D. Dowd Muska


Washington Is Just Plane Stupid

May 24, 2012

If the United States is to be the world’s police department, its cops need safe, reliable equipment.

Try telling that to F-22 pilots.

A year ago, the “Raptor” fleet was grounded for faulty oxygen systems, which in one instance may have caused a fatality. The planes went back in the air several months later, but the glitch wasn’t fixed. A few weeks ago, a pair of F-22 jocks, risking their careers, appeared on 60 Minutes to recount their experiences with oxygen deprivation.

On May 15, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta placed restrictions on F-22 flights. Air Combat Command confirmed that Raptors will remain in “close proximity to military airfields.”

The F-22 was in trouble long before questions were raised about its oxygen supply. It was born in boondogglery. In the words of a Cato Institute analyst, the Raptor, conceived in the 1980s, “was intended to combat two futuristic Soviet fighters that were never built.”

As the 1990s progressed, it was clear that the Cold War had ended for good, and there’d be no dogfights with the Russkies. And the F-22 was getting heavier and less gee-whizzy than originally planned. Critics shifted from skepticism to hostility. Everest E. Riccioni, the former director of the flight mechanics division of the Air Force’s Flight Dynamics Laboratory, argued that since “the F-22 is no longer more capable than the F-15 or F-16 and costs more than three times as much as these aircraft, it is difficult to imagine how production of any Raptors can be justified.”

In 2001, a Senate aide told CounterPunch, “It’s showy, unimaginably expensive, fragile and utterly useless. But there’s no stopping it.” The F-22 trudged onward. The Air Force’s top brass backed the fighter, and fedpols had votes -- er, jobs -- to protect, primarily in Georgia, Washington, and Connecticut.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), since the F-22’s “initial fielding … maintenance issues have prevented it from achieving reliability and availability requirements, and fleet operating and support … costs are much higher than projected earlier in the program.”

Last month, the GAO compared the expense per unit, 20 years after development, of four tactical jets in the Pentagon’s inventory. The numbers, adjusted for inflation, confirmed that the F-22 is titanically pricey:

• F-16                   $28 million

• F-15                   $57 million

• F/A-18               $68 million

• F-22                   $417 million

Lotsa bucks, little bang. The Raptor wasn’t used in Iraq or Libya, and it isn’t at work in Afghanistan. Panetta’s predecessor mustered the courage to cap procurement in 2009. Earlier this month, in what The Marietta Daily Journal called “a dramatic ceremony that was attended by nearly 400 people,” Lockheed Martin delivered the final F-22.

Ready to experience the Raptor debacle all over again? Acquaint yourself with the F-35 “Lightning,” also known as the Joint Strike Fighter.

In March the Los Angeles Times reported that the plane, intended to replace A-10s, F-16s, F/A-18s, and AV-8Bs, is “facing its worst turbulence since Washington decided to buy it in 2001 -- when it was billed as the most affordable, lethal and survivable military aircraft ever built for the U.S. and its allies.”

The F-35 isn’t living up to expectations. It’s years behind schedule and well over budget. One reason for the fighter’s underperformance, the GAO found, was a persistent Pentagon problem: Ignoring the philosophy of “fly before you buy.” Auditors documented that the F-35 “began system development with none of its eight critical technologies mature; and, according to program officials, four of these technologies -- mission systems integration, which includes the helmet-mounted display; the prognostics and health management system; integrated core processor; and integrated support systems -- are still not fully mature.” Last year, $373 million was needed “to retrofit already-built aircraft to correct deficiencies discovered during testing.”

“A two-star general serving as the military’s [F-35] project manager was fired over the program’s never-ending problems,” the Times noted. “The Pentagon has delayed orders … . What’s more, the plane has roiled political debate in Canada, the Netherlands and other allies that are picking up 10 percent of the development costs.”

The eventual taxpayer tab for the F-35 could top $1 trillion, a sum that scholar Dominic Tierney wrote is “more … than Australia’s entire GDP.”

The Pentagon recently confirmed that F-22s have been deployed to the Persian Gulf. F-35s are sure to join them, in time.

Inertia and groupthink rule the military-industrial-congressional complex. Empire-builders’ overseas commitments cannot be questioned. Evidently, neither can the perpetuation of costly and unnecessary weapons that put their operators at risk.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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