Thursday, April 22, 2010

Serious question on a totally different subject:

Do all these jokers like Todd Akin and Mackenzie Eaglen know about the historical baggage associated with their use of the term "fighter gap"?

Now, to be fair, a lot of people are doing it. Defense News, for one. (Or two. Or three.) Colin Clark at DoD Buzz, too. Then there's Navy Times and Air Force Times and National Defense magazine. But this is all pretty much just reportage and not advocacy or rhetoric, right? So that's not such a big deal.

It's a little more pernicious when the term starts getting tossed around as a mechanism to advocate policy changes. Like, for example, in this op-ed by Akin, who is the ranking member on the HASC Seapower and Expeditionary Forces subcommittee. The good Congressman argues that the Defense Department can "mitigate the impending fighter gap" by entering into a multi-year contract with Boeing to procure additional F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers (the latter of which is an electronic attack aircraft, which is not exactly a "strike fighter"). Congressman Akin, in what is surely one of history's great coincidences, represents the St. Louis area, home to Boeing Integrated Defense Systems.

Heritage Foundation defense expert Mackenzie Eaglen apparently enjoyed Rep. Akin's piece, tweeting this yesterday: "Quantity has a quality all its own. The US military has a fighter gap. RT@ToddAkin: It's simple - carriers need planes http://bit.ly/ca0ApL]"

There it is again: "fighter gap." Just rolls off the tongue (and the keyboard), doesn't it? Why so familiar? Well, we've had other gaps before, you know. There was that missile gap back in the late 50s, when then-Senator John Kennedy warned that the US was "losing the [ballistic]-missile race with the Soviet Union because of... complacent miscalculations, penny-pinching, budget cutbacks, incredibly confused mismanagement, and wasteful rivalries and jealousies." And before that, in the mid-50s, there was that pesky bomber gap, when some analysts convinced themselves that the Soviets were dramatically out-producing the U.S. in the long-range, intercontinental bomber race. And now there's about to be a fighter gap, we're told, as Super Hornets exceed their allowable flight hours and are retired from service before sufficient numbers of Joint Strike Fighters have rolled off the production line to take their place.

So what's the problem with all of this? Well, the bomber gap and the missile gap were COMPLETELY MADE UP, that's the problem. Not only that, but some folks - led by an academic named Albert Wohlstetter - COMPLETELY MADE UP the missile gap all over again in 1974!

Am I saying that there's no such thing as a fighter gap? No, I'm not saying that, because I have no idea. Todd Akin may be exactly right, and a long-term, multi-year contract for additional Super Hornet procurement may be the absolute best thing for national security. I'm not an aviation expert, and even those folks can't seem to agree on whether there will be a strike shortfall or how significant it might be. So it's not about whether the fighter gap is as made up as the bomber gap or the missile gap, really.

What this is about is messaging, and the meaning of words. Shouldn't Akin and Eaglen be aware enough of history to know that they're using a tainted phrase? That they're directly ripping off an expression that was used more than once to identify an entirely fabricated national security scare, a military bludgeon created expressly for one candidate to smash another during a campaign?

Aren't they embarrassed to echo Wohlstetter, whose claims about a missile gap extended to accusations that the CIA was falsifying intelligence, deliberately underestimating the number of Soviet missiles in order to shape policy in a less confrontational direction? The same Wohlstetter whose anti-intel aspersions would drive the formation of the ludicrously politicized waste of time called "Team B," the CIA red team whose final report (pdf) "turns out to have been wrong on nearly every point"?

Basically, from a rhetorical perspective, couldn't they have come up with something better?

16 comments:

  1. The Onion put out a book called "Our Dumb Century", with Onion-style news articles from the last 100 years. In the 1910s, the news read "Do we suffer from a zeppelin gap"?

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  2. "Heritage Foundation defense expert Mackenzie Eaglen"

    Talk about an oft-repeated phrase that also doesn't make sense!

    One of my favorite recollections about Mackenzie "Four percent GDP spending on defense" Eaglen is that she used to give as her military experience her ROTC classes in college.

    Like many of our defense intellectuals insisting so heartily for more, more, more, she's seen precious little of how the armaments are used and against whom.

    She's big on the "why," however, which is why she's an "expert."

    SNLII

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  3. "The Onion put out a book called "Our Dumb Century", with Onion-style news articles from the last 100 years. In the 1910s, the news read "Do we suffer from a zeppelin gap"?" - Starbuck

    I, uh, own a copy of that book. It's one of the funniest things I've ever read.

    Gulliver, don't some terms take on a life of their own - to be argumentative - so that the origin is no longer as important? Isn't that true of any colloquialism?

    - Madhu

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  4. SNLII: Don't all intellectuals ask for more (more, more, more!) in any field?

    If only we spent more, regulated more, took charge more, and naturally, if only intellectuals like me were in charge! Then the world would be perfect.

    I think it's a common failing of those that study problems for a living. The word becomes the deed.

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  5. I don't know if it's on the web yet, but the upcoming issue of The Sentinel will include a very fine anlaysis of global jihad in the Maghreb by Jean-Pierre Filiu

    SNLII

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  6. I'm surprised no one has mentioned the dreaded mine shaft gap yet.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr._Strangelove

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  7. SNLII -- Talk about an oft-repeated phrase that also doesn't make sense!

    I'm trying to turn over a new, more charitable, less snarky leaf, which is why I didn't put "defense expert" in quotes.

    Starbuck -- Awesome.

    Madhu -- Gulliver, don't some terms take on a life of their own - to be argumentative - so that the origin is no longer as important? Isn't that true of any colloquialism?

    Sure, that's absolutely true. After all, to use a loosely related example, "Containment" came to mean something altogether different from what George Kennan intended just through sheer usage (one might even argue abuse and mis-usage).

    That said, I find it really hard to allow for that here. The term "fighter gap" wouldn't even mean anything except that it evokes the imaginary shortfalls of the early Cold War, when the country was still trying to find a consensus about exactly how dangerous and how aggressive was the Soviet threat. Those two terms were expressly employed to paint political opponents as soft on defense and soft on communism, an approach that pretty much sums up in total Mackenzie Eaglen's rhetorical arsenal in the here and now.

    Keith -- I considered including the mine-shaft gap but figured this was a joke enough already without referencing "gaps" that were expressly designed as comedy and farce.

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  8. I'll stop after this, because, well, I have to, but I think it's not exactly a novel idea that creating a sense of crisis is one way to get the public at large, or policy makers, to pay attention to pet projects. A gap implies a crisis, ergo, fund my project.

    This happens in science and medicine, too, you know. Gotta sell that idea baby! Sell sell sell.

    - Madhu

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  9. I'll stop after this, because, well, I have to, but I think it's not exactly a novel idea that creating a sense of crisis is one way to get the public at large, or policy makers, to pay attention to pet projects. A gap implies a crisis, ergo, fund my project.

    Well, yeah. I understand why it's done; that's not the question here. The question is whether the people doing it recognize the historical precedent involved; that is, do they recognize that they're harkening back to a time of fabrication and scare tactics to win support for their recommended policy changes.

    Yes, it happens all the time. Does that mean we should stop highlighting it when it does? Does that mean we should fail to point out the silliness of the argument? If there was a public service campaign based around the slogan "NOT WEARING YOUR SEATBELT WILL GIVE YOU CANCER AND AIDS!" would you say, "well, sometimes people need to create a crisis to win support, and after all people should wear their seatbelts, so I'm not going to say anything about the 'cancer and AIDS' bit"??

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  10. I clicked on your hyperlink to her bio, GUlliver and found that she's still doing it!

    She writes that she attended college "while serving in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps."

    Let's just get this out there: You don't "serve" in the ROTC. It's a class. Anyone can take it for a couple of years and NOT take a commission.

    For whatever reason (medical condition, decided against pursuing a military career, blah blah blah), she did NOT earn a commission in the military, didn't serve in uniform and to my knowledge has zero days of active duty.

    The phrase, however, suggests otherwise.

    My beef isn't with those defense intellectuals who didn't serve. I don't give a flying fig about that.

    It's just that one shouldn't paint one's resume as if one has (or, ahem, aggrandizing one's service as a certain CNAS founder did before SEN Webb tore him a new one).

    Something else: She actually is really bright, very talented and a decent person. I just don't like her bio.

    SNLII

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  11. SNLII -- I'm with you on this one. I had something like 20 hours of military and naval science in undergrad, but I don't consider it having "served" in ROTC. I'd always wondered what that bio bullet meant; I guess I always assumed she was in the state guard or something.

    Can you elaborate on the Webb anecdote, btw?

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  12. SEN Webb sparred with CNAS founder Kurt Campbell during the latter's confirmation hearing for a State Department post.

    You likely can find the transcript online, but there was something of a white glove slap over whether Campbell inflated his resume by suggesting he took part in a mission to Korea that, apparently, didn't exactly happen.

    SNLII

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  13. Here you go:

    http://findarticles.com/p/news-articles/political-transcript-wire/mi_8167/is_20090611/sen-john-kerry-holds-hearing/ai_n50887312/pg_7/?tag=content;col1

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  14. I'll take the blame for Mackenzie. I personally recruited her to come to Georgetown.

    But as someone did note, she is bright, works hard, and has good experience at both DoD -- where she was a PMF -- and on the Hill -- where she was an LA for Susan Collins. Say what you will about her analysis -- which is too often shilling for the defense industry for my tastes -- but she has decent credentials for a "defense expert" and she does work really, really hard.

    And I am not just saying this because she's a friend, but while I don't agree with her on a lot of stuff, she's not part of the problem.

    Also, I happen to think there is an important point here on fighters. We are relying on quality to carry a lot of water, especially if (as seems likely to me) the F-35s buys come in far, far below the current program of record. If you consider any sort of extended conflict where we actually face an air superiority challenge, our force is very vulnerable to attrition simply through accidents and mechanical problems. In other words, we're -- I would argue -- reaching a point in fighter force structure where ANY successful enemy action could place air superiority at risk simply because we're already on the razor's edge in terms of being able to cover a extended battlespace over an extended period of time.

    Just my $0.02

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  15. Hey! I'm not cutting on her as a defense intellectual. She's also a decent person and no enemy to the military or COngress.

    I just don't like her bio (and the nutty notion that it's a Constitutional right for the military to receive 4 percent of GDP).

    Friends don't let friends say stupid things about ROTC "service" on their bios, BF.

    Call her up and make it stop.

    SNLII

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  16. I would like it noted that I was speaking - in typical online water cooler fashion - about general categories of people (from which I take care not to exempt myself!) and NOT talking about any one person in particular.

    I don't know any of the people in the defense intellectual community and have nothing other than the best wishes for said intellectuals.

    Because, come on, we need our best thinkers thinking their best about everything under the sun and offering policy advice! And then we need the good sense to ignore a good bit of it.

    :)

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