An independent appraisal…

I’m grateful to Chris Perry for this quote from The Atlantic article ‘The Tragedy of the American Military’ which is a far longer article. It is quite long but well worth the read:

Here is just one newsworthy example that illustrates the broad and depressingly intractable tendencies of weapons development and spending: the failed hopes for a new airplane called the F-35 “Lightning.”


Today’s weapons can be decades in gestation, and the history of the F-35 traces back long before most of today’s troops were born. Two early-1970s-era planes, the F-16 “Fighting Falcon” jet and the A-10 “Thunderbolt II” attack plane, departed from the trend of military design in much the same way the compact Japanese cars of that era departed from the tail-fin American look. These planes were relatively cheap, pared to their essentials, easy to maintain, and designed to do a specific thing very well. For the F-16, that was to be fast, highly maneuverable, and deadly in air-to-air combat. For the A-10, it was to serve as a kind of flying tank that could provide what the military calls “close air support” to troops in combat by blasting enemy formations. The A-10 needed to be heavily armored, so it could absorb opposing fire; designed to fly as slowly as possible over the battlefield, rather than as rapidly, so that it could stay in range to do damage rather than roaring through; and built around one very powerful gun.

There are physical devices that seem the pure expression of a function. The Eames chair, a classic No. 2 pencil, the original Ford Mustang or VW Beetle, the MacBook Air—take your pick. The A-10, generally known not as the Thunderbolt but as the Warthog, fills that role in the modern military. It is rugged; it is inexpensive; it can shred enemy tanks and convoys by firing up to 70 rounds a second of armor-piercing, 11-inch-long depleted-uranium shells.

The tragedy of the F-35 is that a project meant to correct problems in designing and paying for weapons has come to exemplify them.

And the main effort of military leaders through the past decade, under the Republican leadership of the Bush administration and the Democratic leadership of Obama, has been to get rid of the A-10 so as to free up money for a more expensive, less reliable, technically failing airplane that has little going for it except insider dealing, and the fact that the general public doesn’t care.

The weapon in whose name the A-10 is being phased out is its opposite in almost every way. In automotive terms, it would be a Lamborghini rather than a pickup truck (or a flying tank). In air-travel terms, the first-class sleeper compartment on Singapore Airlines rather than advance-purchase Economy Plus (or even business class) on United. These comparisons seem ridiculous, but they are fair. That is, a Lamborghini is demonstrably “better” than a pickup truck in certain ways—speed, handling, comfort—but only in very special circumstances is it a better overall choice. Same for the first-class sleeper, which would be anyone’s choice if someone else were footing the bill but is simply not worth the trade-off for most people most of the time.

Each new generation of weapons tends to be “better” in much the way a Lamborghini is, and “worth it” in the same sense as a first-class airline seat. The A-10 shows the pattern. According to figures from the aircraft analyst Richard L. Aboulafia, of the Teal Group, the “unit recurring flyaway” costs in 2014 dollars—the fairest apples-to-apples comparison—stack up like this. Each Warthog now costs about $19 million, less than any other manned combat aircraft. A Predator drone costs about two-thirds as much. Other fighter, bomber, and multipurpose planes cost much more: about $72 million for the V-22 Osprey, about $144 million for the F-22 fighter, about $810 million for the B-2 bomber, and about $101 million (or five A‑10s) for the F-35. There’s a similar difference in operating costs. The operating expenses are low for the A-10 and much higher for the others largely because the A-10’s design is simpler, with fewer things that could go wrong. The simplicity of design allows it to spend more of its time flying instead of being in the shop.

In clear contrast to the A-10, the F-35 is an ill-starred undertaking that would have been on the front pages as often as other botched federal projects, from the Obamacare rollout to the FEMA response after Hurricane Katrina, if, like those others, it either seemed to affect a broad class of people or could easily be shown on TV—or if so many politicians didn’t have a stake in protecting it. One measure of the gap in coverage: Total taxpayer losses in the failed Solyndra solar-energy program might come, at their most dire estimate, to some $800 million. Total cost overruns, losses through fraud, and other damage to the taxpayer from the F-35 project are perhaps 100 times that great, yet the “Solyndra scandal” is known to probably 100 times as many people as the travails of the F-35. Here’s another yardstick: the all-in costs of this airplane are now estimated to be as much as $1.5 trillion, or a low-end estimate of the entire Iraq War.

The condensed version of this plane’s tragedy is that a project meant to correct some of the Pentagon’s deepest problems in designing and paying for weapons has in fact worsened and come to exemplify them. An aircraft that was intended to be inexpensive, adaptable, and reliable has become the most expensive in history, and among the hardest to keep out of the shop. The federal official who made the project a symbol of a new, transparent, rigorously data-dependent approach to awarding contracts ended up serving time in federal prison for corruption involving projects with Boeing. (Boeing’s chief financial officer also did time in prison.) For the record, the Pentagon and the lead contractors stoutly defend the plane and say that its teething problems will be over soon—and that anyway, it is the plane of the future, and the A-10 is an aging relic of the past. (We have posted reports here on the A-10, pro and con, so you can see whether you are convinced.)

In theory, the F-35 would show common purpose among the military services, since the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps would all get their own custom-tailored versions of the plane. In fact, a plane designed to do many contradictory things—to be strong enough to survive Navy aircraft-carrier landings, yet light and maneuverable enough to excel as an Air Force dogfighter, and meanwhile able to take off and land straight up and down, like a helicopter, to reach marines in tight combat circumstances—has unsurprisingly done none of them as well as promised. In theory, the F-35 was meant to knit U.S. allies together, since other countries would buy it as their mainstay airplane and in turn would get part of the contracting business. In fact, the delays, cost overruns, and mechanical problems of the airplane have made it a contentious political issue in customer countries from Canada and Holland to Italy and Australia.

Interactive map: Parts from the F-35 are sourced from over 250 locations around the globe, spanning 11 countries and, in the U.S., more than 90 congressional districts. Hover over any red dot to see a list of contractors. (Map design and development: Frankie Dintino. Source: Center for International Policy.)

The country where the airplane has least been a public issue is the United States. In their 2012 debates, Mitt Romney criticized Barack Obama for supporting “green energy” projects, including Solyndra. Neither man mentioned the F-35, and I am still looking for evidence that President Obama has talked about it in any of his speeches. In other countries, the F-35 can be cast as another annoying American intrusion. Here, it is protected by supplier contracts that have been spread as broadly as possible.

“Political engineering,” a term popularized by a young Pentagon analyst named Chuck Spinney in the 1970s, is pork-barrel politics on the grandest scale. Cost overruns sound bad if someone else is getting the extra money. They can be good if they are creating business for your company or jobs in your congressional district. Political engineering is the art of spreading a military project to as many congressional districts as possible, and thus maximizing the number of members of Congress who feel that if they cut off funding, they’d be hurting themselves.

A $10 million parts contract in one congressional district builds one representative’s support. Two $5 million contracts in two districts are twice as good, and better all around would be three contracts at $3 million apiece. Every participant in the military-contracting process understands this logic: the prime contractors who parcel out supply deals around the country, the military’s procurement officers who divide work among contractors, the politicians who vote up or down on the results. In the late 1980s, a coalition of so-called cheap hawks in Congress tried to cut funding for the B-2 bomber. They got nowhere after it became clear that work for the project was being carried out in 46 states and no fewer than 383 congressional districts (of 435 total). The difference between then and now is that in 1989, Northrop, the main contractor for the plane, had to release previously classified data to demonstrate how broadly the dollars were being spread.

Whatever its technical challenges, the F-35 is a triumph of political engineering, and on a global scale. For a piquant illustration of the difference that political engineering can make, consider the case of Bernie Sanders—former Socialist mayor of Burlington, current Independent senator from Vermont, possible candidate from the left in the next presidential race. In principle, he thinks the F-35 is a bad choice. After one of the planes caught fire last summer on a runway in Florida, Sanders told a reporter that the program had been “incredibly wasteful.” Yet Sanders, with the rest of Vermont’s mainly left-leaning political establishment, has fought hard to get an F-35 unit assigned to the Vermont Air National Guard in Burlington, and to dissuade neighborhood groups there who think the planes will be too noisy and dangerous. “For better or worse, [the F-35] is the plane of record right now,” Sanders told a local reporter after the runway fire last year, “and it is not gonna be discarded. That’s the reality.” It’s going to be somewhere, so why not here? As Vermont goes, so goes the nation.

The whole article is worth a read as well:

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One thought on “An independent appraisal…

  1. Pingback: UK F-35B: The Catch 22 Fighter | Fighter Jet News

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