Budget & Hardware Myths: Part Two
By: Winslow Wheeler | October 2, 2012
Adventures in Babbleland: Technological Bloat
Second of two articles (first one here)
The most prominent effect of a major increase of money in the defense budget since 2001 has been decay in our forces. It has consisted of fewer combat units (such as Air Force squadrons and battleforce ships), aging of our major weapons inventories, and declining readiness of fighting personnel, such as pilots and tank drivers. It has actually been occurring for decades, as some insightful people have been pointing out for a long time.
Most defense analysts are oblivious to all that, or they deny the shrinkage at increasing cost has meant decay. Our shrunken, more expensive forces are more high tech and therefore more effective than ever before, they argue. Some of the more voluble advocates of this conventional wisdom argue that high cost is excused on the premise that nothing is too good—by that they mean expensive—for the troops.
However, in the American political-military system a double game is played: even though apparently high, the actual cost of weapons is far more than what the public is told; while simultaneously, the actual performance is less—sometimes astoundingly less.
The quintessence of the best possible hardware being regrettably, but necessarily, expensive is the F-22 fighter/bomber. Described as an “exponential leap in warfighting capabilities” in the Air Force’s own factsheet, the Raptor is an unmistakable emblem of American technological superiority. It is such a classic object of what politicians think is “pro-defense” thinking that presidential candidate Mitt Romney advocated putting it back into production during a campaign visit to swing-state Virginia.
There are, however, two sides to the F-22 story, regarding both cost and performance.
As to cost, that F-22 fact sheet states a unit cost of $143 million for each aircraft. While this amount is shamefully high for any fighter aircraft, it is also a gross understatement. It ignores the following –
– What are called “long lead,” prior year procurement costs for production elements of each aircraft that take longer to acquire.
– All prior year research and development (R&D) costs.
– New, contemporary R&D costs (that in 2012 alone were over $500 million for the F-22 fleet).
– Contemporary year modification costs ($230 million in 2012 for the F-22 fleet).
– The cost of future modifications and research, which the Government Accountability Office (GAO) tallies to be several billion dollars, not including an additional billion dollars to reopen the production line in a Romney Administration.
Counting most but not all of these costs, GAO estimated the F-22 unit cost at $412 million, each (almost three times what the Air Force’s fact sheet cost).
The F-22 is also extraordinarily expensive to operate. Despite the Air Force’s original promise that the F-22 would be easier and cheaper to operate than the F-15, it turns out to be a maintenance nightmare. In 2010, a single F-22 cost more than $60,000 for each hour it flew. According to official Air Force data, when they were grounded in 2011, thereby increasing the per-hour operating costs, they cost more than $128,000 per hour of flight. Aging F-15Cs and F-16Cs, including all expenses to upgrade them, were $40,000 and $21,000 per hour, respectively, in 2011. To operate a single F-22 (at its lower $60,000 per hour rate) for 200 hours per year over a 30 year lifetime will cost $360 million per plane. That’s more than a third of a billion dollars.
The total cost to the taxpayer for each F-22, including acquisition and operating costs, would come to over $770 million per aircraft in today’s dollars.
For that gigantic total ownership cost, we may be getting something less than the extraordinary performance implied by the term “fifth generation” that the Air Force uses to describe the F-22′s performance. That term usually applies to four features: stealth, super-cruise, long-range air-to-air combat, and extraordinary agility in a close-in dogfight.
Let’s examine each of them:
– Stealth does not mean invisibility to radar; it does mean reduced detection ranges against some radars at some angles. In the presence of certain radars, such as long wave length search radars, the F-22 and other stealth aircraft can be detected at very long ranges, as were the stealthy F-117s that were successfully attacked by antiquated Soviet era radars in the 1999 Kosovo air war when a Serbian air defense crew with a 1970s era SA-3 surface to air missile system shot down one F-117 and damaged a second. In addition, at angles other than nose-on or around the “water-line” of the aircraft, the F-22 is also more detectible, such as from the rear and above and below. Continuing problems with maintaining the F-22’s stealth coatings in real world conditions call into question just how stealthy the F-22 will be as a practical matter. The F-22’s most touted feature, stealth, is less than some would have you think.
– Supercruise is the ability to fly at supersonic speed without requiring the engines to be in their highest fuel consumption setting—in afterburners. However, the volume of fuel the F-22 carries is too low for sustained supercruising, and coincidental information in Air Force reports on F-22 “mishaps” reveals that F-22s flying at supersonic speeds in exercises need to refuel quite frequently from aerial tankers. As with stealth, the F-22 does possess the supercruise characteristic, but it is something less than is frequently advertised.
– Long-range air-to-air combat is also much-touted for both the F-22 and the F-35. Its key is the ability to detect, identify and engage enemy aircraft from beyond visual range (BVR) with radar-controlled missiles. However, the history of such technology is one of failure, and even in more modern formulations, BVR radar missiles have a far from impressive performance record. When I traveled to Langley and Nellis Air Force bases in 2006 to look into the F-22, I learned that the Air Force assumes a lethality (“probability of kill”) for such BVR missiles at least twice what would be reasonable to expect in actual aerial combat against a competent foe. This unrealistically high expectation of missile lethality is one of several biases that dominate F-22 exercises against legacy aircraft. The results may be hugely impressive exchange ratios against F-16s and F-15s, for example, but serious questions cloud the reliability of those ratios.
– Extraordinary agility is what is supposed to give the F-22 the edge in a visual range dogfight with an enemy (given the frailty of radar-based air-to -air engagement assumptions, such dogfighting could be common against a competent enemy). However, when one compares some of the F-22’s basic aerodynamic characteristics (thrust-to-weight, wing loading, ability to sustain a turn), it becomes apparent that the F-22 performs in a regime very similar to, and sometimes not as good as, early versions of the F-15 and F-16 when flying in an air-to-air configuration. After 30 years and almost $70 billion, the Air Force has produced a fighter with legacy-aircraft characteristics on this score.
That disappointment was prominently justified when German pilots flying Eurofighter Typhoons successfully engaged the larger, heavier F-22 in visual range mock dogfighting last June. While the Typhoon itself is no bargain and is not exactly small and highly agile, the articles describing these exercises came as a surprise to many in the U.S. aviation community. They should not have.
Perhaps, the F-22′s biggest disappointment may be in its most important dimension: how well the Air Force has supported its own F-22 pilots. Because the F-22 is so expensive to fly and difficult to maintain, its pilots get too few hours in the air to train. Reports make it clear that they get only from eight to 10 hours of in-air training time per month. That is less than half of what fighter pilots received in the 1980s, and it is less than a fourth what Israeli pilots received when they were at the height of their skills in the past. It is surely a major factor in the disappointing F-22 dogfighting performance against the German Typhoons in June, along with the basic cost, performance and maintenance characteristics of the F-22.
There is second burden the Air Force has imposed on its F-22 pilots: a controversy has raged over how safe the F-22 is to its own pilots and ground crew. While powerful toxins populate the source regions of the F-22’s oxygen system for its pilots, the Air Force has asserted that such “contamination” has nothing to do with the physiological problems pilots have been experiencing. Instead, the Air Force has identified a valve and an associated pressure vest as the source of the problems F-22 pilots (and ground crew!) have been experiencing during—and after—flights. Close observers of this controversy are skeptical that the Air Force is taking the proper care to protect F-22 pilots from likely toxic contamination. Already two pilots have been killed in accidents where those toxic effects are possibly at play, even if the Air Force went to great lengths to virtually blame the pilots for their own deaths.
The history of aerial combat shows pilot skill to be the dominating factor in determining who wins. And yet, the Air Force has decided it cannot afford to give F-22 pilots sufficient time in the air to train, and it requires pilots to train in an aircraft that is not free of potential toxic effects. F-22 pilots are not given every advantage, physically and mentally, to succeed in an extraordinarily physically demanding and technically challenging combat environment. Regardless of whether the F-22 is or is not the world-beater the Air Force claims, that it treats its pilots in the manner it has is not the sign of a first-rate military organization.
President Obama has an answer to all the F-22 cost and performance problems: the F-35. If you think that is a solution, you are not paying attention.
Less training for F-22 pilots and a potentially toxic environment in an airplane that cannot vastly outperform older, cheaper “legacy” aircraft is just one example of the high cost technological bloat that clogs our armed forces. Other examples include, but are hardly limited to, the hapless Littoral Combat Ship, the unaffordable F-35, missile defenses that fail even in cooperative testing, and high cost, low effectiveness Reaper drones.
Some contend all this creates the best military in the world, if not history, and something that people like President Obama, Senator John McCain and others can use against any other military in the world as if it were a “speed bump.” If the illusion were not so troubling, it would be amusing.