The Atlantic’s transparent Raptor puff-piece — Have they been bought off?
The cover of the March issue of the Atlantic invites readers with a spooky item across the top: “Marc Bowden: Why U.S. fighter jocks are losing their edge.” The 12-page feature it refers to, “The Last Ace,” also figures big in the table of contents, laid across a full-page photo of a masked fighter jock.
In it, Bowden speaks with Cesar Rodriguez, a former F-15 pilot in the Air Force, and the man with the distinction of the most air-to-air kills of any American pilot today: three. As Bowden points out, the number is illustrative of the nature of air combat and America’s air superiority. Bowden neglects another reason, which we’ll come back to.
Rodriguez shares his war stories with Bowden, who also speaks with several Air Force officers, including the now-deceased Gen. Thomas Tinsley, to get a picture of modern air combat, as well as its history and future. Footage from the interviews was cut into this video, produced by the Atlantic.
If it comes off like Tom Clancy technofetishism, that’s because it is. The thrust of Bowden’s feature is to push for continued production and wider use of the F-22 Raptor, Lockheed-Martin’s next-generation fighter craft slated to replace the F-15. The Raptor faces a meeting with the chopping block in early March when president Obama will decide whether to order 20 more. As the Washington Post noted, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is against the expense, particularly since the United States will be ordering thousands of Lockheed’s cheaper F-35s. The Atlantic neglects to mention the F-35 at all.
The image Bowden creates is that of an ancient, decaying Air Force, rivaled by rusty chopshop MiGs fielded by second-world governments. He suggests American pilots, holding together rickety air-jalopies (with price tags in the tens of millions,) must remain relevant in the Cold War paradigm the rest of the military has left behind.
Here, Bowden undercuts himself. On the occasions that the US has taken action directly against another nation-state after WW2, the majority have been too poor to field a modern military. It is increasingly the case, and at least as big a contributor if not a much bigger one, to the small number of dogfights and American fighter pilots’ tiny kill counts. And if we do find ourselves in a shooting war with a nuclear power, we have much bigger problems. The very reason hostile nations pursue nuclear weapons, after all, is for security from conventional warfare. No amount of F-22s will make America nuke-proof.
The facts distorted and omitted by Bowden aren’t obscure trivia for the defense policy set. They are simple and apparent — enough so that Bowden, or certainly his editors, should have questioned them. Why didn’t they?
Let’s go back to Cesar Rodriguez. In the last quarter-page of “The Last Ace,” the last two percent of Bowden’s 12-page paean to the F-22, we get a hint of what’s going on.