The Bunker: A Tale of Two Fighters

The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.

This week in The Bunker: Plane talk about four key Air Force aircraft running into fiscal, fixability, and political turbulence; a $64 million drone misses the runway; Mel Brooks goes to war; and more. No Bunker next week!


Bad news for Pentagon’s newest warbirds

It came as supersonic sticker shock to official Washington and taxpayers alike back in 1988 when the Pentagon rolled out its new B-2 bomber with its breath-taking $450 million price tag. But it shouldn’t have: its final price, including floor mats, was more than $2 billion each. That’s because Pentagon blueprints are drafted with hope, fortified with wishful thinking. The Bunker recalled that contrast — a stunning initial cost that paled alongside the final accounting — when Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told Congress April 27 that his service’s newest fighter is going to cost “multiple hundreds of millions of dollars” per plane. “This is a number that’s going to get your attention,” Kendall told lawmakers. “It’s going to be an expensive airplane.”

When the guy in charge of the program says — before production begins — that it’s going to be expensive, you can, um, take it to the bank (unless you’re a taxpayer, of course). The Next Generation Air Dominance(PDF) (NGAD) fighter will be “incredibly effective” but so costly it will have to fly into combat accompanied by cheaper drones, Kendall added (only the Pentagon would try to dilute the sky-high cost of a new plane by proposing to develop new ones). And the sky-high initial price tag of the sixth-generation NGAD will be tamed, he said, because the Pentagon is developing the aircraft from the ground up to save money on maintenance and upgrades.

That’s an indictment of the F-35 program, as a double-barreled shotgun from the Government Accountability Office makes clear. The first blast, delivered four hours after Kendall testified, dealt with the development and purchase of 2,470 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines for nearly $400 billion:

The GAO auditor told Congress that the program is more than a decade late and $165 billion over its initial estimate. In 2021, F-35 engine builder Pratt & Whitney delivered only six of the year’s 152 engines — 4% — on time. When the Pentagon decided that Lockheed’s plan to build the F-35 simulator — wait for it! — “was too expensive,” it decided to do the job itself. But the Pentagon “has experienced a number of technical challenges with completing the development of the simulator, leading to more delays,” Jon Ludwigson, the GAO’s chief of contracting and national security acquisitions, said. “These delays led the program to postpone completion of initial operational testing multiple times, and it has yet to finalize its testing schedule.” More than 800 deficiencies discovered on the airplane have forced the Pentagon to delay a decision on when to launch full-rate production at least five times. The GAO estimates the Pentagon will buy about a third of its F-35s before declaring the plane can perform as advertised — and paid for. Taxpayers will spend billions updating those early F-35s.

Twenty-four hours later, on April 28, a second GAO official told a different congressional panel about the estimated $1.3 trillion it will cost to keep the F-35 flying over its projected 66-year lifespan:

Less than half the F-35s now on the tarmac are fully ready to fly and fight, she said. The plane’s engine is a big part of the problem (the F-35’s goal is that no more than 6% of the fleet is grounded at any one time because of engine problems; other U.S. fighters are grounded for engine problems less than 1% of the time). An F-35 spends an average of 131 days at a depot for major repairs; the goal is 30. When Lockheed’s plan to maintain the F-35 proved — wait for it! — “unsustainable due to high costs,” the Defense Department decided to do most of it in-house. But government maintainers told the GAO that “they are frequently constrained with what they are allowed to repair due to the proprietary nature of several elements of the aircraft that require contractor labor or oversight,” Diana Maurer, the GAO’s director of defense capabilities and maintenance, said. The Pentagon says it can’t use Lockheed’s blueprints without spending $500 million to access them.

Much of this fiasco is due to the Pentagon’s lust to rush the F-35 into production before its development was complete. Tom Christie, the Pentagon's chief weapons tester from 2001 to 2005 made this point to The Bunkernearly a decade ago. Kendall, the Air Force secretary, agrees. Back in 2012, he said “putting the F-35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice.”


New bomber flying a similar route?

The Air Force is speeding up production of its new Northrop B-21 bomber by “looking at layering” the bomber’s production “on top of” its development phase. That’s what Kathy Warden, Northrop’s CEO, told financial analysts April 28. That’s the leading edge of the “acquisition malpractice” that has sent the F-35 program into a tailspin. Well, as Christie, the former top Pentagon weapons tester, told The Bunker back in 2013, the military’s push to buy new hardware is “persistent, urgent and natural.” That’s why civilians are supposed to be in charge.


Boeing regrets presidential-plane contract

While the NGAD will be the Air Force’s sixth-generation fighter, Boeing is now building its seventh generation presidential aircraft. Unfortunately, the aerospace giant doesn’t like the deal. “Air Force One — I'm just going to call a very unique moment, a very unique negotiation, a very unique set of risks that Boeing probably shouldn't have taken,” Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said April 27 (while he wasn’t CEO when the contract was signed in 2018, he was on the company’s board). He made the comment shortly after the company announced it has lost $660 million turning a pair of its iconic 747s into flying White Houses.

The deal, from Boeing’s perspective, went south because of “a public negotiation that happened some time ago,” Calhoun said. He didn’t mention that Boeing’s negotiating partner was then-President Trump, who got personally involved in everything from the plane’s price to its exterior color scheme. Trump said his efforts saved more than $1 billion on a $4.2 billion contract, a claim that flummoxed the Pentagon. It also resulted in buying two 747s instead of three, scrapping their aerial refueling capability, and, believe it or not, using pre-owned planes (a pair of 747s originally slated for a Russian airline before it went bankrupt).

“President Trump negotiated a good deal on behalf of the American people,” Boeing tweeted when the contract was signed. Of course, defense contractors always say things like that when they land a fat Pentagon contract. They only complain when the contract turns lean.


Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently

Billions more dollars, thousands fewer troops

The Pentagon’s new 2023 budget request of $813 billion — about $17 billion more than this year’s spending — will pay for about 25,000 fewer troops, reported May 1.

One reason why…

…Pentagon spending is going up as troop strength is going down is the proposal in the 2023 budget to spend $1.8 million on a new home for the Space Force’s top enlisted leader, as reported April 28.

For those keeping score at home…

Breaking Defense published this roster of the arsenal the U.S. has sent to Ukraine so far on May 2.

We coulda been a contenda!

A Marine general told Defense News April 29 that one of the corps’ Marine Expeditionary Units couldn’t respond to an urgent order to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because of poor maintenance.

And speaking of marine assets…

The Russian navy is protecting its main Black Sea naval base with dolphins trained to detect underwater sabotage, H. I. Sutton of the U.S. Naval Institute reported April 27.

Fumbled handoff

A $64 million Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk drone was destroyed last August after a pair of ground-based controllers screwed up and sent it crashing into North Dakota farmland 6.8 miles beyond the runway, the Air Force reported April 22.

Mel Brooks, Combat Engineer

The comedian and Hollywood legend, 96, wrote of his World War II service in Europe for April 28.

Thanks for grimacing and grinning along with The Bunker this week. If you found it even mildly interesting, forward on to friend or foe so they can sign up here. And remember — TheBunker’s taking a break next week.