On Service and the F-35
For years now there has been controversy brewing around the F-35: over-budget, under-performing and increasingly bolstered by questionable rhetoric extolling its virtue. Over the last several years the Air Force has repeatedly tried to retire to venerable A-10 in order to “free up funds” for the F-35, despite lack of viable replacement. For those unfamiliar with the debate, the A-10 is a proven attack plane that excels at directly supporting forces on the ground. Frankly, some of specifics are out of my wheelhouse – by trade, I am an MC-130 pilot and only passingly more familiar with fighter airframe capabilities than your average well-informed citizen. Still, I can recognize a quagmire when I see one. To examine where the drive for the F-35 has gone astray we can look at the second of the Air Force’s core tenets: service before self. This provides an interesting vantage point to examine where the Air Force has gone wrong.
First, some reflection on the meaning of “service before self”. I initially took it to mean placing the Air Force’s needs above my own. While this is certainly a valid application, I don’t believe it encompasses the whole of the meaning. “Service” cannot be attached to something as parochial as a specific service component. “Service” needs to be reflected in its most basic meaning – putting any agenda aside that does not support the mission at hand. That applies to everything from tactical support of the warfighter on the ground to procurement of major weapons systems for the nation’s defense.
My own background certainly has something to do with my understanding of service. Special operations flying is not glamorous and it is not a pilot-centric world. By definition, everything we do is in support of someone else. It was certainly far different from the notions I had during pilot training – far different, but also far better. Every time we flew, we knew who we were supporting and why. Over the course of many TDYs and deployments, I got to know personally many of the operators and Army helo pilots we supported. I knew without a doubt that my role and the role of my crew was to SUPPORT what our sister-service brethren were accomplishing. Our mission truly is service. I never kicked a door in or landed in a stadium – but I can say without a doubt that I served. Any distinction or squabble of who is closer to the fight really starts to break down when everyone on the team knows exactly what is on the line and can see how they contribute to its accomplishment – from maintainers to intel to life support to our comm guys, we all knew our role. Far from being a disappointment that I was less “special” than I previously imagined, my time as a line pilot in the 9th SOS was the most professionally fulfilling time of my flying career.
So what does this have to do with the A-10 and the F-35? If one zooms out to a macro-level, “service before self” looks an awful lot like considering the needs of the warfighter on the ground rather than the parochial wants of the Air Force. In short, trying to cut the A-10 without a viable replacement is breaking faith with the people who count on its support. The Air Force’s procurement efforts are too often unmoored from the realities of current conflict. Former SecDef Bob Gates railed about this parochialism in the services during his time as SecDef – from the Army’s recalcitrance to field the MRAP to the Air Force’s refusal to add the UAV capability needed to support counter-IED operations. When push came to shove, the Air Force was compelled by Congress and the SecDef to cut F-22 production far ahead of schedule and massively scale up UAV capabilities.
The Air Force has come away from the A-10/F-35 debate with an unnecessary black eye. Instead of “message control” and shifting metrics, a candid acknowledgement of the F-35’s shortcomings and clear path to a solution would likely be much more productive for F-35 and without a doubt staunch the Air Force’s hemorrhaging credibility. I do not believe we should give up on the F-35 but I do believe we should take a serious look in the mirror, ask ourselves who we are serving, how best to serve them, and then go from there.