The War Nerd: Why is the F-35 Like an Albanian Mushroom?
DURRES, ALBANIA—Stuck in Albania, reading stories about whether an old prop plane, the A-29, could out-perform the F-35.
They say Schopenhauer was depressed, but at least he never had to read about the F-35.
The best summary of the F-35 program comes, believe it or not, from John McCain:
"It has been an incredible waste of the taxpayers' dollar and it hurts the credibility of our acquisition process, our defense industry…[and]…reinforces the view of some of us that the military-industrial- congressional complex that President Eisenhower warned us about is alive and well."
“The USAF loves the F-35 more than any other project in history…[b]ecause it’s a disaster. The biggest, most expensive, most shameful procurement scandal in American history. I hear you asking, ‘Wait, wait—are you saying it’s even worse than the F-104 Starfighter, the plane the Bundeswehr called ”The Flying Coffin”?’ Yes, I am. Because as bad as the F-104 was, it didn’t cost $337 million per plane. That’s the projected cost of this godawful flying pooch, the F-35. $337 million per plane. Yes, folks, for slightly more than one billion dollars, you get three very bad airplanes.”
This is a scam worth $1.5 trillion dollars, an obvious scam, the kind that doesn’t even show any respect for the suckers it’s robbing.
When you try to talk about the F-35, you remember that great moment in Idiocracy when Luke Wilson pulls up the blinds at the doctor’s office and sees a broken landscape—tall buildings leaning at weird angles, overpasses ending in mid-air, a car going off one of them at full speed.
The US defense business is corrupt to the bone and untouchable. The same politicians who rant about poor people buying anything but oatmeal with food stamps have no problem with spending your taxes on a useless plane that comes three per billion dollars.
If you want to see how that corruption works, you can read the story of “Duke” Cunningham.
Duke was part of the only “ace” fighter team of the Vietnam war. The North Vietnamese were too smart, and too poor, to play dogfight games with the USAF/USN, but “Duke” and his RIO, “Irish” Driscoll, managed to shoot down five MiGs over North Vietnam, the only US pilots to reach that magic number and officially be declared aces.
Because the US had no understanding of what kind of war it was fighting in Vietnam, it was desperate to impose old models of military valor, no matter how badly they fit. So Duke became some kind of hero, doing military commentary for CNN and then being elected to Congress. His specialty in office was talking about how we should’ve shot war protestors, and/or the Democrats in Congress, and flipping off a constituent who complained about military spending.
Turned out ol’ Duke (that nickname—how could two guys with the nicknames “Duke” and “Irish” end up in the same cockpit during the era of Hunter S. Thompson?)—turned out ol’ Duke had good reason to flip off anybody who objected to military spending. He was cozied up tight to a defense contractor named Mitchell Wade. Wade started out as a DoD official, and lubed his way easily into private contracting with a company called MZM. Cunningham was one of several votes Wade bought on the Defense Appropriations Committee.
Wade poured money on Cunningham any way he could. He bought Cunningham’s house for an inflated price (selling it after a few months for a quarter-million less than he paid), then bought a yacht which he named the “Duke Stir,” and moored in DC. Cunningham lived rent-free on board, bringing women up the gangplank to see his lava lamp (seriously, he actually had a lava lamp). And Wade’s company got $150 million of DoD contracts.
Oh, but the system worked. Wade was sentenced to 30 months in prison. So kids, if you’re considering crime, toss that handgun in the nearest river and become a Pentagon intern.
Truth is, Cunningham only got caught because he is and always has been the stupidest, loudest, hammiest goof this side of Foghorn Leghorn. There are thousands of smoother, smarter versions of his story all over the suburbs of D.C., many of them getting rich on the F-35 even as we speak. Bush’s Florida fixer, Katherine Harris, got a good chunk of bribes from Wade, but never did time and never will.
The overwhelming majority of these swine will ever see the inside of a cell, and the few who do get caught will do less time than a street dealer.
This is the world that created the F-35. When you see it from their perspective—a money-raising scheme, nothing else—it makes sense. If you keep trying to see it as something related to actually defending America, you’ll find that little tendrils of smoke start coming out of your ears.
It helps sometimes to see how this sort of scam worked in other societies . . . and they don’t come much other-er than Albania (Nice segue, huh?). If you want to understand the F-35, take a look at Albania’s bunkers. You can’t avoid looking at them around here (I’m killing these segues!).
Here in Europe’s poorest country, a supposedly crazy Stalinist ruling clique built more than 700,000 concrete bunkers—one for every four people in the country. You see them everywhere, half-submerged in ponds, popping up in farm fields. The Albanians call them “mushrooms,” but to me they look like Paris urinals that got pushed into the ground. Like the F-35, they were supposedly necessary for national defense. But the first thing you realize when you see them is that they would have been totally useless in combat. Albanians do well in mobile warfare, and have a long tradition of using mountain ambushes against invaders. The very worst thing they could do against bigger, better-armed invaders would be to hole up in death traps like these bunkers, with their little domes announcing, “Here I am! Come and kill me!”
I’d heard about these things, but you know—you get so much Western propaganda against Commie states that I half-expected to be impressed, to find that the bunkers were actually feats of military engineering. Nope. They’re shockingly useless. They shout their uselessness at you. In fact, that’s the point.
People tried to tell the Albanian ruling clique that “bunkerization” was bankrupting the country, using scarce capital, concrete and steel, that could’ve been used to make decent housing. But that was like telling the DoD that the F-35 is a bad design. They know it perfectly well; it’s not relevant, from their perspective.
The Spice must flow, as in dollars, and anyone who gets in the way of that flow (say, by pointing out that the A-10, a way cheaper and better plane already in service, can do CAS better than the F-35) is a traitor:
Maj. Gen. James Post, vice commander of Air Combat Command, was quoted as saying, “If anyone accuses me of saying this, I will deny it … anyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason…”
In Albania, more than your career was at stake if you tried to oppose the bunkers. In 1974, Gen. Beqir Balluku, head of the Albanian Armed Forces, supposedly made a speech criticizing the bunkers as militarily worthless, calling for a smaller, more mobile and professional army. He got himself a new nickname, “The Arch-Traitor Balluku,” and the traditional “nine grams in the back of the head.”
So “Bunkerization” went on until the Stalinist leader, Enver Hoxha, died in 1985. The usual explanation for this incredible waste of scarce resources is that Hoxha was crazy. He’s a regular on all the “Most Insane Dictator” listicles, ranked ahead of top contenders like Pol Pot on some, and hitting the posthumous big-time as #1 on Kizaz’s “10 Most Insane Evil Dictators of All Time.”
And who am I to argue with a prestigious journal like Kizaz? Still, there’s a problem with this “Crazy Hoxha” theory: he wasn’t crazy. Boring, yes; boring even by Communist standards, which is saying something. But not crazy, any more than the people pushing the F-35 are crazy. These are two elites, one in a huge, powerful, wealthy country, the other in an absurdly tiny, impoverished one, but facing the same problem: How do you keep the country’s resources in the elite’s control?
Hoxha’s elite came up with a very corrupt but perfectly sane solution: bunkers. National defense is a sacred term in Albania, with its long history of invasions by bigger, richer countries. So you invoke national defense and literally pour the country’s scarce steel and concrete into a hole in the ground, or rather 700,000-plus such holes. Of course they don’t contribute to national defense, but then there was never any real threat. To put it bluntly, who wanted Albania?
The bunkerization program kept all that capital circulating within the Albanian elite, reminded the nobodies every second of the day that they lived under siege, justified all the misery of their existence. When you think of the bunkers as a scam, their totally random placement in the landscape makes much more sense. What difference does it make where you put them? They have nothing to do with national defense in the first place.
If Hoxha’s regime had spent that money on habitable apartments, they’d have been drawn into a competition with richer neighboring countries over those “consumer goods” the late Soviets used to talk about. Albania was unlikely to win that competition. Besides, pandering is what pundits call “a slippery slope.” But if you plow the resources that could have housed your population into 700,000 bunkers, the power, the resources, the control stays within the elite. The money flows only within that elite. The nobodies get nothing, except a time-share in this bad dream called “national defense.” You put them in that dream, forcibly, every time they see another bunker under construction.
There are some weird parallels to the U.S. defense industry. For starters, what’s the threat to the U.S.? Nobody’s going to invade this country, at least not in the way that conventional military forces are meant to counter. The U.S. is much richer than Albania, true, but if anyone seriously tried to invade, the nukes would come out and that’d be that. A glow on the horizon, a few new national parks all ready for some brown gov’t-issue log-cabin inns once the radiation count goes down.
It’s so hard to imagine a real threat to the U.S. that when they decided to remake Red Dawn, they had to settle for North Korea: “The city of Spokane, Washington is awakened by a North Korean paratrooper invasion....” — which must have caused a suspension-of-disbelief problem, even on the set, that no quantities of cocaine could overcome. “Spokane? Nobody’s gonna believe the fuckin’ North Koreans fly trans-Pacific just to grab a town that makes Pyongyang look like Rio! Fire the writers and get me another eight-ball!”
So, with no threats, why not promote more expensive, badly-produced designs like the F-35? Like I’ve argued before, the worse the design, the more money there is in retro-fits and other fixes, so a bad design is the gift that keeps on giving.
Look at the U.S. political scene, especially its defense procurement, from the Albanian angle and it makes horrible sense. Why do those congress-bastards scream so loudly at the thought of poor people buying shrimp, but pass DoD appropriations by huge margins, even though there’ve been thousands of stories about the worthlessness of flagship programs like the F-35? Because the money for those programs stays out of the hands of the nobodies, safely circulating only within the elite, the dividend class.
Better a useless fighter plane than taking the risk of giving the nobodies a taste of shrimp cocktail.
Check out the War Nerd’s podcast show, Radio War Nerd.