Thursday, January 13, 2011

Military Money Pit

Back in the height of World War II, the pride of the Royal Air Force was the Supermarine Spitfire - arguably the greatest fighter aircraft of its generation.

The greatest fighter aircraft ever made?

This was the plane that helped win the Battle of Britain (even though the Hawker Hurricane really did the bulk of the work.) Later, in service for both American and British squadrons, the Spitfire cut down swathes of Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs in Europe, North Africa and beyond.

And the cost of this breathtaking miracle of aviation? Each plane was produced in Britain for around $20,000 - equivalent to the cost of the average house back then (so let's say $250,000.)

Flash forward sixty-odd years, to the Defense Department in the United States.

Here they're wrapping up development of the new fighter aircraft slated to replace a large part of the US warplane fleet - the Lockheed Martin F-35.

A single F-35 costs the same as the entire WW2-era Royal Air Force fleet.

Boasting a host of innovative developments, including a radar signature smaller than a golf ball, the F-35 is intended to be a 'jack of all trades' - able to perform ground attack, reconnaissance, and air defense missions (with stealth capability.)

Given just how many tasks this remarkable plane is capable of, you might think it would be a money saver. After all - it's replacing a host of other aircraft (the F-16 fighter, A-10 ground-attack aircraft, multirole F/A 18 and the Harrier Jump Jet.) That means a single airframe, universal spare parts and just a single plane for pilots and mechanics to learn about.

Yet instead, the F-35 has the awkward distinction of being the most expensive defense program ever conceived. With a total cost of $325 billion, development and production of the F-35 dwarfs the building of aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons and military satellites. In fact, depending on the variant of the F-35, the individual cost for each plan can run as high as $200 million.

$200 million - for a single plane!

Or, to put it another way, you could purchase a thousand 1945-era 'state of the art' fighter planes for a single one of today's 'state of the art' fighter planes.

Now, I know that's not a fair comparison. The Supermarine Spitfire was 'state of the art' during a period in which a three-bladed propeller was considered 'cutting edge.' The F-35 has vertical take-off capability, a helmet-mounted virtual display system and the ability to obliterate a target before it's even within visual range.

But still... $200 million? Each?

To my mind, the development of the F-35 embodies everything that's wrong about America's obsession with military spending - and a budget larger than the combined defense budget of every other nation on Earth. When you look at the bottom line for production of the F-35, you realize just how corrupt, inept and inefficient the whole process has become.

The problem is that America's military production companies - like Lockheed Martin, who are producing the F-35 - are so in bed with the government that they are chowing down on tax-payer's money like hogs at a trough - and giving us very little of value back.

Lobbyists and paid-off congressmen rub shoulders with an entrenched old-boy network of soldiers, sailors and airmen. The result is a swathe of legislative 'yes men' who are willing to approve bloated military spending orders with relative impunity.

When it comes to the F-35, for example, did you know that the government is paying billions for the development and production of a 'spare' engine?

If the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine that they developed for the F-35 doesn't live up to expectations (which it already has done) the General Electric/Rolls-Royce F136 will be there to be used as an alternative - even though the F136 has a tendency to burst into flames that hasn't been solved yet, and the US Navy has already stated that they have no intention of using F-35s fitted with the GE/RR engine because they "lack the space on aircraft carriers to support two different engines."

So essentially, General Electric is raking in billions of dollars of taxpayer's money for the sake of developing an engine that doesn't work and will most likely never be used. Here we are, with the Republicans and Tea Party complaining about Obama's overspending, while the worst of it is happening in our own back yard.

My next criticism is a harsh one - that the F-35 simply isn't that good.

Using the Spitfire comparison again... The Supermarine Spitfire was, quite frankly, the greatest fighter aircraft of its time. It served throughout the world in a variety of different roles - right through until the 1950s.

During World War 2 there was simply no fighter aircraft to equal it - but the Spitfire also served on aircraft carriers (the Seafire) and as a ground attack aircraft. Obviously it suited some roles better than others, but was exemplary in all of them.

The F-35, by comparison, is often criticized as being the perfect example of why one machine shouldn't be built to do multiple things - because it never does any of them as well as something designed purely for that purpose.

In air combat, for example, the F-35 carries only two air-to-air missiles (something which caused Major Richard Koch, chief of USAF Air Combat Command’s advanced air dominance branch, to "wake up in a cold sweat at the thought of.")

Former RAND author John Stillion wrote that the F-35 "“can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.” US defense specialist Winslow T. Wheeler called the F-35 "heavy and sluggish." In simulated war games against the Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter, the F-35 came off worse.

It was equally mediocre when it came to other roles the common airframe would be adapted for - Winslow T. Wheeler complained that it carried a "pitifully small load for all that money." He even argued that modern air forces would be better maintaining separate fleets of F-16 fighters and F/A 18 multirole fighters than replacing both with the single airframe F-35.

So what's my point?

Simply that if we're ever going to rein in our federal spending, we need to look seriously at areas of the budget that often get overlooked - like the way the military go about buying their new toys. It's funny how often so-called 'tea party patriots' will demand a free market solution for health care or retirement savings, but will blithely sign off on no-bid contracts for military equipment - which end up wasting billions of dollars of taxpayer money.

And even if you don't want to cut that money from the military budget, it's difficult to argue that it couldn't be better spent. A colleague of mine is watching her son get sent to Afghanistan this month - and tells me that parents have had to save up to give their kids walkie-talkies and flak jackets, since the US Military 'doesn't have the budget' to supply even the most essential equipment to their troops in the field.

And it occurs to me that no matter how deep your nuclear submarines go, how far your bombers can fly or how immense your aircraft carriers are - the real heart of a nation's military are the men and women who bravely serve in it.

It seems much of the money wasted on the F-35 'project' could have been better spent on them.


Tom said...

Let's see. According to Wikipedia, the Spitfire cost £12,604 in 1939, or £579,250 today. That's $916,000. The flyaway cost of a F-35 is supposedly $130M, not $200M.

You could purchase 141 F-35s for the cost of a Spitfire, not a thousand. The F-35 is also probably worth at least that many spitfires - with stealth, it can internally deliver up to 8 250-pound bombs to within a few meters of a target.

With WWII tech, you needed hundreds of planes to be sure you hit a target. Remember those flights of lots of planes - they needed that many to make it likely they would destroy what they wanted.

Given the mission (attacking targets) and range of the F-35, it's interesting to compare it to the B-17. A B-17 was $300K in 1940 - 4.6 million in 2010 currency.

Of course, the B-17 has stealth, which is a total game changer.

And that's the fundamental thing. Right now, our pilots are flying the F-16, which first flew in 1974. While it's been upgraded since then, it is an old design, and the airframes will have to be replaced eventually. What do you propose to replace them with, if not the F-35?

It would seem weird to replace them with more F-16s, a design that's way older than I am. The F-22 is out of production, and costs $150M per airframe - so you won't save money that way. (RAND suggests that restarting production would raise the cost to $227M per aircraft.)

UCAVs are a good option, but they're probably still half a generation away.

From what I understand, the critics you quoted fall into two camps. Koch and Stillion are arguing for more F-22s - a more expensive option.

IIRC, the Su-35 is a 1980s era fighter, similar to the F-15 or so. Although I wasn't able to find the exact cite, it seems like the Su-35 might have something of an advantage while dogfighting. But if a stealth plane gets into a dogfight, something has gone wrong. Again, this is an argument for the more expensive F-22.

Wheeler works for an anti-war think tank. That's fine, but asking his opinion on a fighter plane is like asking Al Gore which SUV to buy. (Except Al Gore rides around in SUVs from time to time.)

To some extent, the F-35 is the discount aircraft. The F-22 is the superior plane, but also crazy expensive.

The F-35 wasn't a no-bid contract. It was competitively awarded. (Boeing was the competitor, with their X-32.)

Have a citation for people saving up for flak jackets and radios?

Fundamentally, when it comes to the F-35, we need to look at the capability, and what could replace it. Right now, it looks like the (more expensive) F-35 could do it. UCAVs might be able to in the future. But for now, the F-35 is probably the only multirole game in town.

Andy said...

Roland, I am a military aviation retard, and will be the first to admit it.

But, I've got two "go-to" guys that know their junk about such things. I'm going to forward a link to this post to them, and get back to you with their comments.

Roland Hulme said...

Wow, Tom, you just 3WNED me with even more ruthlessness than you normally do!

In my defense, the $200 million price tag was from the Lockheed Martin website. Apparently, depending on the variant, they range from $90 million to $200 million each, so with the journalistic integrity of Rupert Murdoch, I picked the bigger figure!

That's about all I can defend myself on, though. You've really nailed me on just about EVERYTHING else.

That being said - would you admit that there are areas of the F-35 program that are disgustingly wasteful (the 'spare' engine, for example.) And while the F-35 overall was a competitive bid, there are huge swathes of military spending that are awarded with no-bid contracts (and, funnily enough, Obama made this even more corrupt and unaccountable.)

Andy - I'm VERY nervous about your aviation buddies looking over this, given how Tom metaphorically spanked me good 'n proper!

Buck said...

Hey, Roland. I'm one of those guys Andy referred to as a "go-to guy," which is extremely flattering, in that I'm jes an ol' retired USAF sergeant, albeit one who keeps up with the old bid'niz of breaking things and killin' people what needs killin'. ;-)

Seeing as how Andy hasn't gotten back to you yet, I'll take the liberty of quoting what I said to him, re: your post. And here it is, in its entirety...

Commenter Tom was pretty much on the money. Your guy Roland makes a few valid points, though, in that the F-35 program is in trouble and has been so for quite a while. This lil blurb was in today's AFA Daily Report:

(begin quoted piece)Donley: New F-35 Restructure Implies IOC Slip: The Pentagon's newly announced changes to the F-35 strike fighter's development schedule likely will delay when the Air Force's first combat-ready F-35A unit will be ready, according to USAF Secretary Michael Donley. "I think that's implied with the additional dollars and time required in system development," he said, when asked about this, during his Air Force Association-sponsored Air Force Breakfast Series presentation in Arlington, Va. He did not provide additional details during his Wednesday talk. Before this new program restructure, 2016 had been the Air Force's target in-service, or "IOC," date, for the F-35A. The Pentagon is extending F-35 development from mid 2015 into early 2016 to account for challenges encountered mostly, but not exclusively, in maturing the Marine Corps F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing variant. Donley said this extension is necessary because there's "more work to be done" on testing and software. He said these changes mean an "even more conservative approach to production rates," meaning flat F-35 deliveries for about two years. Development of the F-35A and Navy F-35C model has been progressing well, noted Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week. (See also F-35 fact sheet discussing the restructure) (end quoted bits)

That said, Roland appears to be drawing his arguments from highly critical sources, as Tom noted (Tom said "anti-war," but I didn't check 'em out). Technology, especially highly advanced aviation technology, does not come cheap. Add in the fact that a lot of the technology used in the F-35 is being developed concurrently along with the airplane, which is a risky proposition, but it is what it is. There ain't no "off the shelf" stuff in this bird.

About that second engine... SecDef Gates is on the record as not wanting the second engine, has not requested funding for same, and at one time said he would recommend Obama veto any Defense Appropriation bill that contained funding for the F136 (the GE/Rolls-Royce so called "second engine"). But Congress continues to add funds for its development. Chalk one up for the lobbyists.

Roland Hulme said...

Hey Buck! Andy did forward me your comments, but I wasn't sure if you'd mind me posting them or not, so I didn't. I'm so glad you did, though - thanks for your thoughts (and for taking it easy on me where I got it wrong!)