Two Very Troubled Fighter Jets
Published: July 14, 2012
Economic pressures are forcing justifiable cuts in military spending. The budget control act passed by Congress in 2011 mandated $480 billion in cuts over 10 years, with the possibility of $500 billion more in reductions, beginning next January. After a decade of unrestrained military spending, the Pentagon needs this rebalancing.
With such cuts looming, it is more important than ever to ensure that every defense dollar is spent wisely. Yet problems with two major weapons show how far the Pentagon is from that goal and how dysfunctional its procurement system remains.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to prove that the Pentagon could build a technologically advanced weapon system within an affordable budget, without huge delays. After the aircraft turned into the Pentagon’s biggest budget buster, and performed disappointingly, the Obama administration tried to correct course in 2010. A new report last month by the Government Accountability Office showed that the problems had not been solved.
The Air Force, the Navy and the Marines plan to buy more than 2,400 F-35s through 2037. The accountability office now estimates the total cost of acquisition at nearly $400 billion, up 42 percent from the estimate in 2007; the price per plane has doubled since project development began in 2001. Cost overruns now total $1 billion.
The agency reported other problems as well. It said that the plane would not be in full production until 2019, a delay of six years, and that the small number of planes produced so far were being delivered, on average, one year late. The F-35’s overall performance in 2011 was described as “mixed.” There also have been difficulties integrating 24 million lines of software code into the complex computer system.
Meanwhile, the F-22 Raptor, the world’s costliest and most advanced stealth fighter jet, is also mired in performance problems. Over the past 18 months, there have been repeated cases in which pilots have suffered dizziness and disorientation from lack of oxygen in the planes, which cost $400 million each.
The Air Force has acknowledged 36 incidents, with 21 of those described as unexplained; three more episodes were reported in recent weeks. For more than a year, Air Force officials have struggled to find a cause of the problem, and last month said they believed that a pressure vest was restricting pilots’ breathing and that narrow oxygen hoses were leaking or not delivering enough air. But two pilots who experienced recent hypoxia symptoms were not wearing vests.
Late last year, the Air Force stopped flying the F-22 for five months. Flights have since resumed, but are limited to within 30 minutes of a landing field.
The administration committed early on to reform the acquisition system and rein in escalating costs, but clearly its efforts are not sufficient. Congress and defense contractors have a stake in this too. Many are complaining about the financial and strategic pressures that are forcing defense reductions. They need to worry as much about the billions being wasted.