Hurricane Michael, F-22 jets and the Report from Iron Mountain

Tyndall Air Force Base

Screen capture from drone footage

In the wake of the devastating Hurricane Michael, news reports from Tyndall Air Force Base, located just outside of Panama City, Florida, detailed extensive damage to somewhere between $5.8 billion and $7.5 billion worth of F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets left on the ground as the base was abandoned. [1] [2] This story reminded me of a 50-year-old book that was at the same time both a hoax and yet a prophetic truth about U. S. “defense” spending.

I first came across a slim volume entitled Report from Iron Mountain on the possibility and desirability of peace two years after it had been published in 1967. While it purported to be a leaked secret governmental report, even by 1969 it was widely considered to be a hoax, although it was a very readable and engaging one. Supposedly the summary of a secret, but leaked, study by fifteen economists and military experts ensconced in an underground nuclear bunker called Iron Mountain, the book controversially claimed that the cessation of war would be very destructive to the U.S. economy, and that societies required some kind of war-like outlet for diverting “collective aggression”:

“The attacks that have since the time of Samuel’s criticism of King Saul been leveled against military expenditures as waste may well have concealed or misunderstood the point that some kinds of waste may have a larger social utility.” [Report from Iron Mountain, p. 33]

Different sections of the report detailed how the economy in general, and many local communities in particular, had become dependent on defense contractors who built billions of dollars of military weaponry that would eventually just be blown up or otherwise destroyed, only to be built again and again to keep the jobs afloat. A slowdown in that cycle, claimed the report, would have a devastating effect on jobs and the social structure:

“Although we do not imply that a substitute for war in the economy cannot be devised, no combination of techniques for controlling employment, production, and consumption has yet been tested that can remotely compare to it in effectiveness. It is, and has been, the essential economic stabilizer of modern societies.” [Report from Iron Mountain, p.35]

The author of this report is today widely considered today to be satirist Leonard Lewin, the hoax pulled off with the cooperation of his editor at Dial Press, E. L. Doctorow, who later found fame as a novelist. The legendary economist John Kenneth Galbraith also appears to have had some input. Today you can find copies of this document online.

Which brings us to Hurricane Michael

When the October 2018 Hurricane Michael developed into one of the most destructive hurricanes ever to hit the United States, its strongest winds hit the Florida Panhandle shore just east of Panama City, the location of Tyndall Air Force Base. The base stretches for several miles along both sides of the shore-hugging route US-98, a route I have traveled many times on my way to Apalachicola. Tyndall is (or was) host to one of the largest contingents of advanced-technology F-22 fighter jets in the country. Because of Hurricane Michael, however, most of the base’s aircraft hangers, administrative buildings, and housing units were destroyed or made unusable, although the base had been evacuated with no apparent loss of life.

The emerging scandal, however, is the growing count of F-22 planes that were left behind, at this writing perhaps 17 to 22 jets, amounting to about 10% of the total F-22 contingent in the Air Force. By two published estimates, these planes cost $339 million or more each to produce, that dollar figure itself a long-standing boondoggle among military contractors. And to widen the scandal, the planes were apparently left behind, not out of incompetence, but rather because they were already not air-worthy and could not be safely removed from harm’s way.

The lack of air-worthiness for so many of these airplanes has been blamed on the advanced technology of these jets, but let me suggest that we have here the remnants of “Iron Mountain” thinking throughout our military structure and the politicians who fund it. The “opportunity cost” of one $300+ million airplane, especially an unusable one, can be thought of in terms of how much child health care, environmental cleanup, or infrastructure building could have been done with that money, but wasn’t, because, “Dammit, we need to build these airplanes!”

The manufacture of military weaponry is intentionally spread among as many congressional districts as possible (a strategy perhaps learned from “the Report”) in order to maximize congressional support. When we do ramp up this spending, as we did when we went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it never seems to get “ramped down” again. And of course our total spending dwarfs comparable militaries in any other country, including our greatest adversaries:

While our current President claims this level of spending is the result of other countries “not paying their fair share,” most defense experts will admit that we are “pissing away” many billions of dollars, such as in these “fragile technology aircraft,” and for planes and other weaponry that the armed forces do not want, [3] but rather are kept on “life support” by the Congressional representatives in the districts of manufacture.

Not coincidentally, this list of unwanted weaponry includes those very F-22 jets left to the ravages of Hurricane Michael. Going all the way back to 2009 we learn:

“The Air Force leadership itself no longer supports continued production of the F-22. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz have publicly said they would prefer to move on.” [4]

And of course, there will likely be no one called to account for either this abandonment of the jets nor for the procurement in the first place. As the Report from Iron Mountain predicted:

Economic surrogates for war must meet two principal criteria. They must be “wasteful,” in the common sense of the word, and they must operate outside the normal supply-demand system… An economy as advanced and complex as our own requires the planned average annual destruction of not less than 10 percent of gross national product if it is effectively to fulfill its stabilizing function. [p. 46]

If you don’t believe that this “fictional hoax” recommendation ought to be true, then this philosophy needs to be rooted out of the many places in the government that perpetuate it, because we continue to spend as if this is the case.


Notes:

  1. Miller, S.A. “10 Percent of Air Force’s $339 Million F-22 Fighter Jets Damaged in Hurricane Michael.” The Washington Times, 15 Oct. 2018.
  2. Philipps, Dave. “Exposed by Michael: Climate Threat to Warplanes at Coastal Bases.” The New York Times, 17 Oct. 2018.
  3. Chadwick, Lauren, and R. Jeffrey Smith. “Congress Funds Problematic Weapons the Pentagon Does Not Want.” Center for Public Integrity, 7 July 2016.
  4. Korb, Lawrence J., and Krisila Benson. “A Jet Even the Military Doesn’t Want.” Center for American Progress, 9 July 2009.

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