Thursday, December 20, 2012

Caveat Emptor

First of all, full disclosure is in order.  I was in my early 20's when I read The Right Stuff and James Michener's fictionalized version of the same story, Space (the only Michener I've ever been able to read, by the way).  I defy anyone who's read either, but perhaps especially Tom Wolfe's breezy account of the early years of the space program - the whole thing could have been printed in caps lock mode and would have read far better - without coming away not only with a great deal of admiration for the men who fly combat aircraft, but quite a bit of admiration for the machines, as well.  Twice in my life I've been fortunate to visit the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH.  There's something . . . just something about those planes, whether WWII-era fighters, Cold War work horses like the F-4 and F-111 or our new-fangled aircraft that is . . . thrilling? Is that the word? . . . and makes me more than a little proud to be an American.

Having said that, I wanted to expand a bit on some complaints Charlie Pierce wrote concerning the proposed F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).  Linked to a story in the business section of The New York Times, Pierce takes aim at two facts: both the per-unit cost for the aircraft as well as the potential cost for the entire proposed program are not only enormous, but growing; several countries that had placed orders for the plane are backing out of their commitments, not only because of the cost, but because the aircraft, as it has developed, is not offering what was originally intended.

While dubbed a Joint Strike Fighter, much like the problem-plagued F-22 Raptor, the F-35 is not an air-superiority aircraft.  An Australian defense think-tank has a run-down of its own complaints about the F-35, and ends the discussion comparing the Lightning to other aircraft, concluding that, in fact, the F-35 resembles less an F-18 than the old F-104 Thunderchief.  Not just the design of the aircraft, but the missions for which it's best suited, the F-35 would be far better providing air cover and low-level tactical raids than Top Gun-like dog fights.

So the plane's actual performance doesn't match expectations.  Yet the real complaint is the cost.  This is, I think, less a product of industrial perfidy than it is the oddities of our weapon procurement system.  It begins with the statutory demand not only that designs meet specific military needs; these designs need to be approved based upon cost.  Specifically, for example, while Lockheed Martin received the contract for the F-35, in all likelihood, several contractors probably bid on the project, offering plans for an aircraft to meet the stated needs of the  Armed Services.  By law, however, the bid is awarded to the company that offers the lowest bid.  This system creates cost overruns.  I doubt there are many large-scale weapon systems that have come in on budget and time, not because the system for weapon construction is laden with opportunities for graft.  Rather, it might seem feasible to propose $X million for a particular weapon design; once actual construction gets underway, even small flaws in the original design can create magnified cost-overruns to compensate.

Once prototypes go through initial testing, more changes usually follow.  Then there are test flights, which just increase the demand for changes that create spiraling cost increases.  This process can take many years, during which the demands from policy makers change, which create issues for designers to incorporate these new demands.  Again - costs increase.

The entire way we buy weapons guarantees no system will end up either performing, appearing, or costing what was originally proposed.  I'm not sure what the answer to this conundrum is, although I do wonder if we really want weapons that are built by corporations that are willing to spend less on them than anyone else.  Even with design specifications and detailed regulations that insure safety and reliability, doesn't it seem at least plausible that a low-bid is, after decades of experience, just a low-end estimate?

From the look of the aircraft through its mission capabilities to its cost, the F-35 might well be, as Pierce says, a lemon.  All the same, it is a product of the way we have decided to order defense systems.  So, I wonder: Who's to blame?  Is it Lockheed Martin, who is only looking for a slight return on its many-year investment in the F-35?  Or, perhaps, is it an entire way of doing this business that does nothing but suck money from the public trough?

Virtual Tin Cup

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