Military

The Air Force Spent Over $300,000 on 391 Special Coffee Mugs

As it turns out, the 3D-printed solution costs 50 cents

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|||U.S. Air Force/Sipa USA/Newscom
U.S. Air Force/Sipa USA/Newscom

If you think you're paying too much for coffee, you've got nothing on the U.S. Air Force, which spent roughly $300,000 just on custom coffee mugs over the course of two years.

A Fox News report alleges that the Air Force spent an exorbitant amount of money on specialty coffee mugs for the 60th Aerial Port Squadron at Travis Air Force base in California. The metal mugs have the ability to reheat beverages while air refueling tankers are in flight. As cool as the feature sounds, the mug's shape makes it highly susceptible to shattering when dropped…which happens frequently. The cost of a single mug has doubled from $693 in 2016 to $1,280 in 2018. At the time of the report, Project On Government Oversight's Dan Grazier said that the mugs' intended purpose of aiding "the crew's alertness by providing caffeine" could be similarly achieved "with a few cans of Red Bull."

On October 2, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R–Iowa) sent a letter to Dr. Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force, inquiring about the report, which had originally stated that the branch spent $56,000 replacing mugs over the course of two years. Wilson responded several weeks later, stating that the purchase of 391 cups over the course of two years actually cost $326,785. New mugs were purchased each time the cups were broken as replacement parts were reportedly unavailable. As for the doubling in price, Wilson said that the suppliers who produced parts for older aircraft have either shut down production or gone out of business altogether. The higher costs were also blamed on rising costs of raw materials like copper and chrome.

The Air Force has since offered other solutions to lower costs. Wilson said the Air Force recently explored its ability to 3D print replacement parts. In fact, the new 3D printed handles are rounded in such a way that reduces a weak point in the mug that often leads to shattering. The 3D printed handles could also be produced at 50 cents a piece, which is significantly cheaper than purchasing a whole new mug.

The Air Force's mugs are hardly its first waste scandal, nor is it the first time 3D printing has been offered as a solution to reduce costs. According to the initial Fox News report, the Air Force came under fire for spending $10,000 on a C-5 toilet seat lid. The service branch was able to 3D print a replacement seat for $300. Other waste scandals included $659 ashtrays for aircrafts.

The problem also extends beyond the Air Force. In 2017, the Marine Corps reportedly paid $64,000 for a $4,000 cable.

President Trump signed an $82 billion spending increase for the Pentagon in August 2018. The increase alone dwarfed other military budgets across the world. Though the administration has painted spending increases as a way to "rebuild" the American military, there are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of coffee-mug-like cases showing that the Pentagon treats its budget like monopoly money.

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  1. To be honest, most of that money went into developing a type of metal that shatters easily.

  2. Reminds me of the story of the American astronaut and the Russian cosmonaut talking and the American shows the Russian this amazing ink pen NASA spent millions of dollars developing that can write upside-down, in a vacuum, under zero-G conditions, just the most amazing pen ever. Did the Russians have anything this amazing? The Russian shrugged and said, “We use pencil.”

    1. The addendum to that joke is that the pencil hacked the space station

    2. That’s technically true. However, the Russians did end up buying pens from us, as the graphite dust from their pencils became a problem, clogging up CO2 scrubbers. If they had continued using pencils in the long term, it would have killed them.

      There are reasonable reasons to use expensive solutions, and when lives are on the line, it’s important to do things right.

      That being said, no one wants to question the military’s spending, so they go extreme on everything.

      1. The pens were privately developed, with no funding from NASA. NASA wanted nothing to do with it due to an earlier scandal about massively overpaying for mechanical pencils. They did eventually end up buying pens, for $6 each.

        1. Thanks for the correction. I guess both halves of the story were wrong.

  3. The 3D printed handles could also be produced at 50 cents a piece, which is significantly cheaper than purchasing a whole new mug.

    Yeah, but that’s not the point. The point is graft, an inherent risk in any government expenditure.

    1. ‘risk’ implies something that might not happen.

    2. Sadly, the point is often “purchasing officer didn’t look at bottom line on purchase order before signing because there was a really good segment on Oprah that day.”

      1. Oprah?

        Those bureaucrats get the OWN network? WTF?

        1. We have to treat our public servants right.

          1. After all, the purchasing officer probably has to drink out of a regular-old $100 cup.

  4. Dan Grazier said that the mugs’ intended purpose of aiding “the crew’s alertness by providing caffeine” could be similarly achieved “with a few cans of Red Bull.”

    Or caffeine pills at less than $0.10 per dose.

    1. That’s the mugs’ officially-approved statement of intended military purpose, sure.

      But, and not that they want it stated as an official rationale in the media, if you start telling coffee-drinkers “just take a No-Doz”, they’ll start grumbling about how they didn’t grow up dreaming about flying tankers, and they could take all their expensive flight training and long hours of flight experience to a pilot job at an airline, where a flight attendant will bring them all the freshly-brewed coffee they want.

      It’s not like the Air Force is currently meeting its pilot retention goals as it is; quality-of-life is a major issue.

  5. When people spend other people’s money unaccountably, with no penalty for spending too much, and disagreement for spending is tantamount to treason, then of course they will spend money.

    The American military is widely regarded as the most wasteful and least efficient organization on the planet. Arguably, in history.

  6. The higher costs were also blamed on rising costs of raw materials like copper and chrome.

    Yeah – unless it’s being made of solid gold, when you’re paying $1,280 for a coffee cup, the cost of the raw material does not matter. I can all but guarantee that there’s about $3 worth of copper in that cup, tops. If I’m getting $1,280 for the cup, I’m not raising the price to $1,280.50 because the price of copper went up 15%.

    1. You’re raising it to deal with the fact that the AF paid for the development of a mug that they changed the requirements for 10 times, has millions of dollars of testing done on it because it plugs into an aircraft, and is subject to a bunch of garbage mil standards that may or may not add value and are duplicated by well know commercial standards… Also it’s now obsolete because it was designed 20 years ago and has no use outside of the military.

  7. The question I always ask when I see a story like this is simply this: were they really buying coffee mugs?

    Here’s the thing. Sometimes, you buy a product and it comes with a free trinket, correct? Like, you buy cereal and there’s a free toy inside.

    Now, what if you bought, say, $300,000 worth of cereal…but the free toy that came with it was expensive, super-secret military hardware?

    Anytime there’s a story about $500 hammers or $75 pens being sold to the military, quite often what’s going on is that the military wants a piece of hardware but don’t want to put it on their balance sheet (that shit’s public, y’know), so instead of buying the equipment and getting a free box of pens, they buy a box of pens for an exorbitant amount and get a “free” piece of military equipment on the side that they ever-so-coincidentally don’t have to reveal they bought.

    I think it’s perfectly plausible that they did spend over three hundred thousand dollars on coffee mugs. This is the government, after all. But I suspect that the $300,000 outlay was really payment for something they didn’t want to tell people they bought.

    1. Here’s the thing. Sometimes, you buy a product and it comes with a free trinket, correct? Like, you buy cereal and there’s a free toy inside.

      Now, what if you bought, say, $300,000 worth of cereal…but the free toy that came with it was expensive, super-secret military hardware?

      There’s also the opportunity for a razors and blades model or a combination of the two.

      I bought 1,000 3D plastic mug handles at $0.50 ea. and got this $500 3D printer for free!

      I paid SpaceX $300,000 for some shitty laser sintered ‘coffee mugs’ for and got the development, IP, and equipment for free!

    2. The military has an entire secret balance sheet for purchases of that sort. They aren’t disguised as bogus charges, but a giant one-line item labeled “Secret”. Congress has access, we don’t. There’s no reason to resort to duplicity.

      1. There’s no reason to resort to duplicity.

        But is there a reason not to?

  8. The 3D printed handles could also be produced at 50 cents a piece, which is significantly cheaper than purchasing a whole new mug.

    The service branch was able to 3D print a replacement seat for $300.

    The miracle of 3D printing! Savings achieved. Of course, if the Air Farce had explored vacuum forming and extrusion technology in the 50s, they could’ve saved some money exploring 3D printing that *still* produces the part at more than 10X the cost. But let’s not get too crazy on the cost cutting as long as it supports our pet cause, eh?

  9. “President Trump signed an $82 billion spending increase for the Pentagon in August 2018. The increase alone dwarfed other military budgets across the world.”

    Somehow, I just knew this was about *TRUMP*!!!!!!!

  10. AF is the bomb they can have what they want.

  11. Now just wait a cotton-pickin’ minute here! ASHTRAYS for aircraft?!?! But you can’t smoke on the base!

    1. Aircraft like the Chinook pictured are from the 60’s and did come with “ash receivers” that generally get removed the first time a pilot knocks one off and it falls into the flight controls.

  12. A Fox News report alleges that the Air Force spent an exorbitant amount of money

    Dog bites man if I ever saw it.

  13. Okay so why are there no pictures of these coffee mugs?!? I need to see what a $1280 coffee mug looks like!

  14. The U.S. Air Force credited picture shows a US Army CH-47 Chinook. An aircraft which i can assure you is more than capable of operating it’s own coffee pot for significantly less than one of these mugs. Not to mention only select special ops models can even participate in aerial refueling.

  15. Well, what’s the proposed solution?

    The certification system for purchases of items for use aboard military aircraft is inherently biased against purchaser discretion, because of all the possible cases where a reasonable-seeming substitution can destroy millions of dollars worth of equipment, kill someone, or both. So faced with the need to replace anything, it’s going to be a bureaucratic bitch to certify an alternative solution.

    And even if the purchaser decides it needs to be done, and he convinces all the people he needs to in order to get all the wheels in motion to certify a replacement, that’s going to take time, while in the meantime there’s a broken item to replace. Iinterim purchases of specialty items from the authorized vendors will happen while an alternative is investigated.

    What else can you do? Competent aerospace engineers won’t work as purchasers for any reasonable amount of money; they’ll get bored and quit. You can’t let people who aren’t such engineers use their own judgment, because they’ll kill people and destroy millions of dollars in equipment; they don’t know enough to know (rather than guess) when they’re actually making a safety-critical decision.

    So these sorts of things will always happen.

  16. “World’s Greatest Air Force”

    1. So let me get this straight.

      Not only does that mug cost over a grand, but the only thing that breaks when it falls is the handle and the AF couldn’t figure out anyway to repair it short of replacing *THE WHOLE GODDAMN THING!*?

      Every squadron’s probably got one or two junior airmen who took shop class in highschool and would love to be handed the command credit card and told to go out and buy a cheap electric saw, some wood, and some screws and cut out a few replacements.

  17. Having been involved in manufacturing virtually all my life, I can not imagine being able to 3D print anything for 50 cents! I expect those costs have been greatly underestimated.

  18. Are they paired with the $600K coffee makers?

  19. The Air Force has never heard of “thermos” technology? And couldn’t put a hotplate inside the tanker? And, frankly, *even that Army and Navy* would have said ‘drink your coffee cold’ after a few of those damn things broke. Then the aircrews would have figured out how to make them work again – for free – if they were important enough.

    I recall the F-111’s having a slot next to the cockpit chairs specifically for a thermos bottle.

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