which the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a grade of D+ in 2017)? Why should you, especially since that plan is now officially dead in the water in Congress and Americans know it? A recent Monmouth University poll suggests that 55% of Americans think the president is not giving this country's crumbling infrastructure appropriate attention, while only 26% think he is.

There is, however, a seldom-noted exception to this growing American reality. You already know that the delays, the general nightmare of civilian air travel from chaotic, overcrowded airports is part of that reality in what still passes for the most powerful and wealthy nation on the planet. Military air power, however, is another matter. In fact, while Congress is essentially riven and paralyzed when it comes to investing in civilian infrastructure in a country that has yet to build a single high-speed rail line, a bipartisan majority is always ready to fund the building of just about any kind of "infrastructure" for the U.S. military. There's hardly a weapons system or anything else the Pentagon wants that doesn't pass muster. Only recently, for instance, Congress approved a sky-high budget for the Pentagon, which responded by asking for even more in 2019 -- and it's essentially guaranteed to get it in a country whose president brags regularly about "rebuilding" its armed forces, about a "great reawakening of... American might." More new warships! More new planes! More new missiles! More new nukes! That's infrastructure that still makes the grade in twenty-first-century America.

Today, retired lieutenant colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore focuses on just one small (but wildly expensive) aspect of that build-up, a redundant new nuclear bomber, the B-21, and why (against all logic in a country that needs so many other kinds of investment) it's a can't-miss for some future Congress. Tom

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The Air Force's Strange Love for the New B-21 Bomber
The Military-Industrial Complex Strikes (Out) Again
By William J. Astore

Did you know the U.S. Air Force is working on a new stealth bomber? Don't blame yourself if you didn't, since the project is so secret that most members of Congress aren't privy to the details. (Talk about stealthy!) Known as the B-21 Raider, after General Doolittle's Raiders of World War II fame, it's designed to carry thermonuclear weapons as well as conventional missiles and bombs. In conceptual drawings, it looks much like its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, all wing and no fuselage, a shape that should help it to penetrate and survive the most hostile air defense systems on Earth for the purposes of a "global strike." (Think: nuclear Armageddon.)

As the Air Force acquires those future B-21s, the B-2s will be retired along with the older B-1B bomber, although the venerable B-52 (of the Cold War era), much modified, will remain in service for the foreseeable future. At $550 million per plane (before the inevitable cost overruns even kick in), the Air Force plans to buy as many as 200 B-21s. That's more than $100 billion in procurement costs alone, a boon for Northrop Grumman, the plane's primary contractor.

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If history is any judge, however, a boon for Northrop Grumman is likely to prove a bust for the American taxpayer. As a start, the United States has no real need for a new, stealthy, super-expensive, nuclear-capable, deep-penetrating strategic bomber for use against "peer" rivals China and Russia. But before tackling that issue, a little history is in order.

De'j Vu All Over Again

A long time ago (1977, to be exact), in a country far, far away, President Jimmy Carter did a brave thing: he cancelled a major Pentagon weapons system just before it was due to start production. That was the B-1 bomber, a plane with sophisticated -- that is, expensive -- avionics designed to allow it to penetrate Soviet airspace in the event of a nuclear war and survive. Carter cancelled it for the most sensible of reasons: it wasn't needed.

The Air Force had already developed air-launched cruise missiles that allowed bombers like the B-52 to strike enemy targets with precision from hundreds of miles away. It was also, like all modern weapons systems, outrageously expensive. Why spend vast sums on a new bomber, Carter reasoned, when the plane added little to the nation's nuclear deterrent? In addition, that cancellation was meant to send a message to the military-industrial complex -- that he would neither be beholden to nor intimidated by defense hawks who touted each and every new weapons system, no matter how expensive or redundant, as "essential."

I was then a teenager with a yen for American warplanes. I'd even made a model of the B-1, complete with "variable geometry" wings that could be extended forward for low-speed flight and swept backward for high-speed, supersonic flight. In my mind's eye, I can still see it, almost all white like the prototype that Rockwell International, its primary contractor, actually built. In a symbolic act of protest against Carter's action, I took my model, taped a couple of firecrackers to it, and dropped it from the top floor of our house, blowing it up in a most satisfying way. So much for the B-1, I thought.

I was too young to know better. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, as part of a massive defense buildup (that Carter, ironically enough, had actually begun), he revived the B-1. The Air Force soon committed itself to buying 100 of them at a then-astronomical $280 million each. The B-1B Lancer (as it became known) has served in the Air Force for the last three decades, never (thankfully) fulfilling the purpose for which it was built: a nuclear attack. Plagued by accidents, high operating costs, and maintenance issues, the B-1 has been a disappointment to an Air Force now eager to replace it with an entirely new bomber, more or less guaranteed to have a similar history.

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However much I loved the prospective plane as a teenager, I felt quite differently once I was myself in the Air Force. As a young lieutenant in 1986, I even wrote a paper for a contest within the service in which I argued that the concept of a manned, "penetrating," strategic nuclear bomber was deeply flawed. In essence, I took the Carter position, suggesting that the other "legs" of America's nuclear triad (ballistic missiles launched from silos and similar missiles on nuclear submarines) were more than enough to deter and defeat enemies (no less destroy the world), and that new "precision" technologies like cruise missiles rendered risky manned bombing missions deep into enemy airspace not just obsolete but antediluvian.

Not surprisingly, my paper didn't win and the B-1B did. But it was an absurd addition, even by Air Force standards, given that the U.S. had an overwhelming arsenal of missiles at its command, together with a fleet of B-52s that, though lacking in speed and stealth, was aging rather well. In fact, B-52s are still flying today, which isn't that surprising when you consider the development of highly accurate missiles that allow such a plane to "standoff" from targets and so limit its exposure to enemy air defenses.

Meanwhile, the Air Force, never a service to say no to expensive, high-tech weapons systems, no matter how redundant, was hard at work on a stealthy bomber that would achieve its vision of "global reach, global power, and global strike." What emerged was the B-2 Spirit, a stealth bomber so expensive ($2.1 billion a pop) that only 21 were ever built. It was also pricier than the B-1 to operate and less reliable thanks to its fragile "stealth" coatings, which required lengthy, high-cost maintenance. In other words, both planes proved expensive disappointments that, fortunately, were never tested on the primary mission for which they were built: incinerating millions of people in a nuclear war.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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