Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bad Week for the USAF 

Certainly not a winning week for the Air Force. Already reeling from the high-profile dismissal of both its uniformed and civilian leader, the USAF was slammed again in two major stories this week.

First, the GAO slammed the Air Force's procurement procedures with a stinging rebuke of its decision to award its major tanker contract to the Northrup-Grumman. The USAF has been looking to upgrade its tanker fleet for years but the entire process has been clouded by scandal. There was the ill-fated sweetheart lease deal for Boeing. There was the criminal interference by senior Boeing leaders and a senior civilian AF official, where the official steered contracts to Boeing in return for a job after retiring from government (this led to actual jail time). Supposedly this competition for the tanker contract would move beyond the dysfunction, but alas, no. The Boeing team cried foul after it lost the contract, and as it turns out, the GAO found substantial problems with the process and recommended the Air Force scrap the existing contract and start all over again.

The Post quoted one analyst:
"We've not seen a document as scorching as this from an independent, nonpolitical agency," he said. "They are essentially saying there is either incompetency in the Air Force or there was political interference that led them to bend over backwards to benefit one competitor because they feared the power of the purse strings. Either way, the Air Force procurement system has gone horribly, horribly wrong."
Given that they were bending over backward to avoid the political interference given the outcome of the previous tanker debacle, I'd lean toward incompetency.

On top of that, we learn from the NYT that the Army, fed up with the Air Force, recently stood up its own air unit to provide UAV surveillance in Iraq.
Since the days of the Key West Agreement, the Army has only maintained rotary aircraft (helicopters) while the Air Force took care of all fix-winged air assets. This has led to years of inter-service tension, as the Army must depend on the Air Force for transport, close air support, and recon/surveillance. The Air Force has long focused on its strategic role (nukes), with an emphasis on fighters and bombers, leaving the help-the-Army portions of the service to play second fiddle.

This overall attitude certainly played a role in Gates decision to fire the top AF brass. Note the discrepancy in assessment of the USAF in today's active combat zones:
Army and Marine Corps officers in Afghanistan have complained that Air Force pilots flying attack missions in support of ground operations do not come in as low as their Navy and Marine counterparts. Instances of civilian casualties from bombing and missile attacks have increased tensions among local populations, which have to be eased by ground commanders, adding to their burden of winning hearts and minds in the counterinsurgency efforts.

“We are supporting the Army as best we can,” Michael W. Wynne, the departing Air Force secretary, said Friday.

Its pretty clear that a large part of the defense establishment has concluded that "as best we can" is not good enough.

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

B-2 Crash 

A little water, and $1.4 billion goes up in flames...

via Rob at LGM

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Being there 

In the latest incarnation of the Iraq war issue in the general election, John McCain is criticizing Barak Obama because Obama hasn’t been to Iraq in some time, and therefore, he’s not qualified to comment on Iraq policy because he hasn’t “been there” to “see it for himself.”

Rhetorically, it’s a slick move by McCain. Take a widely perceived negative, his support of the war, and turn it into a positive by emphasizing experience and criticizing Obama’s capacity for sound judgment. There was some press speculation that Obama might now need to visit Iraq as a candidate to blunt this line of attack, which plays into McCain’s hands because its debating the issue on his turf.

This, however, raised a larger issue for me, one with implications not just for the election, but for research methods in the social sciences. Namely, how important is it to be there (or have been there) in order to make an argument and draw a defensible conclusion about a thing. We seem to have a fetish for certain types of experience, thinking it leads to insight about how certain things work. But such doesn’t always seem to be the case.

Take, for example, baseball. You’ll notice that the world of baseball analysts, managers, and team executives is replete with former players who supposedly “know the game” having been there and played it. For a long time this kind of claim to expertise ruled the day, until the “stat-heads” came along and showed that much of what the “baseball people” thought didn’t quite work that way. Hall of Fame player Joe Morgan is celebrated by some as one of the best baseball commentators for his work on ESPN’s Sunday Night baseball. He also has inspired a fantastic blog that revels in point out how foolish most of his comments are when subjected to statistical analysis. Can Bill James, who never played the game, know more about baseball than someone with a Hall of Fame career?

Back to Iraq and the election—can John McCain really “know more” about the war because he 1) served in the military and 2) has visited Iraq many times when compared to Obama who has 1) not served and 2) visited rarely, and not for some time? Does being there really matter? Can one develop and claim expertise from non-experiential research?

Now, before this becomes a stats vs. anthropology argument (as the baseball analogy might portend), I want to suggest that both McCain and Obama have an important point. It is important to be there, but being there alone does not necessarily mean that your evidence, evaluation, and conclusion is any more valid. I’m reminded of an ISA panel I attended, maybe this year, where a number of critical security scholars were discussing the state of the discipline, and one prominent senior member of the panel talked about how important it was to ‘be there,’ to get the mood of the place, to write from that perspective.

Just being there, however, doesn’t mean that you have greater access to “fact” or “Truth” than anyone else. Take McCain in Iraq. He goes on a CODEL. He meets with select troops, who are probably on their best behavior for the famous Senator. He meets with members of the Iraqi government, who probably ask him for stuff, hoping to work the levels of US political power. He tours a marketplace, with a brigade providing security. There’s no way he can get “out” to see the rest of the country, there’s no way he can meet with many of the forward deployed troops out on the FOB—a more representative sample is simply impossible for him. Its just too dangerous (and rightly, not worth the risk to him). Is it important that he goes? Sure. Does this mean that his assessment and evaluation of Iraq is fundamentally superior to Obama’s? Not really.

So, when McCain criticizes Obama, and when those in the “field” criticize those back at the desk, and those who played criticize those who haven’t, they have a very important point to make. Being there does shape and deepen your analysis about certain things in certain ways. But not everything, and not always in the most appropriate way. Just because you were there doesn’t mean you saw the whole picture while you were. Just because you were there doesn’t mean you paid attention to the things you later comment on as an expert. Just because you were “there” doesn’t mean that you are able to understand how “there” is now relevant “here.”

In the social sciences, we arbitrate these disputes with our methodology. We ask—what did you do while you were there, in the field? What did you read while sitting in your office? The methodology gives us a standard for what counts as enough knowledge about a thing or place on which to offer meaningful analysis.

In the campaign, it looks like we might have “We’re winning, can’t you see?” vs. “You were wrong then and you’re wrong now.”

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