Letters to the editor

The Joint Strike Fighter

As a Lockheed Martin employee, I read with interest James Fallows's article "Uncle Sam Buys an Airplane" (June Atlantic). However, as an ex-Marine Harrier pilot, I must correct his statements concerning the JSF's "tour de force called Mission X," in which he claims that the JSF is the first airplane to make a short takeoff, go supersonic, and then land vertically.

In late 1970, as an exchange pilot, I joined the British Royal Air Force's No. 233 Operational Conversion Unit, first as a student and then as an instructor, training pilots in the Harrier. Although the Harrier was classed as a subsonic airplane, because its normal operating mode did not call for supersonic operations, it was capable of supersonic flight. One training flight called for a short takeoff, a supersonic run out beyond the Midlands coast, and a return to the field for vertical takeoff and landing practice. So the "tour de force called Mission X" was routinely being flown more than thirty years ago.

Jon R. Gibson
Robstown, Texas

James Fallows portrays the Washington bureaucrat Darleen Druyun as a clever, almost heroic defender of the taxpayers' money. I think the reverse is true. During the middle 1990s Druyun was the driving force behind "acquisition reform" and TSPR ("total system performance responsibility"). These were innovations in which contractors essentially had carte blanche to run programs as they pleased. The Air Force program offices watched from the sidelines, together with the nonprofit system-engineering organizations that supported them (Aerospace Corporation, MITRE).

The first guinea pig (later the poster child) for this approach was the Space Based Infrared System program, a missile warning and surveillance system. Today that program is $2 billion over budget and two years behind schedule. Air Force Undersecretary Peter Teets told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 20 that poor contracting methods were responsible for this disaster and that TSPR caused the taxpayers to assume too much risk.

Len Winner
Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

One thing that was missing from James Fallows's otherwise excellent piece on the Joint Strike Fighter was any historical perspective on the size of the defense budget. The sharp drop in defense spending since the end of the Cold War has made the Pentagon's current replacement cycle that much more difficult. Outlays for "procurement" (equipment and material) for the ten years ending with fiscal year 2002 dropped by 42 percent in constant dollars compared with the prior ten years: $580 billion versus $1 trillion. Although plans call for the procurement budget to increase over the next five years, at the end of that time it will still be less than three quarters of what it was in the 1980s.

Fallows also points to the steady decline in the numbers of aircraft bought since World War II and the steady rise in the price per plane. Certainly, as he notes, some of this price increase reflects the well-known tendency of the bureaucracy to gold-plate specifications. But most of the higher cost reflects the strategy of making the planes more competitive (that is, more lethal and safer to operate): the replacement of simple piston engines with costlier but more capable jet engines, the greater sophistication of the avionics systems, and so forth. Similar trends can be seen in the civilian economy. Since the 1940s houses, farm tractors, and even private planes have grown in size, features, and functionality as incomes have grown.

Yet a third factor behind the more limited production has been the decline in defense spending relative to the economy over this period. Defense accounted for 36 percent of GDP in 1944, when all those P-51s were being built. It was 11 percent during the Korean War, when the F-86 was on the front line; eight percent in the early 1960s, when the F-4 was first deployed; five or six percent in the 1980s, when the F-16 entered production; and is currently three percent. In the post-Cold War era, "How much is enough?" is a critical question for defense spending and for programs like the JSF. If our military strategy is to include manned fighter aircraft, their affordability should be debated with an eye to the total cost to the economy.

Robert Kugel
Burlingame, Calif.

James Fallows replies:

Jon Gibson is correct in saying that Harrier pilots have for years combined short takeoff, supersonic cruise, and vertical landing in the same flight. What made Mission X unusual is that it combined the short takeoff and landing with supersonic cruise in level flight. Every airplane goes faster when descending, and the Harriers had achieved supersonic speed while diving toward the ground.

As for Len Winner's complaint, I tried to stress in the article that many things could still go wrong with the JSF. But if Darleen Druyun and her colleagues are judged by results, particularly in cost control, so far they've done surprisingly well.

I agree with Robert Kugel that there are larger questions to ask about the defense budget.


Case Against Europe

Walter Russell Mead pooh-poohs the notion that Americans are "too stupid to make good decisions" ("The Case Against Europe," April Atlantic).

Allow me to provide a few real-life facts that Mead omitted: Western European workers enjoy six-week to three-month vacations, whereas Americans are lucky if they get two weeks. Americans are working longer hours than they have since the Depression, while the French are being lauded for the success of their thirty-five-hour work week. Europeans have national pension plans generous enough to allow retired citizens to maintain dignity and independence. We've got puny Social Security, slated by both Republicans and Democrats for slow destruction. Of the world's industrial nations only America lacks a national health plan. Our private health plans are justifiably ridiculed. According to the UN, the World Health Organization, and other universally accepted sources, seventeen nations have a higher standard of living. We're twenty-fourth in overall health. More than 50 percent of our population is obese. In the States it's "normal" for a college student to graduate heavily in debt—an idea rightfully abhorrent in Western European nations, where higher education is free. Believe me, I could go on, covering areas such as food quality (in Europe genetically altered foods are discouraged and clearly identified on packaging; not so in America), the growing prevalence in the United States of polluting SUVs (as our air quality drops and our asthma rates reach epidemic levels), and so on.

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