IF Stone: Nixon and the Arms Race

Photo may be a misrepresentation—it shows this plane in the air

(This is a reprint from legendary journalist I.F. Stone's five-volume magnum opus, A Nonconformist History of our Times. I'm republishing it here because it exposes one of the major differences between the US's military procurement "system," and those of their "enemies," for example, Russia. The US system is there to make profits for the already-wealthy, while the, for example, Russians design and procure things they actually need. Though the stakes today are arguably higher than in the 1960s, and the sums involved even more astronomical, you'll have a hard time finding anyone in the current crop of US "journalists" who pursue the madness as doggedly as Stone did. One of the things this boondoggle brings to mind, of course, is the current effort in the West to throw oodles of money into the F-35 garbage pit—that garbage pit being, of course, Lockheed-Martin owners. Enjoy.)

The Bomber Boondoggle (1969)

The No. 1 question for the new Nixon Administration is what it will do about the arms race. If it opts for higher military spending, the consequence will be intensified social conflict. If the new President’s policies in office follow his campaign pledges, the decision has already been made. Nixon has begun by promising to perpetuate one of McNamara’s greatest errors and to undo his greatest accomplishment. The error is that miscarriage of an airplane, the TFX, now known as the F-111, which has already cost the country several billion dollars. His accomplishment was to make the country realize that at a certain point in the awful arithmetic of nuclear power, superiority in weapons became meaningless.

In his Security Gap speech over CBS on October 25, Nixon said that one of his major aims would be to “correct its [the Pentagon’s] over-centralization” in order to give greater weight in decision-making to the military as against the top civilians. “I intend to root out the ‘whiz kid’ approach, which for years,” Nixon said, “has led our policies and programs down the wrong roads.” But he is following McNamara down his most costly wrong road, just when the military have been proven right and the top civilians wrong, and indeed—as we shall see—on the one issue where the “whiz kids” sided with the military against McNamara. On the other hand, Nixon has set out, in the search for nuclear superiority, to follow the military down a dead-end path where the military are demonstrably wrong and the “whiz kids” are demonstrably right. To examine these two divergent courses is to see the trouble which lies ahead, on many different levels, for the new Administration and the country.

Let us begin with the TFX and with the speech Nixon made November 2 at Fort Worth, Texas. Fort Worth is where General Dynamics builds the TFX or F-111, the plane that was the focus of the longest and bitterest controversy of McNamara’s years in the Pentagon. “The F-111 in a Nixon Administration,” the candidate said at Fort Worth that day, “will be made into one of the foundations of our air supremacy.” This pledge, which received too little attention, may prove to be the biggest blooper of the campaign, and the beginning—if Nixon tries to keep that pledge—of the biggest fight between the Nixon Administration and the very forces he might have counted on for a honeymoon, the Senate conservatives who specialize in military policy and who were most critical of McNamara in the TFX affair. It is startling that a man as cautious as Nixon should have made so unqualified a pledge to a plane which has become a tragic joke.

Last May, when the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Department of Defense was holding hearings on the budget for the fiscal year 1969, the Chairman, Senator Russell of Georgia, booby-trapped the Air Force Chief of Staff, General McConnell, with what appeared to be an innocent question on this plane, the F-111:


Senator Russell: Would it be a very serious matter if one of these planes were recovered by any potential enemy in a reasonably good condition?

General McConnell: Yes, we have quite a few things in it that we would not want the enemy to get.

Senator Russell: That is mainly electronic devices.

General McConnell: That is true of practically all the aircraft we have.

Senator Russell: Of course the Russians got a B-29 when they were one of our allies. They fabricated a great many of them as nearly comparable to the B-29’s as they could. I was hoping if they got a F-111 they would fabricate some of them as near ours as they could and see if they had as much trouble as we did. It would put their Air Force out of business.1

Neither General McConnell nor his civilian superior Air Force Secretary Harold Brown dared say one word in reply to Senator Russell’s cruel jibe.

Russell’s sardonic view of the F-111 is shared on both sides of the aisle in the Senate. On October 3, Senator Curtis of Kansas, a senior Republican, a member of the Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee, delivered a devastating attack on the F-111 in the Senate, in which he said McNamara’s “obstinacy” in producing the F-111, “will be a major problem that the new Administration must face.” Just one month later Nixon began to face it by pledging himself at Fort Worth to make this plane “one of the foundations of our air supremacy.”

Either Nixon and his staff do not read the newspapers, much less the Congressional Record and the hearings, or Nixon like McNamara is determined to override military judgment and keep the billions flowing into General Dynamics for this jinxed plane. The difference is that when McNamara overrode the military, it was difficult for outsiders to judge so complex a technological controversy—especially when so many of the facts were still classified. Newspapermen like myself, who start with a strong bias against the military, assumed that McNamara was probably right. But 1968 is the year when the F-111 finally went into combat; the results have led many people inside and outside Congress to look at the old controversy with a fresh eye.

Nixon’s reckless pledge was the only bright spot for the F-111 in the year 1968. The latest, 1969, edition of Jane's Aircraft2 says succinctly,


The 474th Tactical Fighter Wing at Nellis [Air Force Base, Nevada] was the first to be equipped with the F-111As [the Air Force version of the F-111]. Six aircraft from Nellis arrived at the Takhli base in Thailand on 17 March 1968 and made their first operational sorties over Vietnam on 25 March. Two were lost in the next five days.

The foreword, which went to press later, says “Three of the first 8 F-111As dispatched to Vietnam were lost in a matter of weeks and the type was grounded shortly afterwards.” No mention was made of these losses by Secretary of the Air Force Brown when he read his prepared statement to the Senate appropriations defense subcommittee in executive session last May 6. On the contrary, he said the F-111 “is proving, in its tests and operational units, to be an outstanding aircraft.” By then three of the original six had been lost, as may be seen from the following colloquy, where the reader will notice Secretary Brown’s squeamish reluctance to use the word “lost”:

Senator Russell: How many of these have we sent over to Southeast Asia?

Secretary Brown: We sent six and have sent two replacements.

Senator Russell: You have lost three, so you have five?

Secretary Brown: There are five there now.

Senator Russell: Do you have any information on these three that were lost? Do you know whether any of them fell into the hands of the North Vietnamese to be sent to Moscow along with all the secret equipment of the Pueblo?

General McConnell [Air Force Chief Staff]: No, sir.3


In his Senate speech of October 3, Senator Curtis disclosed, “Thus far, 11 F-111 aircraft have crashed with a number of fatalities.” He revealed that the wings were broken off one plane during a “static ground test” just six weeks before the first six planes were deployed to Southeast Asia, and that the week before his Senate speech another F-111A had crashed during a training flight owing to “a fatigue failure in the wing carrythrough structure.”

If rightists treated Nixon and the Defense Department the way he treated the State Department in the days when he was a practicing witch-hunter, a proposal to make such a plane, with such a record, a foundation stone of American air supremacy would have been adduced as proof positive that the Pentagon had been infiltrated with Red and pinko saboteurs.

Last January the British Royal Air Force canceled its order for 50 F-111K’s. In March Congress ordered work stopped on the F-111B’s, the version for the U.S. Navy. On October 7, Senator Symington followed Senator Curtis with a speech suggesting that production of the F-111’s for the Air Force also be stopped: he said that “the series of crashes in the past five months” makes it doubtful that it will ever prove to be “a truly reliable airplane” and declared that its future should “receive highest priority upon convening of the new Congress.”

The strangest discovery which turns up in studying Nixon’s pledge at Fort Worth is that he and his staff were either unaware of, or ignored, his own famous “position papers.” The one on “Research and Development: Our Neglected Weapon,”4 which was made public in May, 1968, says of the F-111:


The effort to transform the TFX (F-111) into an all-purpose all-service aircraft has created serious problems. Against military advice, the F-111 was selected as a superior, yet economical, weapons system.... The aircraft were to cost approximately $2.4 million each. Now they are priced at more than $6 million each.... In view of the recent decision that the F-111B, the Navy version, is unacceptable, and a substitute aircraft be initiated, the final cost of the program will increase enormously coupled with years of delay. The program has resulted in the Air Force having a new aircraft that does not meet the original requirements.... The F-111B has been found unacceptable and the F-111 Bomber version does not meet Air Force requirements for an advanced bomber in the 1970 time frame.

Nixon devoted one of his main campaign speeches to “the research gap.” The Fort Worth speech showed his own research gap. Did he and his staff fail to read their position papers? Another of these papers, “Decisions on National Security: Patchwork or Policy?” is also in conflict with his Fort Worth speech. That paper says “a notable example” of how the top civilians overrode military judgment in the McNamara years was the original award of the contract for the F-111. “The contractor unanimously recommended by both the military analysts and the Weapons Evaluation Systems Group,” it says, “was rejected.” The rejected bidder was Boeing. The contractor McNamara chose was General Dynamics. Nixon at Fort Worth affirmed the same choice.

We are not dealing here with a minor item. General Dynamics is the country’s biggest weapons producer. A Defense Department press release of November 18 on the nation’s top 10 defense contractors showed General Dynamics as No. 1. In the fiscal year ending last June 30, it received $2.2 billion in arms contracts, or 5.8 percent of the total awarded in those 12 months. More than 80 percent of the firm’s business comes from the government. The TFX represented the biggest single plum in military procurement. The original contract was for 1,700 planes at a total cost of $5.8 billion, or about $3 million per plane. These figures have since skyrocketed. This year, before the Navy contract was cancelled, the Pentagon admitted the cost of the Navy version would be $8 million apiece and of the Air Force version $6.5 million. As usual these, too, were understatements. Senator Curtis disclosed that the contractor’s cost information reports put the average cost of the Navy plane at $9.5 million and that internal budgeting projections at the Pentagon put the Air Force plane at $9.1 million each. The original contract would have run up in the neighborhood of $ 15 billion.

Even with the cutbacks, more than $6 billion has already been spent and at least between $3 and $4 billion more “will be added in succeeding years,” Senator Curtis said, “if present Defense Department plans are carried to completion.” If Nixon keeps his word, they will be completed, perhaps expanded. But if he tries to do so, he will almost certainly find himself embattled with the Air Force buffs in Congress. For Curtis, Symington, Russell, and McClellan speak for a group of Senators who feel that the Air Force has been starved and stunted while all this money has been wasted on the TFX. We are in the presence of a wide-open split not only between the proponents of General Dynamics and Boeing respectively but within the Air Force and the whole military-industrial complex.

History is repeating itself, and it is the history of subordinating military efficiency to moneyed and political pressures. The only difference is that Nixon will find it harder than did McNamara to hide the realities, now that the F-111 has finally begun to fly—and fall. When the Kennedy Administration took over, General Dynamics was drifting close to receivership. It lost $27 million in 1960 and $143 million in 1961. Fortune magazine in January and February of 1962 published a fascinating two-part story of its mis-judgments and its business losses by Richard Austin Smith. Smith said its losses on its civilian plane business had been so disastrous that its working capital had dropped below the minimum required by its agreement with its bankers and that if the bankers had not reduced the minimum this “technically could have started the company down the road to receivership.” Smith wrote that the output of the General Dynamics plant at Fort Worth in 1962 would be half what it was in 1961. Fortune said, in its strangulated prose, that General Dynamics would have to shut down its facilities “unless it gets contract for joint Navy-Air Force fighter.” This was the TFX.

The TFX contract saved General Dynamics in 1962. The cancellation of the F-111 could ruin it in 1969. The effect of cancelling the Navy version of the plane was already reflected in a third quarter deficit, as of September 30, 1968, amounting to $1.51 a share compared with a net profit of $1.13 a share in the third quarter of 1967. Moody's News showed General Dynamics had to write off $39.6 million in contracts in 1968 as against only $12 million in 1967. Its net after taxes for the first nine months of 1968, after allowing for sales of assets which made the accounts look better than they otherwise would have, was only $9 million as compared with $36 million for the same period the previous year.

Standard & Poor's Outlook, October 7, 1968, said the stock of General Dynamics was “a speculation in the success of this F-111 program” and that “the most important price determinant over the near term will be developments in this trouble-plagued F-111 program.” The Value Line, October 18, said, “Since our July review the ever-sensitive stock market has sold these shares down to a two-year low.” It said that if the problems of the F-111 were not soon resolved, it was “vulnerable to further procurement cutbacks.” This was the bleak outlook two weeks before Nixon’s speech at Fort Worth. McNamara saved General Dynamics in 1962. Nixon promised on November 2 to save it again.

McNamara’s error on the TFX is worth close study because it shows the diminishing relationship between military procurement and genuine considerations of defense. It demonstrates the growing extent to which procurement is determined by military-bureaucratic and industrial considerations. The prime determinants were to save the largest company in the military-industrial complex financially and to appease the bomber generals, who simply will not admit that their expensive toys have grown obsolete. Billions which could do so much for poverty are squandered to maintain these favorite Pentagon clients on the military relief rolls in the lush style to which they have become accustomed.

General Dynamics, behind its glamorous front, is almost as much a creature of the government as the Air Force. In 1967 some 83 percent of its sales were to the government. Moody’s observes of the huge Fort Worth establishment, where Nixon gave so much solace to this peculiar form of free and private enterprise, that the “plant, including most machinery and equipment, is leased from the U.S. government.” The chief asset of General Dynamics seems to be its ability to wangle contracts out of the Pentagon.

The error in the TFX affair occurred on three levels, which have had varying degrees of attention, in inverse ratio to their importance. McNamara was wrong—so events seem to have proven—(1) in giving the TFX contract to General Dynamics instead of Boeing, (2) in insisting that the same basic plane be adopted for the diverse needs of the Air Force and Navy, and (3) in surrendering to the pressure of the Air Force for a new bomber and the Navy for a new missile weapons system to meet a nonexistent Soviet bomber threat just so they could go on with their expensive bomber game.

The first, the least important, got the most attention in earlier years, since it promised Republican and conservative Democratic critics of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations a scandal. But the shock of the Kennedy assassination cut short the McClellan committee investigation. A key figure was Roswell Gilpatric, a corporation lawyer who has done two tours of duty at the Pentagon, the first as Under Secretary of the Air Force in 1951-53 and again as Deputy Secretary of Defense in 1961-64, returning on each occasion to the famous Wall Street law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore, with which he has been associated since 1931. Through Gilpatric’s efforts the firm became counsel for General Dynamics in the late fifties, and Gilpatric has combined his law work with activity in foreign and military policy in the Council on Foreign Relations and as a member of the Rockefeller Brothers Special Study project, which called for a sharp increase in military expenditures in January, 1958. In 1960 he was named as adviser on national security affairs by Kennedy during his campaign for the Presidency and after the election became Deputy Secretary of Defense, No. 2 man to McNamara at the Pentagon. There he played a major role in awarding the TFX contract.

General Dynamics has always been adept at having friends at court. It chose for its president in the fifties a former Secretary of the Army, Frank Pace. The $400-million losses of its Convair division during his incumbency make one wonder whether his chief qualification for the job was that he knew his way around Washington. Similarly it did not hurt General Dynamics to have its ex-counsel as No. 2 man in the Pentagon while it was fighting for the contract which could alone save it from receivership. Nor was General Dynamics hurt by the fact that Fred Korth, whom the Kennedy Administration had for some unfathomable reason made Secretary of the Navy, was a Fort Worth, Texas, banker, a past president of the Continental Bank, which had loaned money to General Dynamics, “and that Korth had kept an active, though not a financial, interest in the activities of this bank”5 while in public office.

Korth told the McClellan committee “that because of his peculiar position he had deliberately refrained from taking a directing hand in this decision [within the Navy] until the last possible moment.”6 But it was “the last possible moment” which counted. Three times the Pentagon’s Source Selection Board found that Boeing’s bid was better and cheaper than that of General Dynamics and three times the bids were sent back for fresh submissions by the two bidders and fresh reviews. On the fourth round, the military still held that Boeing was better but found at last that the General Dynamics bid was also acceptable.

It was at this last moment that the award was made to General Dynamics. The only document the McClellan committee investigators were able to find in the Pentagon in favor of that award, according to their testimony, was a five-page memorandum signed by McNamara, Korth, and Eugene Zuckert, then Secretary of the Air Force, but not— interestingly enough—by Gilpatric. Senator Curtis charged in his Senate speech on October 3, that some months after the contract was announced in November, 1962, “a team of experts was assembled in the Pentagon to review the designs.... The experts were directed to find strong points for General Dynamics and weak points for Boeing so the decision could be defended in Senate hearings.”

During the McClellan committee hearings in 1963, Senator Ervin of North Carolina focused on another angle to this contract when he said to McNamara, “I would like to ask you whether or not there was any connection whatever between your selection of General Dynamics, and the fact that the Vice President of the United States happens to be a resident of the state in which that company has one of its principal, if not its principal office.” The reference of course was to Lyndon Johnson, to Texas, and to Fort Worth. McNamara answered, “Absolutely not.”7 In the dissolute atmosphere of Washington there were few to believe such political virginity possible. When General Accounting Office investigators asked McNamara how he came to override military judgment, “The Secretary said that, after finding the Air Force estimates inadequate for judging the cost implications of the two proposals [i.e., General Dynamics’ and Boeing’s], he had made rough judgments of the kind he had made for many years with the Ford Motor Company.” The most charitable comment is that the TFX, then, proved to be the Edsel of his Pentagon years.

Under normal circumstances one would have expected all this to be aired in the 1968 campaign. But the military-industrial complex plays both sides of the political fence, and the defense contractors are an easy source of campaign funds. Nixon not only kept silent but pledged himself to the very same plane. The same cynical charges made behind the scenes about the original TFX contract will no doubt be made again about Nixon’s reaffirmation of it. The first point in favor of General Dynamics was and is its financial weakness. Boeing, with a better record for engineering and on costs, is in good shape; half its business is commercial, a testimony to its reputation. Why let the weaker company go down the drain? The TFX affair illustrates the survival of the unfittest in the military-corporate jungle.

The second point in favor of General Dynamics was and remains political. General Dynamics is in Texas, a swing state with twenty-four electoral votes, and its biggest subcontractor on the F-111, Grumman, is in New York with forty-five electoral votes. Boeing would have produced the plane in Kansas, with eight votes, which go Republican anyway, and in the state of Washington with nine. Nixon’s November 2 pledge shows that any major new plane must show it can fly successfully through the electoral college. Nixon’s pre-election speech at Fort Worth recalls two other comparable appearances there, one opera buffa, one tragic. The former occurred on December 11, 1962, a month after General Dynamics won the TFX contract, when Johnson made a triumphant visit to the plant at Fort Worth and was greeted by union members waving banners which said “LBJ Saved the Day” and “We’re Here to Say Thanks to LBJ.”8 The other was the morning of November 22, 1963, a few hours before he was assassinated, when President Kennedy addressed a rally in Fort Worth and paid tribute to the TFX as “the best fighter system in the world.”9 For Johnson and Kennedy, as for Nixon, in the TFX contract electioneering and defense were inextricably mingled.

A key word in the TFX controversy was “commonalty.” McNamara wanted a plane which could be used by the Air Force and the Navy in common. With the cancellation of the contract for the Navy’s version of the F-111, the battle for commonalty between the two services was lost. But Nixon’s pledge on the F-111 shows that commonalty still exists in defense politics. For Republican as well as Democratic administrations, what is best for General Dyamics is best for the country.

This mention of “commonalty” brings us to the other two misjudgments involved in the TFX decision. One was to try to build one plane for many diverse Air Force and Navy missions. The other was to counter a Soviet bomber threat which does not now exist and is unlikely ever to come into being. With these misjudgments10 we come to technological details which must become part of public knowledge if we are to understand the expensive and nightmarish nonsense in which the arms race has engulfed us.

President-elect Nixon, as we have seen, pledged himself to “root out ‘the whiz kid’ approach” to national defense. As it happens, the “whiz kids” were as opposed to the TFX as generals and admirals were to the idea of trying to build a common plane for both services. “Pressure within the Defense Department for a single sophisticated multimission aircraft [using the new swing-wing design] came from the Office of Defense Research and Engineering, which .was headed in the early 1960s by Harold Brown, the present Secretary of the Air Force,” Congressional Quarterly reported last February 16. “Although the concept was opposed by the young systems analysts that Defense Secretary McNamara had brought with him to the Pentagon, they were not then in a position to conduct a running battle with Brown. At the time the Office of Systems Analysis was subordinate to the Pentagon comptroller, which was one level below Brown.” Nixon to the contrary, this mistake might not have been made if the “whiz kids” had had more influence.

McNamara had been trying to cut down duplication in supplies among the three services, a source of enormous waste, and he accomplished substantial savings in this field. His critics in Congress say privately that to an automobile man, accustomed to mounting various kinds of cars on much the same chassis, the idea of using the same “chassis” in military planes must have seemed a natural. Indeed to an outsider there seems to be little reason why the same plane should not be used by the various services for the same type of mission. Why—for example—can’t the Air Force and the Navy use the same dogfighter?

The trouble in the case of the TFX or F-111 is that the Air Force and the Navy had such diverse missions to be performed by the common plane on which McNamara insisted. It is being built for a tactical fighter, a long-range strategic bomber, a reconnaissance plane, and—until the Navy contract was canceled—a new weapons system, a plane carrying a new type of missile.

The Navy wanted the plane to be light enough for a carrier but big enough to carry a special missile—the Phoenix —and a big load of radar equipment. Its Naval mission would be to loiter hour after hour over the fleet to protect it from a nuclear supersonic bomber attack; the radar would enable the plane to detect an incoming plane and hit it with the missile far enough away so that the fleet would be safe from nuclear blast and radiation. The Air Force wanted the plane to be able to fulfill a very different mission. It was to be able to fly at supersonic speed under the radar defenses around the Soviet Union and then, after unloading its nuclear bombs on target, make altitude swiftly enough to elude not only enemy ack-ack or fighter planes but the effects of the nuclear blast it had set off. To fit one plane to two such diverse purposes would seem to require the ingenuity of a Rube Goldberg. This particular mistake has been thoroughly debated, since it serves intra-service animosity. There’s nothing the Navy hates worse than losing a battle to the Air Force.

A second level of misjudgment, the most basic of all, has hardly been discussed at all, at least in public. Here one is led to question the good sense of both the Air Force and the Navy. The Navy is still as full of bomber admirals as the Air Force is of bomber generals. They started the bomber gap nonsense in the fifties and still suffer from the obsessions which the arms lobby exploits so skillfully. “In the early 1950 s we were told the Russians were going to build thousands of supersonic bombers,” Senator Symington commented ruefully last May during the Senate hearings on the 1969 defense budget. “They did not build any long-range bombers of that type.”11 Symington was himself once the captive and spokesman of those inflated fears, as he was several years later of the “missile gap” campaign, which he later helped to expose as fraudulent.

In the hearings last April on “The Status of U.S. Strategic Power,” which reflected the views and fears of those who favor a bigger arms budget, Chairman Stennis said of the present Soviet bomber fleet, “I have never looked upon these bombers as a serious threat to the U.S. unless we just let our guard down completely. They are the same old bombers, the Bear and the Bison.” These are the subsonic bombers whose appearance in Moscow in the fifties set off the bomber gap scare. The Russians just aren’t spending money on long-range supersonic nuclear bombers when the same delivery job can be done so much more cheaply and quickly by missiles.

When Stennis’s Preparedness Subcommittee of Senate Armed Services filed its report October 4 on the U.S. Tactical Air Power Program, it said, “The F-111B [i.e., the Navy version of the F-111 armed with the Phoenix missile—IFS] was designed primarily for fleet air defense against a Soviet supersonic bomber. But that threat is either limited or does not exist.” Yet the Navy, having got rid of the F-111B, is planning its new VFX-1 to carry a Phoenix missile for use against the same non-existent supersonic Soviet bomber attack. The Navy insisted in the fiscal 1969 hearings that the Phoenix-armed plane “is the only system that provides the Navy with an acceptable level of Fleet Air Defense for the 1970-80 era, particularly for any missile threat against the fleet.”12

This assumes that the Soviets will play the game our way and build the supersonic nuclear bombers the Phoenix is designed to counter. In chess, when one sees the other side concentrating his forces in one sector, one attacks in another. But our Joint Chiefs of Staff do not seem to play chess. Congressional Quarterly, which has good sources in the Pentagon, reported last May 3 that many Navy aviators were hostile to both the F-111B and its successor, the VFX-1 project, for a Phoenix-armed plane. It quoted a Pentagon source as saying the whole program was based on a false premise. It said Soviet doctrine envisioned the use of fighters, submarines, and missile-launching patrol boats instead of nuclear supersonic bombers for attacks on carriers and battleships. Obviously an attack would come where the other side can see we are least prepared. The Phoenix is likely to prove not only a waste of funds but an impediment to genuine defense by concern rating on a threat which does not exist now and is not likely to exist later.

The main Air Force mission for the F-111 is a reflection of the same bomber delusions, but on a larger scale. To see this in perspective one must step back and observe that we now have three major ways of destroying the Soviet Union. One is the ICBM, the intercontinental ballistic missile. The second is the submarine-launched nuclear missile, the Polaris. The third is the intercontinental bomber force of the Strategic Air Command. Any one of these three forces can itself deliver much more than the 400 megatons which McNamara estimates would destroy three-fourths of the Soviet Union’s industrial capacity and 64 million people, or one-third its population.

Of the three mega-murder machines, the only one which can be stopped is the bomber fleet. It’s an expensive luxury, a toy on which the bomber generals dote, and which the aircraft industry is only too happy to supply. High-flying bombers cannot get through the Soviets’ radar and SAM (surface-to-air) missile defenses. So the F-111 is designed to duck low under Soviet radar defenses, drop nuclear bombs, and make a high, fast getaway, all at supersonic speeds. The basic argument against the F-111 is that if we ever want to hit major targets in the Soviet Union, we would do so with missiles which can reach their targets in thirty minutes with fifteen-minute warning time instead of planes whose flight and warning time would be measured in hours. If we tried to use bombers first, they would only warn the enemy and provide plenty of time for retaliatory missile strikes against our cities. If these bombers were to be used for a second strike after a Russian attack on us, the bombers (if any were left) would arrive hours after the missiles, and there would be little if anything left to destroy anyway. The intercontinental bomber is a surplus and obsolete deterrent but one and one-third billion dollars is allocated to the F-111 in the fiscal 1969 budget, much of it for these bombers.

But this is not the end of this expensive nonsense. The military always assumes that the enemy will do what we do, that anything we produce they will produce. This is sometimes but not always true. The geographical and strategic situation of the Soviet Union is not the same as that of the United States; this dictates differences in weapons systems. In addition—no small consideration—the country which is poorer and has fewer resources to waste will be more careful in its expenditures. But we always estimate that the enemy will spend as prodigally as we do. This is how the bomber and missile gap scares originated. So we are spending billions to “keep ahead” of Soviet bombers and bomber defenses. We are also assuming that the Soviets will be as silly as we are and also build a fleet of F-111s to “get under” our radar defenses. So Congress has already embarked on another multi-billion-dollar program of building new radar “fences” and new types of interceptor planes to deal with these hypothetical Soviet F-111’s.

To make all this plausible, the Air Force does its best to hide from the Congress the true facts about the Soviet air force. Twice during the past year Senator Symington, who feels that the billions spent on this bomber are diverting funds which could more sensibly be spent on new fighter planes, has asked Pentagon witnesses for the numbers of the various Soviet bombers. “Do you believe,” he asked Dr. John S. Foster, Jr., Director of Defense Research and Development, “that the Soviet Union poses a serious bomber threat to the United States today?” The answer was “Yes, Senator Symington, I do.” Symington replied incredulously, “The Soviets have not built a bomber for years, except the Blinder—and the latter’s performance is not as good as the B-58 which we abandoned. In spite of that we now have to spend billions of dollars defending against bombers also.”

He then asked Dr. Foster to supply the Appropriations Committee with the numbers of each type of Soviet bomber. The numbers were deleted by the censor.13 But if one turns to McNamara’s final statement in the same hearings14 he gives the number of Soviet intercontinental bombers as 155, as compared with our 697. These Soviet bombers are mostly the old subsonic Bear and Bison bombers, neither of which could possibly duck under U.S. radar defenses in the way the F-111 is supposed to duck under the Soviet Union’s.

Even the report on The Status of U.S. Strategic Power filed last September 27 by the Senate’s Preparedness Subcommittee under Senator Stennis, which argues for larger arms expenditures, says, “There is no evidence that the Soviets are proceeding with the development of a new heavy bomber and, should they elect to develop one, it is probable we would see indications of the program three to four years before the aircraft becomes operational.”

To counter this, the Air Force sophists have come up with a new argument. When Senator Symington asked Dr. Foster, as head of Pentagon research and development, why they were planning new types of bomber defense against non-existent types of Soviet planes, Dr. Foster, replied, “discouragement of Soviet aspirations to develop a more advanced bomber.”15 But why spend billions to discourage the Soviets from building a bomber they show no signs of building anyway?

Another favorite reason often used by the Air Force may be found in Air Force Chief of Staff General McConnell’s presentation to the Stennis hearings on strategic power last April. “A bomber force,” the general said, “causes the Soviets to continue to develop bomber defenses rather than concentrating their expenditures just on missile defenses.”16So we waste money to make them waste money. Though we are richer, this may be worse for us than them, because our planes are far more elaborate and expensive.

Since the Air Force thus admits that there is no sign as yet of a new supersonic Soviet bomber able to penetrate our existing defenses, why does it go on talking of a Soviet bomber “threat”? As usual, it turns out that this simple word has an unexpected meaning in the special language developed at the Pentagon. This prize item of military semantics may be found in the testimony of Air Force Secretary Brown to these same Stennis committee hearings. Dr. Brown was explaining to the committee that if Soviet antiaircraft defenses were improved and we had to build in additional “penetration aids” to get past more efficient radar devices, we would have to build bigger bombs than we now have. “Otherwise,” he said, “we will find ourselves carrying many penetration aids and comparatively few weapons.” Dr. Brown went on to say there was “general agreement” at the Pentagon that such an advanced U.S. bomber “probably will be needed at some time in the future” but just when would depend on “how fast and far the Soviet threat is likely to evolve.” Then he explained, “By threat here we are principally talking about Soviet defenses against bombers.”17

The threat, in other words, is not that they might be able successfully to attack us with their bombers but that they might build up their anti-bomber defenses to the point where we might not be able to attack them successfully with our bombers! It would be only a short step from this to defining aggression as the building of defenses to discourage an enemy attack.

The reductio ad absurdum is in a passage I found in the fiscal 1969 defense budget hearings before the House Ap-proriations Committee. Mahon of Texas, the able chairman of the defense subcommittee, was questioning Air Force officials about the Soviet bomber menace. Here is the colloquy which spills the whole and final truth about this costly nightmare:


Mr. Mahon: Officials of the Department of Defense have not indicated to this committee that they think the Soviets will go very strong on the manned bomber. They will rely principally on the ICBM. Is that right?

General McConnell [Air Force Chief of Staff]: That is the consensus.

Mr. Mahon: The Air Force has a little different view?

General McConnell: [Deleted by censor],

Mr. Mahon : [ Deleted by censor ].

General McConnell : I Deleted by censor ].

Mr. Mahon: How long have the Soviets had, Secretary [of the Air Force] Brown, to develop a follow-on18 bomber?

Secretary Brown: They have had ten years.

Mr. Mahon: Have you seen any evidence?

Secretary Brown: I see no evidence of it, Mr. Chairman. The Air Force view is at least as much a view that “they ought to have one” as it is “they will have one.”19


Billions in contracts for new bombers and new bomber defense are threatened should the Russians stubbornly persist in not building a new bomber force. In extremity perhaps Congress might be persuaded to add the Soviet Union to our foreign aid clients and give them an advanced bomber force to keep the U.S. aircraft business strong and prosperous. Or General Dynamics and the other big companies in the military-industrial complex might pass the hat among themselves and buy Moscow a new bomber. Should those old obsolete subsonic Bears and Bisons stop flying altogether, it would be a catastrophe for Fort Worth, a form of economic aggression in reverse. Ours—the rich man’s strategy—is to make the Russians waste their resources by wasting ours. Theirs—the poor man’s strategy—might be to strike a mortal blow at the arms business here by cutting their own expenditures to the minimum the balance of terror requires.

Nothing so terrifies the military-industrial complex as this notion of a minimum deterrent, as we shall see when we analyze Nixon’s pledge to restore that crucial notion of “nuclear superiority,” about which McNamara had finally succeeded in making the country see a little sense.

January 2, 1969 New York Review

1 Senate Appropriations Committee Hearings on the 1969 Defense Department budget, Part I, Department of the Air Force, p. 103. Released September 19, 1968.

2 John W. R. Taylor, ed., Jane's All the World’s Aircraft, 1968-69 (New York: McGraw-Hill), p. 279.

3 Senate 1969 Defense Appropriations Hearings, op. cit., pp. 102-3.

4 All these position papers have been reprinted in a one-volume compilation, Choice for America: Republican Answers to the Challenge of Now, published July, 1968, by the Republican National Committee, 1625 Eye St. N.W., Washington 20006.

5 Robert J. Art, The TFX Decision (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), p. 4.

6 Ibid., p. 5.

7 Idem.

8 Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 12, 1962, quoted in McClellan Committee hearings on the TFX, Part X, p. 2658.

9 Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy 1963, p. 887.

10 I venture to speak so dogmatically not only because of what has happened this year to the F-111, but because among men at the Pentagon devoted to McNamara I have found no one who does not feel the TFX was a mistake.

11 1969 Senate Defense Appropriations Hearings, Part V, p. 2664.

12 Ibid., Pan IV, p. 1426.

13 See p. 2362, 1969 Defense Department Budget Hearings, Part IV.

14 Ibid., Part V, p. 2718.

15 Ibid., p. 2719.

16 “Status of US Strategic Power,” Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, 90th Congress, 2nd Session, April 30, 1968, Part II, p. 169.

17 Ibid., p. 179.

18 Air Force lingo for a new bomber.

19 House Appropriations Committee Hearings on the Fiscal 1969 Defense Budget, Executive Session, February 26, 1968, Part I, p. 751.

The F111 in its natural habitat—on the ground

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