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The Jet that Ate the Pentagon (foreignpolicy.com)
56 points by Zarkonnen 716 days ago | comments


spodek 716 days ago | link

Visiting Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) for the first time, their Vietnam War museums reminded me of the consequence of a tactical advantage (like air superiority) in the context of a failed strategy (like invading without a good reason).

You lose wars.

The life and business on the streets there reminded me what happens when you don't invade for no reasons.

Capitalism flourishes.

At least from what you see on the street level, capitalism is doing better there than in the bailout-laden U.S.

Did I oversimplify? Of course. But until the U.S. shows some strategic intelligence like "don't invade countries without a reason" its tactical choices will always fail too.

By the way, they call it the American War there.

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newbie12 716 days ago | link

The holocaust in Cambodia committed by the Khmer communists was one direct result of our failure in Vietnam. And it took the fall of the Berlin Wall and the broad collapse of communist ideology in the 1990s before Vietnam began to liberalize.

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GiraffeNecktie 715 days ago | link

Correlation is not causation. One could just as easily argue that it was the intervention of western powers (France and the US) in Southeast Asia that gave the communists legitimacy which then lead to the holocaust in Cambodia. Liberalization in Vietnam had more to do with changes in China and improved relations with the United States, than the Berlin Wall.

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jeltz 716 days ago | link

Some blame the American bombings, which started with Operation Menu in 1969, for giving Pol Pot the popular support he needed.

I do not know enough of Cambodian history to tell if it is true, but at least it sounds like a plausible scenario.

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philwelch 716 days ago | link

The US was an ally of South Vietnam at their government's invitation, and never did actually invade North Vietnam. If they did, maybe the war would have gone differently.

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smacktoward 716 days ago | link

> The US was an ally of South Vietnam at their government's invitation

Oh come on. South Vietnam was an American client state from the word go. American advisors helped run Ngo Dinh Diem's campaign in the 1955 referendum that set up the South Vietnamese government. When Diem didn't turn out to be the man the U.S. government had hoped he would, American money helped finance the 1963 coup that killed him.

> and never did actually invade North Vietnam

No, we just bombed the holy hell out of them: see Operation Rolling Thunder (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Rolling_Thunder) and Operation Linebacker II (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Linebacker_II) for examples.

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philwelch 715 days ago | link

And North Vietnam was a Soviet client state from the word go, that's how the Cold War worked.

There was still no invasion of Vietnam. The entire operation was hamstrung by politically imposed restrictions.

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jbooth 715 days ago | link

I can't believe you're not downvoted to oblivion. Your oringal response was as close to incorrect as you can be while still being factual (we installed a new regime when the old regime stopped liking us), and you response with "the soviets did it too"?

"We weren't any worse than the soviets" is not a moral defense, and given that we couldn't hold south vietnam against insurgency, you'd need a hell of a case to support the idea that we could have held north vietnam.

I mean, given that we were dropping napalm and agent orange, what kind of "politically imposed restrictions" would you say held us back from winning?

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philwelch 715 days ago | link

In military terms, the US did hold South Vietnam against insurgency. The problem is that the source of support for that insurgency was in North Vietnam, and it was impossible for US ground troops to advance there and eliminate that support.

The war effort was also politically micromanaged--for instance, every airstrike had to be individually approved by the White House. This led to delays and, frankly, interference in military affairs from incompetent politicians.

Fighting a counterinsurgent war on the defensive is never strategically sound; one is always better served by being on the move and taking the initiative. This was politically impossible in Vietnam, which is why it took so long.

Now, perhaps there were valid political reasons not to invade north Vietnam. In that case, the answer is not to get involved at all. You either do the job right or you don't do it at all. In either case, the mistake wasn't that the US invaded Vietnam without a good reason--there was no invasion, and there was a good reason. The mistake was that the US didn't fully commit to the objective, and that the White House didn't let the military do their job.

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jbooth 715 days ago | link

Well, I'm not a military scholar but I'm pretty sure everybody who is disagrees with you here. The battle was entirely political, and armchair general troop movement stuff is completely beside the point.

Here's the fact: Nobody wanted us there. South vietnamese were informing on the US and killing our troops. You think having a few airstrikes being more effective would have made a difference for that? Like if we just killed enough of the bad guys, the rest of them would have given up?

That's not the way asymmetrical warfare works. Every guy you kill has brothers and cousins who want to avenge him. Losing the political battle is losing the war. That's why we won in Iraq (Al Qaeda in Iraq were flown-in nihilists who alienated the population), and that's why we're losing in Afghanistan (the Taliban are a local movement with a local base).

You're seriously saying that had we invaded North Vietnam and bombed more stuff, it would have been fine? Like we could cut the supply of an army that was living off the land? Looks like we would've just been occupying twice as much ground with the same number of troops, unless you're advocating killing every last man, woman and child in the country.

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philwelch 715 days ago | link

The Viet Cong was broken by their failure in the Tet Offensive. But they would have been broken much sooner if their source of support in the north was eliminated.

And no military can be effective when it's micromanaged from the White House.

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jbooth 714 days ago | link

Given that we were fleeing our embassy by helicopter in 1973, I find it hard to believe that the VC were quote "broken" in 1968.

If you're living off the land, conducting guerilla warfare, you can't be broken. "Broken" is for standing armies. Guerillas just leave the field of battle and then bomb your patrols when you try to occupy.

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philwelch 714 days ago | link

It's easy to lose a war after you withdraw all your troops from the country. In any case, guerrillas can't and don't hold territory--it was the North Vietnamese regulars who overran Saigon in 1975.

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jbooth 716 days ago | link

I'd suggest reading this:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrest_and_assassination_of_Ng%...

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rdtsc 716 days ago | link

Oh I see. So they installed the government in SV, propped it up and then that government officially invited us. And then we reluctantly offered our "help"?

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philwelch 715 days ago | link

It still doesn't constitute an invasion, any more than it constituted an invasion when China sent troops into North Korea during the Korean war.

I didn't say the people of South Vietnam democratically voted to formally request US involvement, or that the Diem regime was morally legitimate, or even that it was a good idea to get involved in the Vietnam War. Just that there was no actual invasion anywhere in the process.

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danssig 716 days ago | link

I wouldn't be so sure. It hasn't worked out well in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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philwelch 715 days ago | link

It worked out fine in Iraq, people just didn't think it was worth the cost and the occupation took longer than people expected.

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onetwothreefour 715 days ago | link

LOL.

A bit of revisionist history never hurt anyone.

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philwelch 713 days ago | link

There's the popular history everyone believes in regardless of its factuality, and then there's what actually happened. I have no problem revising the popular history when it's wrong.

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hnhg 716 days ago | link

Given a time when everyone was told there was a great threat from the aggressive expansionism of the Soviet Union and China, they felt they had a good reason. They thought Vietnam would result in a domino effect across the region.

I don't think it was a great reason and most now don't, but then again I thought Afghanistan could never work, and there were very few of us who would say so. It's easy to get swept up by militaristic arguments it seems.

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toyg 716 days ago | link

"few of us" were actually quite a majority... Of people who knew what they were talking about. And we were right: Afghanistan cannot be "conquered" or "fixed", as 10+ years of failed occupation have proven.

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hnhg 716 days ago | link

How can you effect a change in culture down the barrel of a gun while claiming to be friends? That was the gist of the plan at the time. Anyway, we're probably straying too far from the point of the article...

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dabeeeenster 716 days ago | link

It's more like 70 years of failed occupation...

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bergie 716 days ago | link

It is even longer than that. The first British adventure there was in mid 19th century:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Anglo-Afghan_War

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jakeonthemove 716 days ago | link

Try 20 - the USSR has been there for 10 years, with thousands of lives lost from every state in the union...

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darklajid 716 days ago | link

And Afghanistan did 'work'?

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chris_wot 716 days ago | link

You know something - I just tried to load this website as the article looks interesting. But it was taking forever to load. So I downloaded YSlow to find out what on earth was causing the problem, and the site has:

* 41 external javascript files

* 22 external CSS files

* Totals to 2106.9K of files, of which 1151.4K are javascript files, and 598.9K in images. It took 204 HTTP requests to get this page to load.

* has about 37 different DNS lookups to get access to all the files

One of the websites that host external javascript files took over 9 seconds to load approximately 350K.

On top of this, I've never seen so much analytics and tracking on any website - ever!

Seriously, someone needs to have a good look at the way that this site is constructed. Such a massive bandwidth hog - and noticably slow!

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showerst 715 days ago | link

I'm actually the guy responsible for this site (Web Director at FP).

The reason for all of this is that it's a kitchen-sink Drupal install, plus every ad industry service in history.

We've been working to cut all of this down, but I haven't been on the job for very long =P. A fair number of the images aren't even properly minimized! You'll see it improve soon though =).

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chris_wot 713 days ago | link

Nice - welcome aboard :-)

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BruceM 716 days ago | link

@blakehounshell (one of their editors) is very active on Twitter (and a great person to follow), so I passed the link to this along to him.

A lot of the stuff being loaded seems to come from their commenting system.

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chris_wot 716 days ago | link

Thanks! I sent them an email, a tweet may be a bit more effective :-)

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evoxed 716 days ago | link

I didn't notice until I read this and pulled up the page again. My connection is apparently fast enough for it not to matter, but I was watching the DNT+ badge. 4... then 6... then incrementing up to 14 blocks. I guess they've got a lot goin' on.

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chris_wot 716 days ago | link

Damn.

Facebook Connect

Twitter Badge

AddThis

Google Adsense

OutBrain

Quantcast

Comscore Beacon

Omniture

Google Analytics

New Relic

ChartBeat

That's remarkable!

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antidoh 715 days ago | link

Ironic environment for an article about an airplane overburdened with mission creep.

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jakeonthemove 716 days ago | link

Just use NoScript (and optionally AdBlock Plus) and forget about it :-)...

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staunch 716 days ago | link

I just assume they're funneling huge portions of that money into secret projects. How else do they get their hands on a spare $100 billion without anyone noticing?

Better to seem incompetent than reveal you've got a warp drive/time machine/transporter project.

I know it's kind of an optimistic view, but it does make me feel better.

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rollypolly 716 days ago | link

  F-35 lacks the F-16's agility in the air-to-air mode and
  the F-15E's range and payload in the bombing mode, and it
  can't even begin to compare to the A-10 at low-altitude
  close air support for troops engaged in combat.
"jack of all trades, master of none". :(

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starpilot 715 days ago | link

The F-35 is stealthier and has far better avionics than all of those aircraft. It could detect and shoot down an F-16 before it knew it was there, and do the same to ground targets. It doesn't have the low-speed loitering ability of the A-10, but that feature makes sense only for a pre-MANPADS era or battle.

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philwelch 715 days ago | link

Actually, the STOVL variant of the F-35 has exactly the low-speed loitering ability, not of the A-10, but of the Harrier. That's what it was designed for.

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D_Alex 716 days ago | link

You sound like my wife... she says I lack the good looks of Hugh Jackman and athletic abilities of Michael Phelps, and I can't even compare to Bill Gates in the amount of money I bring in.

Not defending the F-35 though. My main issue with it is that I can't see that it is needed at all.

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potatolicious 716 days ago | link

> "My main issue with it is that I can't see that it is needed at all."

I don't usually find myself defending defense spending... but war-related technology is something you don't know you need, until you do, by which time it's too late to procure it.

If the US is going to continue its M.O. of attacking countries whose military air presence can be counted on two hands, and consists mostly of old Soviet cast-offs, then sure, the current level of tech is more than sufficient. Overkill, even. I don't think there has been a single loss of U.S. military aircraft to enemy action since... Kosovo?

I think a main impetus of this particular project is because both Russia and China are rapidly developing their own 5th-generation fighters, and while a head-to-head with China doesn't seem entirely likely, it's certainly less farfetched than the idea was 20 years ago.

Don't take it the wrong way, I'm not defending this particular boondoggle of a project, but the need for a 5th-generation fighter is entirely understandable.

On the plus side, it doesn't look like other countries' 5th-gen fighter projects are doing much better... The Chinese project has faced delay after delay after delay, and the Russians too.

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brlewis 716 days ago | link

Do we really need to outspend China by almost 5x? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_military_e...

Isn't the more likely scenario that China overtakes us economically, not militarily?

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potatolicious 715 days ago | link

> "Isn't the more likely scenario that China overtakes us economically, not militarily?"

This seems almost certain at this point, all the more likely that there will be a military showdown at some point.

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philwelch 715 days ago | link

The US is never going to fight China because both countries have nuclear weapons. That tends to put a damper on things. As a Chinese general reportedly put it back in the 90's, "You care a lot more about Los Angeles than you do about Taipei."

Even if you did compare the two, the US is a richer country (so it costs comparatively more to train and outfit the same number of men to the same amount) with a stronger cultural valuation of human life and a stronger cultural and political desire for short-term victories. If the Chinese got into a prolonged military conflict, not only would they be less sensitive to heavy losses, but if it took more than a couple years, no one would be worrying about reelection the way American politicians would. China is content with simply being able to win; the US needs to immediately overwhelm the enemy while suffering minimal friendly losses, or else the war will be lost politically if not militarily.

That's why we have things like the F-22 and F-35; in combat exercises small numbers of F-22's can singlehandedly wipe out entire wings of enemy aircraft without the enemy getting as much as a missile lock on the F-22. The US is in a weird spot--if [one telegenic fighter jock gets shot down](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_OGrady), it becomes national news for a week!

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7952 716 days ago | link

If there was a war with China (thankfully far-fetched) why would they want to use 5th generation fighters at all? How many drones could Foxconn make in a day?

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jbooth 716 days ago | link

Well, the thing is, drones aren't sporting. Not honorable.

No respectable air force general wants to build a career on drone acquisition.

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FelixP 715 days ago | link

Isn't what they said about tanks and horses?

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jbooth 715 days ago | link

That's the point.

A few years ago, in a wargame predicated around the persian gulf, this retired marine who was playing the bad guys launched a low-tech attack on carrier groups which consisted of a ton of drones and fishing boats filled with high explosives. He won.

Result? They did a "redo" with a new rule that he can't do that stuff. Because carriers are awesome and admirals want to command them.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_Challenge_2002

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philwelch 715 days ago | link

The good news is that, at least at the time, we still had someone like General Van Riper on our side. If you look at military history, many major wars have an opening stage where outdated doctrines are conclusively beaten and the military suddenly gets really interested in out-of-the-box thinking.

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jbooth 715 days ago | link

I'm not convinced we're better off for it, unfortunately. Read 'The Guns of August' sometime, it's very instructive on just how many people need to die before the generals start changing tactics.

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viraptor 716 days ago | link

> I don't think there has been asingle loss of U.S. military aircraft to enemy action since... Kosovo?

Not only there have been many, the enemy isn't that needed. Everyone seems perfectly capable of destroying their own machines. Actually it looks like investing in general safety would be a better option for everyone than investing in high tech radar protection.

Of course these are mostly helicopters rather than planes, but still - aircraft.

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_aviation_accidents_an...

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MaysonL 715 days ago | link

How is a fifth-generation fighter, getting deployed at the end of this decade, going to possibly evade the AUVs that are going to exist then? It doesn't look like it's at all skating to where the puck is going to be...

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rdtsc 716 days ago | link

It is needed because it is designed to replace all those.

Imagine your wife had Hugh Jackman, Michael Phelps and Bill Gates as her husbands in some strange polyamory type setup (hey you brought your wife into the conversation first ;-) ). And then one day, all those husbands disappeared and she was left with you.

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D_Alex 715 days ago | link

Well, she'd have a lot less ironing to do... Look, I think this analogy has gone too far already!!!

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philwelch 716 days ago | link

The F-16, F-18, A-10, and Harrier are aging airframes that won't last forever. They need to be replaced. And frankly, stealth is such an improvement in terms of survivability in combat that the marginal expense of stealth technology is easily worth it just to protect the monetary investment the government makes in a trained pilot.

The F-35 might not be the best design (they'd be better off with a cheaper F-22 derivative and a separate replacement for the Harrier I think) but it fulfills a real requirement.

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pilom 716 days ago | link

I think a lot of people underestimate the differences between the F-22 and the F-35 on a price standpoint. The F-22 costs $2 billion per plane. The F-35 at $18X million per plan is a pittance in comparison for 80% of the capabilities.

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greedo 715 days ago | link

The F-22 doesn't cost anywhere near $2billion dollars per plane.

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pilom 715 days ago | link

I stand corrected. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F-22_Raptor. If you divide the number of aircraft built by the amount spent on the program, the GAO puts that at $412 million per plane. You can still buy more than 3 F-35's for each F-22.

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philwelch 715 days ago | link

That's not the marginal cost per plane, because that amortizes the cost of R&D over the current production run. If you ordered more F-22's, they would cost far less since the R&D is already done.

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jakeonthemove 716 days ago | link

They're stealthy because they're new - if a real war breaks out, I have no doubt anti-measures would be developed pretty quickly, just like the radar during WW2.

Why would they need to make such an overly complicated plane is beyond me, it's like the F-14 situation all over again. Plus, the F-22 works (and looks) pretty well already...

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philwelch 715 days ago | link

The F-14 served its purpose. You might say, well, there was never any opposing navy that even thought about making air attacks on an American fleet when the F-14 was in service, but my answer to that is "exactly". The whole point of an overwhelming advantage is that no one ever challenges it.

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rubashov 716 days ago | link

In simulations the stealth (MADL, IFDL, and low radar profile from the front) and the fire-on-remote fused tactical picture the F-22 and F-35 present play out huge. It's mostly about the avionics. Conversations about these fighters are generally uninformed.

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evoxed 716 days ago | link

The US doesn't need them– but they'd love to sell them to other countries to recoup some of their costs. Too bad their pricing difficulties have pretty much ruined any chance of that working though, as Japan's already announced that they don't want them for more than the original projection.

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arethuza 716 days ago | link

The F-35 is causing the UK all manner of problems as well:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-17437272

Unfortunately, we're already commited over $10 billion to building new carriers for them.

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46Bit 716 days ago | link

One new carrier and one floating Scottish island, you mean.

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arethuza 715 days ago | link

Just looked at the Wikipedia page for the new carriers, it seems we are going to operate one and keep the other in "extended readiness":

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Elizabeth_class_aircraft_...

I presume "extended readiness" is civil service jargon for "scrapped as soon as it is built".

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46Bit 715 days ago | link

More or less, yes. The thing is only being built because Labour managed to make it barely any cheaper to cancel the contracts than to actually build a second, unused & unusable one.

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newbie12 716 days ago | link

The politicians' "make it do everything" mantra is the same reason the space shuttle was a disastrous, budget-consuming failure.

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yread 716 days ago | link

Sounds a bit like the Space shuttle

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darnton 716 days ago | link

Hard to believe the article can make this observation without mention of John Boyd. http://www.amazon.com/Boyd-The-Fighter-Pilot-Changed/dp/B002...

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toemetoch 716 days ago | link

Have a look at all the bells and whistles that pop out for vertical take off: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xm7_PPE-8nk

Those are all intricate mechanisms that need to withstand severe levels of stress.

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philwelch 716 days ago | link

That's what happens when you have a reasonable idea, i.e. let's replace the F-16 and F/A-18, and all of a sudden someone says "hey, the Harrier is getting old too" and you realize the politicians aren't going to pay for two new planes at once, especially not after how much they've already spent on the F-22 and B-2, so you just throw all the requirements together, so by the time it lands on the desk of an actual engineer who realizes what a hash of things you've made, it's too late to change course.

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its_so_on 716 days ago | link

Oh man, you're right. Can you imagine if it could also turn into a submarine and have to withstand immense water pressure, have an intricate periscope, etc? That would justify 100billion for sure. Note to military: no, please don't. I'm only kidding....

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dantillberg 716 days ago | link

This is kind of an unfortunate title for those of us that still remember 9/11.

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bcl 716 days ago | link

Software isn't the only thing that suffers from feature creep (or bloat). The V-22 Osprey has similar problems, driven by their attempt to meet the requirements of all the branches of service.

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RyanMcGreal 715 days ago | link

This story will also have strong significance for Canadians, whose government is currently in the throes of a controversy over how much we're planning to spend to buy a fleet of F35s.

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jakeonthemove 716 days ago | link

I really like the F-22 - they should've kept building it and maybe modified it for different purposes. The F16 are also pretty capable.

The only way the F35 will pay for itself is if it can turn into a space fighter :-D - otherwise, with all those components onboard, it will cost even more to maintain it over the next several decades.

Heck, in a real war, I'd rather take something simpler that is easy to build and cheaper to repair - Russia seems to have it right with the SU/MIG 3X, which are just perfected 2X designs...

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ck2 716 days ago | link

They'll never admit that war is an outdated business model.

But the military industrial complex needs to be slowly starved to death.

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jbattle 716 days ago | link

The business model isn't fighting the war, it's selling stuff prior to prepare for a war that may or may not happen.

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api 716 days ago | link

The clusterfuck of competing requirements reminds me almost exactly of the space shuttle, a similar disaster that barely worked.

The shuttle could have been really awesome had its requirements only been set by NASA. Instead they had the NRO and other agencies jumping in there with space-irrelevant stuff that never even got used.

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lonnyk 716 days ago | link

Please elaborate on what was added by whom and not used?

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sgt101 716 days ago | link

For the Shuttle the big unused and underused capabilities were "retrieval to cargo bay and return to earth" and "launch to polar orbit".

I believe that this was imposed on the program by the US Airforce due to the need to collect spy satellites for service and put large payloads into polar orbit.

I think that the polar orbit requirement was never used, and had a very significant impact.

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roberte3 715 days ago | link

The first polar orbit was supposed to be Discovery, about six months after the challenger disaster.

One of the things that was to enable the polar orbit was a new set of solid rocket boosters, the 'Filament-wound' models that had a lighter weight outer case, and more propellent.

The book Riding Rockets was written by an astronaut who was in the middle of prep on that discovery mission when Challenger happened, and has a few details on the proposed polar orbit launch.

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