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WHEN PIGS FLY (or) How the Ghost of Robert McNamara Haunts the F-35.

In "Defense Mechanisms" forum on June 25, 2022 at 5:50 pm

flying pigA lot of what amounts to American air superiority seems to ramify from good luck. No, we don’t mean to suggest that our pilots and airmen just get lucky up there, far from it. All we mean to say is, at various times of crisis a variety of somewhat remarkable circumstances have resulted in the right plane for the right moment in the right conflict, and made the job of the enemy impossibly difficult. Take Korea for instance.

Everybody at the Pentagon figured that American air power would run roughshod over North Korea’s forces when Truman commanded our military to intervene in the face of the surprise onslaught of Communist aggressors in 1950, and at first our P-51 Mustangs, F-80 Shooting Stars and F-84 Thunderjets dominated North Korea’s air space. That all changed, however, on November 1, 1950, when sleek, nimble, silver jets displaying the red star of international Communism filled the skies, demonstrating a marked superiority to anything the USAF had in theater. The enemy jet was the now-legendary MiG-15, and on April 12, 1951, MiGs intercepted thirty-six B-29 bombers under escort by nearly one hundred F-80s and F-84s.  After inflicting tremendous damage on the bombers while overwhelming all efforts by the American fighters to blunt their attacks, the enemy planes turned North and shot away unscathed. American Bomber command abruptly halted daylight sorties over enemy territory and our B-29 Super-fortresses remained grounded for three months while the situation was frantically reassessed.

MIG 15

The MiG 15, Commie pilots, Nazi technology, Rolls Royce engines.

Consternation over the Commie jet with Rolls Royce engines (the Russians being our loyal allies during WWII, remember?) flying at 600 mph while blowing our bombers out of the sky with a combination of 23-and-37 mm cannon, swept the avionics industry back home. The existence and development of the Soviet jet was known to U.S. intelligence, but nobody expected the Russians to commit it to action in Korea, and nobody entirely realized its potential in battle.  It seems unbelievable from our present vantage point that swept wings were not immediately recognized as integral to the MiG’s superior flight characteristics. In fact, back at North American Aviation the word was that their new XP-86 was about to be cancelled by the Air Force because despite being lighter and marginally faster than the Navy’s FJ-1 Fury, early flight tests showed it performed similarly to the XP-80 and XP-84, neither of which could tackle MiGs with confidence.

Be that as it may, a Navy F9F “Panther” won the first jet-to-jet fight in Korea.

Back in Ohio, North American’s designers brainstormed frantically in search of some game changing tweak that could rekindle the XP-86’s fortunes. It was then that a handful of imported technicians with less than salubrious past affiliations proved helpful. A cadre of officially Americanized German aerodynamicists looked at the MiG and nodded knowingly. The former Nazis already knew that swept wings not only reduced drag substantially, but also minimized the effects of “compressibility” –the problem that destabilized, and even disintegrated straight-winged aircraft when approaching the speed of sound. German data from the end of World War II proved that a swept wing combined with slats that ensured stability at lower speeds was the means by which jets could achieve transonic speeds and dogfight at the edge of the envelope.

The good guys....

The good guys arriving in the nick of time!

Thus, in the nick of time, (to generalize and oversimplify matters in our customary fashion), three squadrons of swept-winged F-86 “Sabres” arrived in the Far East and took to the skies over the Yalu River. This ended the primacy of the free-ranging MiG-15s. By the time our “police action” in Korea staggered to its conclusion in 1953, F-86 pilots were credited with shooting down 792 MiGs at a loss of only 78 Sabres, a victory ratio of ten to one. True, The Soviets (who were actually flying a lot of the MiGs) and their Red Chinese and North Korean comrades, claim to have knocked down in excess of 600 F-86 Sabres, but these claims meet our editorial standards for denunciation as commie lies, besides which production figures at North American make the estimate implausible, besides which any kid who grew up reading war comics knows the F-86 kicked butt.

comic panel

Russ Heath’s original comic book panel, swiped by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein who inexplicably turned Heath’s Sabre into a P-51 in his classic pop-art painting “Whaam!”


When things got “Strange”…


Care to venture a guess as to how the Aardvark got its name?

One could make the case we made above about a lot of aircraft, from the P-51 Mustang through to the F-14 Tomcat and F-16, and we’d still get angry emails or nasty Reddit comments about the planes we forgot to mention–but you could place odds against the likelihood of anybody objecting that we omitted the F-111 Aardvark.

Having said that, we are fully aware that before its retirement in the mid-90’s, the “Aardvark” performed certain duties with considerable aplomb. These included executing President Reagan’s one-night-long air war against Libya, which sufficed to put Qaddafi [this month’s spelling] out of the terrorism business (despite which, of course, Mrs. Clinton later had him butchered for good behavior), and delivering precision weaponry on target during the first Persian Gulf War.  Aardvark enthusiasts might also tout the aircraft’s many innovative qualities, and we fully agree; the F-111 was the first warplane to employ the “swing wing” technologies, for example, later applied by Grumman in designing the Tomcat.


TRUE FACT: The legendary F-14 Tomcat did all its own stunts in the popular film “Top Gun.”

But here we are getting ahead of our own digression. Our purpose in mentioning the F-111 is to revisit the jet’s essential failures as a multi-purpose, money-saving aircraft.  And this means turning to a particularly distasteful subject, namely, Robert Strange McNamara.  Some of you, understandably, may not be familiar with the life achievements, or, for that matter, the very existence of Robert Strange McNamara, so let us swiftly review his storied career:

Brain Boy


Remember “Brain Boy” comics? Who knew Dell could do super heroes?

It isn’t everybody who gets a specific variety of logical miscalculation named after him, but Robert Strange McNamara received that dubious honor. The “McNamara fallacy” is best described by Daniel Yankelovich who nailed the phenomenon in his ’70s volume, Corporate Priorities: A Continuing Study of the New Demands on Business, writing:  “The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.”  These simple steps to disaster perfectly synopsize the managerial technique of the man they called the best and the brightest of two administrations.

Brain Boy

Even today, Americans with no recollection of 1958, probably recognize the name “Edsel.” The Edsel automobile was presented by Ford Motors as an automotive and design phenomenon that would rock the car industry, but it turned out to be a colossal failure, making the car’s name synonymous with epic marketing disasters. One reason the Edsel failed so ignominiously was Robert McNamara..

edsels-magesIt wasn’t that McNamara had anything to do with designing the Edsel–he rather more could be said to have un-designed it. He demanded the abandonment of the dual wheelbases and separate bodies used in the first Edsels of 1958, insisting that all Edsels share the basic Ford platform and use the Ford’s chassis structure. This reduced the struggling Edsel to little more than a glorified Ford sedan with idiosyncratic ornamentation. Next, McNamara cut the Edsel’s lavish advertising budget, and then slashed it a second time. This drove a spike through the project’s already degenerated heart; the Edsel became quickly extinct.

On to Havana!

Freshly ensconced in Camelot, McNamara beguiled JFK with his genius and immersed himself in solidifying plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion, a plan developed during Eisenhower’s tenure that became operational under Kennedy. The idea was that 1,500 Cubans, trained and equipped by the Central Intelligence Agency, would be hurled ashore in Cuba, backed by powerful naval and air support.  But  McNamara’s penchant for economizing soon found flaws in the logistical structure of the original plan, resulting in a last minute change of location for the assault. Less aviation fuel and air time were required to support an invasion if it was staged at beaches bordering the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) in Las Villas Province, so it seemed only logical to make the shift.

fl-bayofpigs-brigade-flag-jpg-20160420But the last minute change had real-world consequences that were unforeseen by the Whiz Kid and his devoted staff.Paratroops sent ahead to secure vital arteries of supply found themselves dropping into swampland from which their heavy equipment proved inextricable. Offshore masses that reconnaissance photos dismissed as “seaweed” turned out to be impenetrable coral reefs that stymied attempts to supply the invasion by sea.  It didn’t help that the Cuban people proved disinclined to throw themselves immediately into supporting the invasion. While JFK’s refusal to commit additional American assets (which could easily have decided the issue) sealed the fate of the bedraggled invaders, a generous portion of blame for the fiasco was ascribable to Robert McNamara.

On to Vietnam!

McNamara in his personal Huey, counting bodies while touring Vietnam.

It is an odd illustration of their differences that while Kennedy was saving the Green Berets from extinction, his Secretary of Defense was busy deciding that all branches of the military should wear the same shoes, hats, and uniforms–to save money.  In fact, McNamara seemed oblivious of any considerations related to tradition, morale, or even warcraft, focusing entirely on arithmetical factors related to the bottom line. To his credit, he helped Curtis LeMay and Eugene Stoner clear the way for the Armalite AR-15, but one cannot credit his role in surmounting conventional opposition to the weapon that entered service as the M-16 without adding that he was also substantially responsible for its initial tendency to jam in the Southeast Asian climate. The failure to chrome the chamber of M-16s was a cost-saving measure of the sort McNamara prided himself on. As Christopher R. Bartocci wrote in Small Arms Review,  “The blame here goes not to the Ordnance Corp but to the ‘Wiz Kids’ on Secretary of Defense McNamara’s staff who made all the decisions. This micromanagement of money in resources and decisions was made by people who had not the slightest clue about small arms.” Or cars, for that matter–or the drawbacks inherent in swampy amphibious landing zones.

Besides attempting to make Vietnam a war of attrition in accordance with his mathematical instincts (though having no bearing on realities in the field),the debaucher of the Edsel turned his attention to advanced aircraft design.  It amazed McNamara that the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marines each voiced individual demands for a jet fighter. Waste, waste, waste, he grumbled.

Pontificating on the path to victory in Vietnam…

Pilot and copilot sit side by side in the F-111–handy for Sunday drives, not so good for dog-fighting.

Obviously, McNamara explained, one plane that satisfied the requirements of each of the relevant services was the intelligent solution–a thrifty resolution to the entire menu of demands packaged as one, rather than several aircraft.  And just as obviously, McNamara was wrong again. It wasn’t that the F-111 was a bad airplane, it was just too many varieties of “good” to be good enough. It served too many masters to make a useful home with any.  Significantly, A fighter variant, the F-111B, was not accepted for production although the Air Force used the F-111 to good effect through 1967, and used variants into the ’90s.


Deja Vu all over again….

Lightnings burning brightly–by accident.

There can be little doubt that the McNamara method of masterminding haunted the F-35 from inception. Built to satisfy a plethora of service-driven demands, the aircraft came in overweight, under-powered, and over budget, and so expensively so that waves of F-22 Raptors might have been fielded instead.  But in the long run, is the deployment of the F-35 “Lightning”  another one-size-fits all, McNamara-style cluster flub with a stupendous price tag, or a boon to American air power where techno-wizardry and a basic Yankee willingness to spend the big bucks ultimately overcame a multitude of drawbacks?

Dems for close ground support…..

Smile! The A-10 remains a Democrat keeper.

One very real problem with the F-35 turns out to be the lobby for the A-10. No, nobody in congress (well, almost nobody) is dumb enough to suggest the Warthogs render the F-35s unnecessary, but the sentimental up-swell on the Hill sees the A-10s as too young to die. Sentiment aside, as Mike Stone writes at Reuters, “The negotiations over the A-10, which the Air Force has wanted to retire for more than two decades, show the extensive measures Democrats will take to protect their slim majority in the Senate.” If Democrats desperate to keep warplanes in service sounds a bit weird, consider that a base full of Warthogs contributes around three billion dollars per annum to neighboring economies.Thus, Democratic Senator Jack Reed, (e.g.) the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, prohibited any A-10 retirements in his draft of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.

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