Government Spending

F-22: A Saga of the Military-Industrial Complex's Blood and Guts

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Pretty nifty Washington Post piece on the hows and whys of paying gajillions over an eternity (sorry for all the technical terms, this is complicated stuff) for planes that barely work for missions we rarely need. Taxpayers, meet the F-22: Consider it your plane!

A supersonic sortie through the high-flying details of the barely used and barely useful military plane that flies through both enemy flack and Congress with the mysterious power to cloud men's minds, learned in the far eastern part of Lockheed Martin's corportate HQ:

The United States' top fighter jet, the Lockheed Martin F-22, has recently required more than 30 hours of maintenance for every hour in the skies, pushing its hourly cost of flying to more than $44,000, a far higher figure than for the warplane it replaces, confidential Pentagon test results show…..

While most aircraft fleets become easier and less costly to repair as they mature, key maintenance trends for the F-22 have been negative in recent years, and on average from October last year to this May, just 55 percent of the deployed F-22 fleet has been available to fulfill missions guarding U.S. airspace….The F-22 has never been flown over Iraq or Afghanistan….

"It is a disgrace that you can fly a plane [an average of] only 1.7 hours before it gets a critical failure" that jeopardizes success of the aircraft's mission, said a Defense Department critic of the plane who is not authorized to speak on the record. Other skeptics inside the Pentagon note that the planes, designed 30 years ago to combat a Cold War adversary, have cost an average of $350 million apiece and say they are not a priority in the age of small wars and terrorist threats….

After deciding to cancel the program, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called the $65 billion fleet a "niche silver-bullet solution" to a major aerial war threat that remains distant. He described the House's decision [to spend $369 million to $1.75 billion more to keep the F-22 production line open] as "a big problem" and has promised to urge President Obama to veto the military spending bill if the full Senate retains F-22 funding……

How have the political and military scientists kept this beast a-flying all these years?

[The F22's] troubles have been detailed in dozens of Government Accountability Office reports and Pentagon audits. But Pierre Sprey, a key designer in the 1970s and 1980s of the F-16 and A-10 warplanes, said that from the beginning, the Air Force designed it to be "too big to fail, that is, to be cancellation-proof."

Lockheed farmed out more than 1,000 subcontracts to vendors in more than 40 states, and Sprey—now a prominent critic of the plane—said that by the time skeptics "could point out the failed tests, the combat flaws, and the exploding costs, most congressmen were already defending their subcontractors' " revenues.

John Hamre, the Pentagon's comptroller from 1993 to 1997, says the department approved the plane with a budget it knew was too low because projecting the real costs would have been politically unpalatable on Capitol Hill.

The rest of the long and detailed story tells of many of the specific manufacturing and operational problems the plane has had, from crappy coatings to subpar subcontracting. It might be more detail than you care about, but hey, you're paying for it! It's more detail than most congressmen care about too, and that's exactly the problem.

And let me repeat this line, with italics: "The F-22 has never been flown over Iraq or Afghanistan."

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  1. And of course this is one of the issues where both Presidential candidates have been against the F-22, but Congress isn’t going to care. McCain tried to kill the F-22 a bunch of times as chairman of the relevant subcomittee, but no dice.

    Obama was more quiet about the F-22 during the campaign, but he did retain Gates, and has threatened a veto over F-22 funding. We’ll see if it he means it, though.

  2. Laws:sausages::weapon systems:genocide?

  3. So we lost a hundred billion or so, at least we have the JSF too!

  4. The political system is remarkable. Someone should make a documentary in the style of David Attenborough or the Discovery Channel about politicians, in a really antiseptic, stand-offish, non-partisan way. Who needs to ham it up with the reality is just so good?

  5. It reminds me of a movie made about the development and testing of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. It starred Kelsey Grammer and was funny as hell. They had to make it a comedy because some of it was to ridiculous to not be laughed at. Like filling the gas tank with water for a test to see if the vehicle would blow up after taking a direct hit to the gas tank. When it didn’t explode, they claimed success!

  6. BTW I hope all those flight simulator video games, so determined to be “realistic,” incorporate the 1.7 hour limit before critical failure occurs. (Then you could have a 30 hour maintenance period that would make a Loading screen feel like a sneeze.)

  7. Why would Obama want to cancel this program? It’s “stimulus!”

  8. “The F-22 has never been flown over Iraq or Afghanistan.”

    This is a post 9/11 world, and we cannot be cavalier regarding the safety of our nation, and especially continuity and security for our government. I therefor propose that we maintain round-the-clock F-22 overflights of the White House and the Capitol.

  9. Exactly! The plane is a deterrent, and thus need not ever be used in combat to justify its existence. While we’re at it, we could also do with some nuclear armed dirigibles, just to keep them Russkies from getting uppity.

  10. Brian,

    CATO had a nice panel on reforming Pentagon spending, etc. a few months ago. What I found interesting was the observation (as I remember it) by one of the panelists that the $500 hammers had not gone away, it was just far more difficult to find about Pentagon spending.

  11. And let me repeat this line, with italics: “The F-22 has never been flown over Iraq or Afghanistan.”

    I thought the plane’s primary function was to engage in air-to-air combat. Since we obtained air superiority in Iraq almost immediately, and since the Montgolfier brothers could have had air superiority in Afghanistan, there was really no need, was there?

    It’s kind of like saying submarines aren’t necessary because, hell, they’ve never been used in land-locked Afghanistan or mostly land-locked Iraq.

  12. What I found interesting was the observation (as I remember it) by one of the panelists that the $500 hammers had not gone away, it was just far more difficult to find about Pentagon spending.

    To a bureaucrat, when it is discovered that you are grossly overpaying for something, the problem isn’t the overpaying, its the discovery.

  13. Military industrial/national security/national surveillance spending has bankrupted america. No, not alone as some here try to strawman my position.

    If one is a libertarian, one just does not criticze any person who shines a light on the epic fail that is military/natinal security/national surveillance spending. Some here have such a reflexive, pavlovian response to critiques of military/national security/spymongering expenditures it justifiably raises the question-Are they really statists?

    Let’s face it. If you defend the pentagon, homeland security, CIA and their rent seeking scummy compadres, you are part of the problem.

  14. Abdul,

    It is a multi-role aircraft actually. While its primary role is air superiority, it is supposed to be able to do a lot more. It was also originally imagined as a response to the SU-27, which can take on a multitude of tasks.

  15. Probably a waste of money

    but man they look cool eh?

  16. I’m still sad that they scuttled the Commanche helicoptor.

  17. It’s a dog and more than likely a pet project pay back to someone. It’s sad that the industry has gone from skunk works style of mad engineers pulling polka dotted rabbits that do mach 2 with their ears on fire to a political process of getting as much money for as long as possible. Not the way to maintain military superiority or even equality.

    For all the plane bashing I think it’s kind of important to keep a perspective on remaining in the top slots for arms. It would just be nice if we would start using them for defense and not offense. Then we could probably use a few less of the multi trillion dollar goodies.

  18. I think the F-22 program continues because the plane is just so frickken cool. F-22’s maintain an incredible simulated kill ratio, taking down around 10 Sukhoi’s for every 1 F-22 destroyed. Recent war games against F-16/F-15s (I forgot which) resulted in around 100 F-15 losses and 0 F-22 losses. Those kind of kill ratios will be the the envy of any air force.

    Also, the primary goal of the F-22 is complete air superiority. It is not built to fight insurgency; its air-ground capability is lacking (it was not designed for this role). In the military, it is common to divide roles to different aircraft; it is impossible to build the “ultimate” warplane, design tradeoffs must be made to sacrifice one thing to gain in another.

    The specs for this aircraft are amazing as its technology. The F-22 pioneered the technology for the F-35 (Joint Strike Fighter), and its design is being emulated by upcoming Russian and Chinese fighter craft designs.

    Interesting fact: F-22 costs more than its weight in gold, but is still cheaper per pound than LSD.

  19. I have an idea…every time a military contractor or subcontractor screws up in a big way, everyone in the company should have “I don’t support the troops” tattooed on their foreheads.

    Or does their support consist solely of putting a yellow magnet on their SUV?

  20. According to Wikipedia, the Raptor fleet has recently been upgraded for bombing missions, so it could theoretically be used in Afghanistan. Of course, the same mission could likely be performed at far less expense by older platforms like the A-10 or F-16.

  21. This reminds me of Joseph Heller’s great book, F-22.

  22. We don’t need less F-22s, we need more. The number of F-22s currently in service is like taking half a viagra. You get this crazy boner, and you’re looking at your boner, and you’re like, “heckuva boner”. That’s the F-22.

  23. The specs for this aircraft are amazing as its technology.

    Given its failure rate and maintenance requirements, I would say that its technology isn’t quite there yet.

  24. American military hardware should always be a cut above any hardware that could creditably be used offensively against the United States. And only in proportion to the threat level – if the Chinese have only fifteen XYZ fighters, then the U.S. doesn’t need a hundred superior fighters. Yes, the U.S. military can overwhelm an opponent with huge quantities of inferior weapons (think U.S. vs. German tanks in WWII) but many a Sherman crew lost their lives because of the inferiority.

  25. I’m too lazy to dig for a link, but I thought an F-22 lost a dogfight to an F-15. The air was filled with excuses.

  26. Lockheed farmed out more than 1,000 subcontracts to vendors in more than 40 states, and Sprey — now a prominent critic of the plane — said that by the time skeptics “could point out the failed tests, the combat flaws, and the exploding costs, most congressmen were already defending their subcontractors’ ” revenues.

    John Hamre, the Pentagon’s comptroller from 1993 to 1997, says the department approved the plane with a budget it knew was too low because projecting the real costs would have been politically unpalatable on Capitol Hill.

    General Government Motors.

  27. What I found interesting was the observation (as I remember it) by one of the panelists that the $500 hammers had not gone away, it was just far more difficult to find about Pentagon spending.

    To a bureaucrat, when it is discovered that you are grossly overpaying for something, the problem isn’t the overpaying, its the discovery.

    To be fair, the $500 hammer thing is usually just an accounting trick. Essentially the Pentagon has designated budgets for certain classes of items. Say you need some extra fighter engines but the budget for fighter engines has already been spent. But you have lots of money in the tool budget. You contact the engine manufacturer and they sell you 5,000 $500 hammers and “throw in” a few jet engines. A bit of an oversimplification, but you get the idea.

    So yes it is a waste of money (which is bad) but it’s not always quite as ridiculous as it sounds.

  28. We can build a Doomsday Machine for less.

  29. That’s nothing compared to this!

  30. Remember the episode of West Wing when Donna asked her Navy beau about the $500 submarine ashtray? He smashed it to show that, in the event of the ashtray falling during violent maneuvers, it was specially made to break into three dull pieces which couldn’t harm the crew. That’s why it cost so much. But I have to wonder why they couldn’t make it out of cheap metal, so it couldn’t break at all, or make it a fixed piece of furniture, so it couldn’t even move.

  31. …the barely used and barely useful military plane that flies through both enemy flack and Congress…

    It’s a pretty common error that’s become somewhat accepted these days, but really it flies through enemy flak.

  32. That’s nothing compared to this!

    I still remember the jokes from way back when they were still just testing the Osprey and we hadn’t even gone into Iraq the first time.

    What’s killed more marines than the Soviets?
    The Osprey!

    And the Bradley will forever remain a sick fucking joke. Absolute small arms protection up to 15mm my pasty white ass, and I’ve got the scars to prove it.

  33. Ken, I prefer the more archaic ack-ack.

    BlueBook: recall the story of how NASA spent thousands of dollars inventing a pen that worked in microgravity. The Russians, meanwhile, used pencils.

  34. > We can build a Doomsday Machine for less.

    “Yes we can”; but it would be redundant.

  35. BlueBook: recall the story of how NASA spent thousands of dollars inventing a pen that worked in microgravity. The Russians, meanwhile, used pencils.

    http://www.snopes.com/business/genius/spacepen.asp

    Fisher did ultimately develop a pressurized pen for use by NASA astronauts (now known as the famous “Fisher Space Pen”), but both American and Soviet space missions initially used pencils, NASA did not seek out Fisher and ask them to develop a “space pen,” Fisher did not charge NASA for the cost of developing the pen, and the Fisher pen was eventually used by both American and Soviet astronauts.

  36. Shut the fuck up, facts.

  37. Let’s not be so quick to jump on this, folks. Many military aircraft have teething troubles, crashes, and cost-overruns in their early years and turn out fine in the end. The B-17 and C-5 come to mind. Even the F-111 eventually worked well as a bomber and as an electronic-countermeasures aircraft (though not as a fighter).

  38. Warty: the problem with pencils in spacecraft is that you really don’t want little bits of graphite floating around and possibly shorting out something electrical.

  39. Let’s not be so quick to jump on this, folks. Many military aircraft have teething troubles, crashes, and cost-overruns in their early years and turn out fine in the end. The B-17 and C-5 come to mind. Even the F-111 eventually worked well as a bomber and as an electronic-countermeasures aircraft (though not as a fighter).

    The M1 Abrams tank comes to mind. That does not mean that all developemental weapons systems will have successful outcomes.

  40. The M1 Abrams tank comes to mind. That does not mean that all developmental weapons systems will have successful outcomes.

    Yeah, but it’s nice to figure that out before you field the damn thing.

  41. Papaya: like I said, facts are not helpful here.

  42. i still lament the retiring of the old ugly warhorse the a-10 warthog. she was truly a flying machine, not a fancy schmancy fighter like an f-18or f-22 just a low level troop support/bomber/cover fighter. they were the best planes on the field, they could be shot to all hell and still make it back, the pilot was in a titanium bathtub that made him almost unijurable from below.

  43. Just because we have the technological know how to build something doesn’t mean that the cost can be justified.

    This plane, while being totally cool, is like using a Hummer to get around a golf course.

    There is no threat out there that justifies the expense.

  44. P Brooks: I remember reading about that too, that in another dogfight the losses were like 50 to 1 or something.

    I think the F-15 had to take down the F-22 by gun and he head to track it by eye. Kudos to the pilot for pulling it off. I’m too lazy to cite these claims too.

  45. This is a post 9/11 world, and we cannot be cavalier regarding the safety of our nation, and especially continuity and security for our government. I therefor propose that we maintain round-the-clock F-22 overflights of the White House and the Capitol.

    Great idea. Now if it takes 30 hours of maintenance for every hour flown, by my calculations, that would be….lets see….12,802 F-22s needed for full coverage. How many do we have again? Can you say Bailout III?? Hell yeah!!

  46. SpongePaul – I too thought the A-10 was retired (or at least relegated to Air National Guard units) in favor of the f-16, but the Wiki says the Air Force dropped that idea after Gulf War I. It’s now slated to stay on, with upgrades, till 2028.

  47. Yeah, but it’s nice to figure that out before you field the damn thing.

    The fine print and between the line print in the contract clearly states you are now a willing and obedient guinea pig. 😉

    Unfortunately that is how many making the decisions think. That and they think in dollars and political capital rather than living capital.

  48. The F16 has no where near the ground support, survivability, or low speed maneuverability as the A-10. The A-10 is a basically a helicopter that you can’t shoot down and can’t hover.

    A lot of aircraft in service to day are scheduled to stay well past 2025. F15, F16, A10, F/A18, C130, C5

  49. The stealthy coatings for our stealth airplanes have been a complete nightmare on every airframe they are used on.

    Has anyone noticed why B2 bombers fly from Missouri to drop a bomb on Iraq, and then fly back? Its because their home-base in Missouri is the only place with hangers both big enough for them and with all the environmental HVAC junk to keep them dry. When they get wet, its the not-so-stealthy bomber.

    They’ve “fixed” this problem now of course. Now, if a B2 is going to operate at a forward airbase, a massive pressurized tent straight out of the Ringling Bros. is deployed with it. I am guessing this is the F-22’s fate as well. These planes are just to picky on their skin. Any truly stealthy plane is going to be like that I think, which means the Russians and the Chinese are not fielding a stealth plane for a loooong time. Their militaries are just not technically enough competent to effectively deploy them.

    What makes the F-22 REALLY GOOD in the sky are its motors and its avionics. Both these components can be shoe-horned into an F-15, which I think is the best idea here: Keep the F-22’s in their Ringling Bros. tents. But do a re-build program on the F-15 (and maybe, the 16) that includes the new motors, inlet adjustments to accommodate motors, and that awesome APG-77. Bang for buck, that’s your best bet. F-15’s have to be rebuilt, retired, or replaced no matter what happens to F-22. Those airframes on average are 30 years old.

  50. Even though I hate wasteful defense spending, I actually we need the F-22, or something like it.

    We don’t need zillions of them, but enough to maintain convincing air superiority over the Russians, Chinese and their client states. This would be *particularly* true if we were to stop trying to be the world’s policeman and take a more defensive stance. Having clear military superiority does more to deter potential aggressors than anything else.

    Personally, I would rather focus on making our military really scary to other developed nations than to rebuild it to fight unnecessary guerilla wars in faraway shitholes.

    If the F-22 program is broke, then fix it, ferchrissake. The F-16s and F-15s are getting old, and over the long term it would probably be just as expensive (if not more so) to keep nursing them along for decades or to restart their production lines with improved components.

  51. Those airframes on average are 30 years old.

    This could explain why the wings are tearing off.

    I, too am an A-10 “fan”. Highly effective and, in the greater scheme of things, cheap.

  52. What? No love for the M247 Sgt. York DIVADS?

  53. “I, too am an A-10 “fan”. Highly effective and, in the greater scheme of things, cheap.”

    True dat. A-10 is all the guerilla-war airplane you need and more. In the first Gulf War, the two airplanes the Iraqis on the ground feared most were the B-52 and the A-10.

    Frankly, I am going to commit heresy here and state that Stuka-birds like the A-10 need to be run by the Army directly.

  54. The f-22 costs about $550 per pound. Can anyone else name the two other aircraft that cost more than their weight in gold (at the gold prices when they were rolled out, since gold is over 900 now.)

  55. $550 per troy oz – that should have read

  56. Having clear military superiority does more to deter potential aggressors than anything else.

    No, having nuclear weapons and friendly neighbors does that.

  57. Frankly, I am going to commit heresy here and state that Stuka-birds like the A-10 need to be run by the Army directly.

    There’s a reason the marines won’t let the Air Force do close air support for them. They hate getting shot at.

  58. No, having nuclear weapons and friendly neighbors does that.

    Nuclear weapons are a form of military superiority, of course, but of the all-or-nothing variety. I think it’s better have both the nukes and the warbirds.

    As for the friendly neighbors thing, I’d say it’s more important to have weak neighbors. Nations don’t have friends, only interests.

  59. “The f-22 costs about $550 per pound (troy ounce!). Can anyone else name the two other aircraft that cost more than their weight in gold (at the gold prices when they were rolled out, since gold is over 900 now.)”

    The B2 takes the cake here. Rolled out in ’92. Empty weight is 158000 lbs. A B2 costs about $2 billion. Do the math, ugly numbers here. B2 costs slightly more than its weight, in TODAY’S gold prices…ugh.

  60. “As for the friendly neighbors thing, I’d say it’s more important to have weak neighbors. Nations don’t have friends, only interests.”

    Oh Canada, Oh Canada!

  61. Very good – that’s the easy one though – there is one other…

  62. “Very good – that’s the easy one though – there is one other…”

    Hmmm…this sounds like a trick question. I am going to go on a limb here and say, Air Force One? Either that, or a comparatively old aircraft. One made back in the halcyon days of $35/ounce fixed exchange rate. In that era, I am guessing there are more than a few candidates.

  63. The Space Shuttle?

  64. Air Force one

  65. I believe this is the project that employed 90,000 jobs. And isn’t this the same project that got Obama weak in the knees while he was making fiery speeches about canceling this project when one of his advisers leaned over and whispered “90,000 good, ‘Murrican workin’ class folks on this project”?

  66. “This One”

    Indeed, $35 bucks an ounce changes the game! B-58 was the hot-rod of hot-rods. Have you ever seen the ejection seat video tests of that thing where they literally loaded up a black bear for the “pilot?” Ahhh, the good old days…

    I imagine that since only three were built, this one’s really got to take the cake: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XB-70_Valkyrie

  67. Yeah – I excluded test a/c and one-of-a-kind jobs, since that WOULD have been a trick question.

    $35/oz changes the math, but the game of government causing inflation to pay for boondoggles never changes 😉

  68. “$35/oz changes the math, but the game of government causing inflation to pay for boondoggles never changes ;)”

    All too true. But the current predicament is pretty inescapable. Beware the logarithmic function in any human social metric, it means things are unsustainable, and will “break.” Our debt accumulation has been logarithmic since the ’70’s, but its nearing the end of the reaction here. Its like the progressing chain reaction in a atomic bomb core, the first 75 generations of neutron multiplication is just a prelude…all the entropy happens in the last five generations. It’s why this shit sneaks up on Ivory Tower dopes like Paul Krugman.

  69. 750mm/200klb is $246 an oz compared to $35. Wow. that’s is a pricey ride.

  70. why this shit sneaks up on Ivory Tower dopes like Paul Krugman.

    No worries, maybe all we need is another bubble.

  71. “No worries, maybe all we need is another bubble.”

    Ha, I was reading that yesterday. Funny little Krugman…

    There’s the Chicago School, the Austrian School, the Coast School…and Krugman’s alma mater, the Zimbabwe School…ugh.

  72. While most aircraft fleets become easier and less costly to repair as they mature…

    I have a hard time believing this. Are they stating that as an airplane gets older, repairs get less frequent and the cost of those repairs get cheaper?

    These journos know nothing and cannot even take good notes.

    In a related comment, I – a submariner – learned in an ABC website article about the START Treaty that three Trident submarines had been converted to conventional weapons use and that added up to a total of 48 launchers. While I am a navy vet and know that four Trident SSBNs were converted to carry cruise missiles and that Ohio Class Trident Subs (SSBN) have 24 launch tubes each. A search of Wiki would have been better research.

    Never believe anything you read and only half of what you hear.

  73. I think maintenance and operational costs act kind of like a sin wave. Rising and high at first, level off, drop for a period, then as things become antiquated the cost of repair compared to an upgrade increase. This isn’t an uncommon trend with a lot of equipment and products. It depends where in the product life you are.

  74. more than likely a pet project pay back to someone.

    More like a massive pork barrel to pay off hundreds of thousands of voters. The program is spread over forty states. That alone shows that it’s not about building an airplane.

    -jcr

  75. I’m too lazy to dig for a link, but I thought an F-22 lost a dogfight to an F-15.

    The first F-22 loss was to an EA-18 (F-18 variant), but then came the loss to a T-38 trainer!

    http://gizmodo.com/5221105/king-of-fighters-f+22-gets-killed-by-humble-t+38-training-plane

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