Clear the Fog of War

By Joe Messina 

In the military, officers are warned to prepare for the fog of war. Once the shooting starts, it can be difficult to understand what is going on. A good officer will learn to sort through the noise and zero in on what’s important.

These days, though, there’s a different sort of fog around our military. This one isn’t being caused by a shooting war. Instead, it’s being generated around the appropriations process, to keep the rest of us from figuring out what’s going on with the military’s process for acquiring weapons. The goal seems to be to distract from an expensive, ineffective weapons system. It started with attacks on the acting Secretary of Defense.

Patrick Shanahan took over the Pentagon at the beginning of this year after his mentor, Gen. James Mattis, resigned. Shanahan has just recently been nominated to hold the job permanently, which will lead to Senate hearings and investigations. But we already know what the investigators will find: that Shanahan is a true professional, with nothing to hide and plenty to brag about.

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How do we know that? Because Shanahan’s opponents have already used anonymous leaks to force a Pentagon investigation, a probe that cleared Shanahan completely.

The rumors are odd, but understandable in context. The Pentagon’s Inspector General writes that Shanahan was accused of taking “actions to promote his former employer, Boeing, and disparage its competitors, allegedly in violation of his ethical obligations.” The allegations were picked up by inside-the-Beltway news outlets including Bloomberg and Politico, and were forwarded by liberal senators to the Pentagon.

Well, Shanahan spent decades at Boeing (which is a great training ground for a Defense Secretary, by the way). So at least the allegations are plausible. However the Pentagon’s extensive report cleared Shanahan completely.

“We reviewed more than 5,600 pages of unclassified documents and approximately 1,700 pages of classified documents related to the allegations and the relevant major defense acquisition systems,” the report says. In the end, “We did not substantiate any of the allegations. We determined that Mr. Shanahan fully complied with his ethics agreements and his ethical obligations regarding Boeing and its competitors.”

Further, “We also determined that Mr. Shanahan’s comments about Boeing’s competitors were directed at holding contractors accountable and saving the Government money, consistent with his duties as the Deputy Secretary of Defense, rather than to disparage particular companies and individuals, or to promote Boeing.”

So that should help clear some of the fog. But what’s the war? Well, it seems to be about old fashioned appropriations. Some people are, apparently, unhappy that the Air Force wants to improve its fighting ability by buying the next generation of F-15, the F-15X (made by Boeing). Instead, they seem to want to military to remain reliant on the F-35 (made by Lockheed Martin).

The facts here show that F-35s have problems. They’re very expensive ($100 million each). They have many technical drawbacks. And they were designed to “do it all,” serving not simply the Air Force, but the Navy and Marine Corps as well. That made the F-35 a “jack-of-all-trades,” but master on none.

On the other hand, the Air Force recognizes it needs variety. It can have new F-15X models that do exactly what it needs for about $80 million each. The purchase would be on top of, not in place of, the F-35. That seems like a crystal clear win for everyone: the military, the defense contractors, and certainly the American people, who’ll be getting the best defense weapons in the world.

It’s time to move past the fog of war, and get on with buying the weapons that win wars. The F-15X is a necessary ingredient, one our Air Force needs and deserves.

Joe Messina is host of the nationally syndicated The Real Side/with Joe Messina, he is a former tech industry executive and analyst for Johnson Controls, Entex Technologies and American Express.

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