Imagine that in 1902, Secretary of War Elihu Root had told President Teddy Roosevelt the difficulty of suppressing the Philippine Insurrection proved future weapons would need to be useful in conducting irregular warfare. I know, you aren’t so clear on what the Philippine Insurrection was. But it was a big deal at the time: 130,000 U.S. troops were deployed in a multiyear counter-insurgency campaign, and over 4,000 of them died. U.S. forces tortured prisoners. Insurgents committed atrocities. Very messy.
Secretary Root’s call for greater emphasis on irregular warfare would have seemed quite sensible at the time, because nobody expected the great powers to ever go to war again. Their economies were too closely linked. So anarchists, insurgents and other unconventional enemies looked like the wave of the future. Nonetheless, a dozen years later the great powers did go to war, and what followed made the guerrilla wars of the previous generation look like child’s play. U.S. troops marched off to World War One so ill-prepared that they had to borrow planes from European allies just to secure the air space above their trenches.
As it turned out, World War One was just the beginning, and America spent most of the rest of the 20th Century fighting or preparing to fight other industrial powers. But the really big war — the one between capitalism and communism that could have ended it all — never happened, because after fighting fascism America’s leaders decided there was no substitute for being prepared. They re-learned the lesson that George Washington gleaned from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: if you want peace, prepare for war. Faced with a heavily armed America, the Russians chose not to launch World War Three.
Today, the Bush Administration is trying to un-learn this vital lesson from America’s past, and as a result the Air Force’s F-22 fighter is once again at risk. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says that, “any major weapons program, in order to remain viable, will have to show some utility and relevance to the kind of irregular campaigns that … are most likely to engage America’s military in coming decades.” As Josh White of the Washington Post noted in his May 14 report on the Secretary’s remarks, Gates has repeatedly singled out the F-22 as an example of misplaced priorities in military investment plans.
Secretary Gates is wrong about the F-22. He doesn’t know what the future holds, and the history of the last hundred years weighs heavily against his assessment of future threats — as do the warfighting scenarios being prepared for the next quadrennial defense review. The problem in Iraq isn’t misplaced military priorities or lack of intelligence, but the Iraqis themselves. We cannot make them something they are not, and killing the F-22 to buy more Predators won’t change that fact. Instead, it will give rise to other threats far worse than anything Al Qaeda or the Mahdi Army are likely to dream up, because countries like China will see that America can no longer count on global air dominance.
This danger was well understood the last time the Pentagon had a bipartisan, consensus-based management team. In a letter to the chairman of the House appropriations defense subcommittee dated July 15, 1999, Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen said: “For fifty years every American soldier has gone to war confident that the United States had air superiority. Canceling the F-22 means we cannot guarantee air superiority in future conflicts. It will also have a significant impact on the viability of the Joint Strike Fighter program. The F-22 will enable the Joint Strike Fighter to carry out its primary strike mission. The JSF was not designed for the air superiority mission…” Secretary Gates needs to go find that letter and read it, because it is still true.
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