Earlier this week, the New York Times editorial board decided to take on the defense budget. The board argued that defense spending in the area of $600 billion does not short change the U.S. military as some like to contend. Instead, poor spending decisions have led to a bloated budget that does not necessarily provide for the common defense. The board suggests Congress and the Pentagon need to set aside parochial interests, forgo a $1 trillion upgrade to the nuclear triad, shutter excess military infrastructure, and cancel the remaining planned purchases of the F-35.
While “dead tree” media does not have the influence it once did, the “gray lady” still holds an important place in America’s popular consciousness. So it stands to reason the Times’ editorial board’s broadside could have a positive effect on upcoming defense policy decisions. Several from the defense-specific press are skeptical that will be the case—at least as it regards the F-35—and they have good reason for their skepticism.
As Kelsey Atherton, who reports on military technology for Popular Science, noted in a series of tweets in response to board’s argument, the horse is already out of the barn on the F-35. As Atherton explained, the F-35 is unlikely to get cancelled given that it is already in production, but the questions about its many flaws have been around for many years. Defense journalists were raising questions about the jack-of-all trades Joint Strike Fighter for over a decade. But the defense-specific press addresses a specific audience. The popular press is necessary to bring these issues to a broader audience earlier in the process, when something could be done about it. “A dedicated, popular-facing, layman accessible defense press could raise the key questions early, often…” Atherton tweeted, “…it’s deeply important for sniffing out issues early, so that the [New York Times] can raise an op-ed against the F-35 in 2006, not 2016.” Now, with the A-10, F-15, F-16, and F-18 getting up there in age, there are few alternatives to the F-35 available.
Atherton helpfully “storified” his tweets, and those of others such as veteran defense reporter Phil Ewing. Their thoughts are available here.
Even with the involvement of august popular institutions like the New York Times, canceling defense boondoggles will never be easy. The military services, members of Congress, and the defense industry all have more reasons to fight for the existence of a program than voters have to rise up against. Few people vote specifically on foreign policy issues, and the technical knowledge necessary to evaluate a defense program is a significant obstacle to informed opinion.
Institutions like the New York Times still have an important role to play. They have to be, as Atherton notes, more willing to engage on defense-specific issues. The upgrade to the nuclear triad is a perfect example. There are still opportunities to limit the B-21 to a conventional mission and to argue against production of a new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile before it begins.
More importantly, a popular press engaged on defense issues can expose the fundamental flaws in joint fighter development to a wider audience. The F-35 might be here to stay for lack of viable alternatives, but the U.S. Air Force and Navy are in no way standing pat with it. They have already begun thinking about the shape of their sixth-generation fighter. Should the services develop the new aircraft jointly, the New York Times needs to be engaged beforehand if it wants to influence whether or not that project will go the way of the Joint Strike Fighter.
- What percentage of components will be common between each service’s versions of the fighter?
- How will the Air Force’s preference for a stealthy, manned aircraft be reconciled with the Navy’s willingness to forgo stealth and, for that matter, pilots?
- Will an Air Force jack-of-all-trades fighter be sufficiently capable for close air support, a mission the service has never fully embraced?
These are questions that need to be asked beforehand—not, as Atherton noted, nearly two decades after a program begins and a decade and a half after its contract is awarded.