By NICK SCHWELLENBACH
Last week, Heritage Foundation defense analyst MacKenzie Eaglen published a post on the American Enterprise Institute's blog decrying the Pentagon's plan to slow down its purchases of the Joint Strike Fighter--something a high-level group of Pentagon officials recommended in a report POGO made public last month. She reveals perhaps her top motivation early on in her short post, warning against "delays [to] the Joint Strike Fighter, by far the most important program to the health of the American defense industrial base."
She adds in her next sentence that “it is truly schizophrenic for the President to be jeopardizing the health of America’s defense industrial base.” I suppose she believes the Pentagon should continue to hand out blank checks to its defense contractors. Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the JSF, is a funder of Heritage, according to a Counterpunch article by four veteran defense experts.
But later in her brief post she attempts to scare the reader:
Cutting edge programs such as the Joint Strike Fighter… are all critical programs for a Pacific oriented Pentagon. … Most reckless of all is the Secretary’s decision to cut six tactical aircraft squadrons. A 2009 RAND study has the United States losing an air war over the Taiwan Straits due to an overwhelming Chinese advantage in numbers of aircraft. As our aircraft inventory goes down, this bleak future will only become more likely.
She is right. A smaller force structure would make it more difficult for the U.S. to fight China in a war over Taiwan, especially given their numerical and geographic advantage (the shorter distance they have to fly means more sorties can be generated over the contested area). The problem for the U.S. is a large force is unaffordable given the inordinate per unit expense of weapons like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Lockheed claims that they will get the price down eventually, and the Pentagon assumes somewhat similarly, but some experts are skeptical the price will come down radically.
But the qualitative “advantage” of the F-35 isn’t what Eaglen might assume either given her support for the plane and her mention of the RAND study. What she may not know is, in 2008, briefing slides examining a potential U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan in light of lessons learned in air combat in the past by RAND analyst John Stillion leaked out. What was perhaps most explosive about his analysis was his criticism of the F-35, which would likely be the U.S. tactical aircraft workhorse in the scenario he analyzed.