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When the admirals 'revolted'

Imagine this: You’ve settled onto the couch and turned on your favorite network TV show – say, “The X Factor” or “Dancing With the Stars.” After a few minutes of pop-culture frivolity, you’re about to change the channel at the commercial break when you see the smiling face of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz.

“Hi friends,” he says. “I’d like to take a moment of your time to tell you about the importance of something called the next-generation bomber.”

Then, as you snack your way through the next few spots for Ford or Budweiser, here comes Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert: “Hey, gang, you loved ‘Crimson Tide,’ right? Well wait’ll you hear about what we’ve got in store with the new Ohio-class replacement program!”

Bizarre? Implausible? Today it seems almost unthinkable, and perhaps even illegal, that the military services would try to communicate this directly with a general audience – but that wasn’t always the case. Back in 1949, the Air Force and Navy fought a national public relations duel over the strategic future of the new Defense Department.

The still-new Air Force wanted its B-36 strategic bomber, and moreover, wanted to subsume almost all the functions of the Navy and Marine Corps. Air power could take over for all that boat nonsense, the service believed and besides, the wars of the future would be full-scale nuclear exchanges, not bathtub games. The Navy wanted big aircraft carriers – specifically, it wanted the revolutionary USS United States – so it could take its World War II-proven carrier battle groups into the jet and nuclear age.

When the Navy brass felt it was getting short shrift from the new DoD and Congress, it staged what has become known as the ‘revolt of the admirals’ – one of the earliest and still greatest Pentagon food fights of all time. Service officials battled up on the Hill. Seapower advocates prepared “secret” dossiers pointing up the supposed weaknesses and wastefulness of the B-36. Internecine skullduggery set the tone for the rest of the history of the unified Defense Department.

But maybe most extraordinary, from our perspective today, is that the services made their case to the American people in the most popular media of that era. Air Force allies wrote stories about the B-36 for Reader’s Digest. A Navy flag officer – get a load of this – wrote articles for the Saturday Evening Post, including one headlined “Don’t let them scuttle the Navy!” (His exclamation point, not ours.)

Although the carrier United States was scrapped on its ways and the B-36 was built, ultimately the Navy and Air Force both won. Strategic bombers and aircraft carriers remain twin fixtures of American power. Once again, however, their futures are murky, and once again, service leaders seem on the verge of throwing elbows to protect their arsenals against the big crunch.

All this history came to mind this week after the House Armed Services Committee’s latest series of anti-cuts hearings, all of which followed an identical script: Lawmakers: Budget cuts would be bad, right? Service officials: Yes, they would be terrible. Lawmakers: It’s good for the United States to remain a strong military power, isn’t it? Service officials: Yes, it is. Lawmakers: Hearing adjourned.

By the second or third performance, this act tends to lose its punch. And by the time you’re deep into hour two, you start to wonder: Who else is actually listening to this? These Armed Services Committee lawmakers oppose DoD cuts, as do the service officials. The third powerful but unacknowledged presence in the hearing room – the defense industry – definitely opposes DoD spending reductions. Nobody else seems to be paying attention. So does this schauspiel actually benefit anyone?

Maybe – maybe it’s just insurance so the Iron Triangle can say, “we told you so” if bad stuff happens down the road. Maybe the Triangle believes if it keeps up a steady drumbeat it will capture more of an audience, including, possibly, John and Jane Q. Taxpayer, sitting at home watching TV. And in Congress’ defense, you can only work with the tools you have: All bloggers can do is blog; lawmakers can convene hearings. Occasionally they write guest columns and letters to the editor.

Still, almost none of this output seems to achieve Beltway escape velocity. Even HASC chairman Rep. Buck McKeon’s duel with the New York Times’ Paul Krugman didn't seem to get much public attention in Real America. So should the military-industrial-congressional complex take a page from the history books and start to make a case to voters?

It would have its work cut out: We’ve seen where defense issues have such a low visibility for Americans that President Obama could crack wise about flying an F-22 with no repercussions. The “gap” that Pentagon leaders and defense observers have described between the military and the general public is a double-edged sword: Yes, DoD can keep partly out of sight and act independently, but that makes for a tougher job getting the public’s attention.

There have been some initial steps, though: In Washington, at least, the big brand-name defense contractors already buy advertisements on TV, radio and outdoors in places such as Metro stations. (How many tourists have learned about the F-35B because of the billboards underground in the Pentagon City stop?) Are big national campaigns the next step? Maybe the TV spots wouldn’t just say: “Boeing: We exist,” as they do now. Instead they could say “Boeing: The KC-46A Sure Is Terrific!”

And what about the services themselves, making a pitch to today’s Reader’s Digest, or during NFL football games, or “American Idol?” Today the services’ national presence is mostly through their recruiting campaigns, and occasionally through Fleet Week-style local events. Would Americans respond to a direct pitch for support, a message that said, “call your Congressman and say ‘I support the F-35!’”

It was controversial when it happened back in ’49, sparking investigations and charges of insubordination. Would it work now?

What do you think?

 

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