Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Turkey Shot Down

Image credit U.S. Air Force

The Congress and the President did something right today, as the New York Times notes:

With some of his political capital on the line, President Obama won a crucial victory on Tuesday when the Senate voted to strip out $1.75 billion in financing for seven more F-22 jet fighters from a military authorization bill.

Obama Wins Crucial Round in Senate Vote on F-22

The F-22 Raptor is probably the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world. The NYT article goes on to say:

Critics have long portrayed the F-22 as a cold war relic. The plane was designed in the late 1980s and can perform tactical operations at higher altitudes than other fighters. It can cruise at supersonic speeds without using telltale afterburners, and it has a stealthy skin that scatters radar detection signals. Proponents see it as a form of insurance against possible wars with countries like China.

Obama Wins Crucial Round in Senate Vote on F-22

Conflict with China is years away, assuming it happens at all. With the advancements in remotely-piloted aircraft that have happened in the last decade, it's quite possible that the F-22 will be the last manned interceptor aircraft America ever builds. Meanwhile, the F-22 has been a maintenance nightmare:

The jet's metallic skin is reportedly the principal cause of its maintenance troubles, with unexpected problems such as vulnerability to rain and other abrasions.

Recent tests have required more than 30 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight, The Washington Post says, quoting government reports. Such maintenance demand is said to push the plane's hourly cost of flying to more than $44,000, far higher than for the warplane it replaces.

Expensive F-22 having maintenance woes

Extra maintenance is to be expected on aircraft with advanced features, at least during development, but the F-22 has been in development for more than a decade. That these problems are still cropping up is worrisome.

As Taylor Marsh's guest analyst Winslow Wheeler notes, this was a victory for President Obama and the Senate over the sort of pork barrel politics that the defense business reeks of:

Narrow parochial interests outranking an effective defense has been crippling our armed forces for decades. Pentagon data show that America’s military budget is now larger than at any point since the end of World War II. However, our Air Force has fewer combat aircraft than at any point since 1946.

The Congressional Budget Office informs us that this reduced number of tactical aircraft is, on average, older than ever before. Still worse, Air Force combat pilots get one-half, or less, of the in-air training time they had, for example, in the early 1970s. Major reasons for this decay are programs like the F-22 and the F-35.

Heating Up the Defense Meltdown

The way that weapons development programs are handled these days is sucking the life out of the budget, and is doing no good at all for the military. The way the game is played now is for major projects to be spread all over the country. This makes it harder for Senators and congressmen to oppose a program, because if the program is cut, jobs will be lost in their constituencies. You can see how that played out in the case of the F-22. Senators Boxer (D-CA), Feinstein (D-CA), Murray (D-WA), and Cantwell (D-WA) all voted in favor of the F-22. Except for Feinstein, all are moderates or liberals, and all come from progressive states. Yet they voted in favor of continued production because they have plants in their states.

Another effect of this distribution is that subcontractors, test organizations, logistics, and contract administration for a program are often hundreds or even thousands of miles away from each other. In addition to making communications more difficult, this also necessitates far more travel and shipping costs. What's worse, the programs are so rigidly specified, and often overspecified, that it is far more likely that changes or delays will affect the production schedule. If you want to see how to make a product development process hideously expensive, just look at how the Pentagon does it.

The Pentagon procurement process needs desparately to be reformed. Unfortunately, until Congress and the President are both really on board with doing that, it won't happen. At least this development gives us some hope that it will happen.


Dana Hunter said...

This vote has been very detrimental to my health. The fact that 15 Cons actually had the sense to vote against this turkey nearly gave me heart failure. I'm afraid if they show this much sense again within the next few months, I'm in for a major myocardial infarction.

If they ever start putting the military's actual needs over their political needs and reform a badly broken system, my poor heart will just simply explode. But you know what, I'm okay with that. Bring on the catastrophic cardiac events!

Cujo359 said...

Wasting defense dollars has been a bipartisan effort, as has the competition for those dollars. I don't know what motivated those particular congressmen, but it's quite possible that they had defense programs in their own constituencies that were competing with the F-22 for that money.

We're not there yet. You can wait awhile before acquiring that prescription for nitro.