320 billion with a b
Monday, April 2 2007
I read something at Slate.com this morning that I found unusually dispiriting. It concerned the increasing effectiveness of bombs dropped by conventional military bombers, and what this means in the pork-and-inertia plagued world of military appropriations. For better or worse, the United States of America is now world policeman, doing a job reminiscent of the Sorcerer's Apprentice as it tries to enforce a global Pax Americana. And to keep evil countries in line, one of the principle tools in the American toolbox has been the dropping of bombs on strategic targets. According to the Slate article, in World War II the only way to bomb anything was to dump thousands of dumb explosives from many airplanes, since on average these bombs only came within a mile of their intended targets (though in cloudless daylight conditions the Norden bombsight proved helpful). By the Vietnam war, bomb sights had improved to the point where bombs could be expected to land within hundreds of feet of their intended targets. But by the early 1990s, progress with bomb targeting had run into a wall and was no longer improving. At that point military planners invested in systems to accurately deliver bombs from smaller fighter jets, which must fly much closer to their targets before making the delivery. And, since the bombs must then fly themselves like weak cruise missiles to their final destinations, they contain rocket engines, fuel tanks, and complex guidance systems, making each explosion cost about a million dollars. You have to really hate something to spend a million dollars just to blow it up.
While these complex bombs delivered by fighter jet were being developed, a number of unexpected breakthroughs came in high-altitude bomb design. Now, using the Global Positioning System and simple remote-controlled fins, a bomb dropped from 40,000 feet has an accuracy of about ten feet. The need for bombs delivered by fighter jet has all but evaporated. No longer do we need to use highly-skilled pilots to fly dangerous missions to deliver expensive bombs to targets; the skills needed to fly a high-altitude bomber are the same as those used in flying a commercial airline, and there are few nations with the surface-to-air capability necessary to make such missions risky.
In a rational society, then, you'd imagine that the plug would immediately be pulled on the development of bomb systems delivered by low-altitude fighter jets. According to the Slate article, the savings that would result would be on the order of 320 hundred billion dollars. That's right, billion dollars. That's the sort of figure that could be used to completely overhaul the broken American medical system. Or, if you're a Republican and want to break stuff instead, fight a war against Syria. (I'm guessing fighting a war against Iran would cost a bit more even than that.)
But ours is not a rational society. 320 billion dollars is a lot of money, and it has a huge constituency of people who think they're going to get some of it. In our democracy, there isn't the political will to change course and disappoint the many corporations, congressional districts, and voters who are slated to get their portion of this money. And the will doesn't exist within the military either. In the airforce, high altitude bombers are not considered sexy and pilots (both new and veteran) are naturally supportive of weapons systems that allow them to play Luke Skywalker.
According to the Slate article, the stunning improvements to high altitude bombing aren't being trumpeted by the Pentagon because if that news were to become widely-known, the many people not benefiting from the 320 billion dollars being spent to deliver an obsolete weapon system might become a little, well, politically restive. I for one can't imagine a better scenario. I think a very good investment of some of George Soros' billions would be a nationwide ad campaign educating people about the 320 billion dollars that is being squandered on an unnecessary weapon system.
Gretchen's friend Mary Purdy, who has been visiting the east coast from her new home in Seattle, rode a bus up from the City today to visit us. She and Gretchen caught up on old times while Gretchen cooked a several delicious Passover dishes in the kitchen. Later we drove to a seder in Lake Hill (to the west of Woodstock). Interestingly, at the seder we were all given assigned seats in an arrangement designed so that no one sat near anyone they knew. Unfortunately for me, though, I found myself seated between a bore and a bitch.
For dessert a flour-free chocolate cake was served. It's hard to politely protest dessert, particularly when it is homemade, so I accepted by piece without protest. When I took one bite of it, however, I realized it was comprised of just chocolate, eggs, and sugar, a combination that I could not possibly eat. So as to not leave the whole fat slice on my plate, I cut it up into pieces and made several trips to the kitchen carrying chunks in my hand to throw into the trash.
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