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: a peek into three vexing issues embedded in the Pentagon’s DNA that contribute to weapons that promise too much, cost too much, and take too long to deliver. And more…
Time is money, and this new Air Force plane is proof
Military procurement is rocket science, and it’s often tough for us U.S. taxpayers to figure out who is screwing up and who is getting screwed. Official Pentagon-approved phrases like “Cost Analysis Requirement Description,” “Lowest Price Technically Acceptable,” and “Undefinitized Contract Actions” send any sane soul into a stupor. But this week, as a public service, The Bunker is going to focus on something we all understand: time.
Let’s imagine you are the Pentagon. Given your upbringing, that means you favor glitzy new weapons instead of the basic building blocks that are the true foundation of military might. That translates into salivating over the latest supersonic marvels instead of more rudimentary hardware.
So, check this out: the Air Force’s T-38 jet trainer that the service uses to forge new pilots has been flying for (cover your eyes) 64 years. The service has bought several generations of front-line fighters with new capabilities since then. But Northrop’s Talon trainer lacks 12 of them(PDF) needed to train new pilots. Among other things, it can’t maneuver at high altitudes, has no fly-by-wire controls, and lacks flight systems found on today’s warplanes. More critically, its troubled replacement, the Boeing T-7 Red Hawk Advanced Pilot Trainer (APT), is nearly 10 years late(PDF).
There is only one way to solve this problem (cover your eyes again, but feel free to peek through your fingers): money. Instead of honing their stick skills aboard up to date but relatively cheap trainers, fledgling pilots are now learning their skills aboard F-22 aircraft, widely regarded as the hottest (and most costly) fighter in the world.
Even taxpayers can do this math: the T-38 costs $9,021 per flying hour, according to a May 18 report(PDF) from the Government Accountability Office. Its replacement — the T-7 — is projected to cost $9,965 per flying hour. And the F-22 trainer? It costs $85,325 per flying hour. “This cost is more than eight times what Air Force officials estimate the APT will cost per flying hour,” those sharp-eyed GAO bookkeepers noted.
Just how much money is the Air Force spending on training new pilots aboard the F-22 and other high-end aircraft? “An Air Force training expert said the service does not track the cost of using combat aircraft to train new pilots,” the GAO said. Here’s a safe bet: They’re not acknowledging tracking it because they don’t want us to know.
Special Added Unbonus: The T-7 delay means extra upkeep is required to keep the T-38s flying longer. The Air Force plans to spend an added $750 million(PDF) to keep these Eisenhower-era “training wheels” aloft. “Further delays to the APT program,” the GAO adds, “could increase this cost.”
A Pentagon reality check is in the mail
After writing about U.S. national security for more than 40 years, two things have become clear to The Bunker: wonder weapons aren’t, and whatever the latest scheme is to make them so rarely works as promised. Digital engineering was supposed to make prototypes and testing obsolete. Back in 2020, the Air Force declared(PDF) it would be “the next big paradigm shift for military tech dominance.” A top Air Force official said “it just feels like you’ve got a fast forward button for acquisition — it’s magical.”
Um, no. Turns out digital engineering is actually the latest gold-plated gimcrack to crash and burn.
“Back in the F-35 [development] days I remember industry coming in and saying, ‘we’re so good in engineering now we don’t need to do testing anymore,’” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said May 22(PDF). “That’s not true. And it’s particularly not true when you push the envelope outside of things you’ve done before.” Kendall estimates such computerized help can generate savings of about 20% in time and money “but it has been over-hyped.” Not merely hyped, mind you, but over-hyped. “You see this all the time,” he added. “Hypersonics are a good example ... If you haven’t done it before, you’re going to have to go out and actually do it.”
If the Defense Department had to reinvent the wheel, it would be a pentagon.
WHO’S (IN POSSESSION OF) YOUR DATA?
An insidious practice driving up military spending
Amateur Pentagon nags complain about the cost of weapons. Professional Pentagon nags complain about the cost of keeping weapons flying, sailing, and rolling. That’s because supporting weapons once sold to the U.S. military pays better than building the weapons in the first place. Sustaining weapons after they’re bought accounts for 70% of their lifetime cost.
One of the reasons why is that too often the contractor who built the weapon has a chokehold on the data(PDF) — the blueprints and software — needed to repair it. “What that basically does is create a perpetual monopoly,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said May 22(PDF).
Turns out history is repeating itself with that T-7 trainer. The Air Force plans to buy 346 T-7s for $7.3 billion (including simulators and spares), with an estimated per-unit cost of $21.8 million. But Boeing has provided only a third of the data required for the jet’s sustainment — and done so more than three years later than its contract with the Air Force specified. Not only that, “The contractor redacted some information needed to conduct in-house sustainment,” the GAO said(PDF) in that May 18 report. “Without comprehensive sustainment data, as determined by the Air Force, the program may be reliant on the contractor for general maintenance and repairs.”
There is now a “tenuous” relationship between Boeing and the Air Force because the company has lost more than $1 billion developing the trainer, the GAO added(PDF). “Air Force officials told us that there is still time for the program to receive the information and plan for sustainment, but expressed concern because there has been little progress over the last year.”
WHAT WE’RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently
Boeing has denied the Pentagon cost info on more than 10,000 replacement parts, preventing the government from making sure it is not over-paying, Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg reported May 25.
Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Lisa Franchetti is likely to be tapped as the next chief of naval operations, which would make her the first woman to serve as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Justin Katz reported May 26 at Breaking Defense.
Nearly nine of 10 Army studies into sexual assault, suicides, drug woes, and other problems in the ranks concluded with no “actionable recommendations,” Nick Schwellenbach of the Project On Government Oversight reported May 26.
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