There’s a bureaucratic and public-opinion war going on in Washington over the fate of the highly sophisticated but highly temperamental F-22, assembled up the road in Marietta. Defense Secretary Bob Gates and others trying to halt the expensive program fired a telling volley “from beyond visual range” in this morning’s Washington Post:
“The United States’ top fighter jet, the Lockheed Martin F-22, has recently required more than 30 hours of maintenance for every hour in the skies, pushing its hourly cost of flying to more than $44,000, a far higher figure than for the warplane it replaces, confidential Pentagon test results show.
The aircraft’s radar-absorbing metallic skin is the principal cause of its maintenance troubles, with unexpected shortcomings — such as vulnerability to rain and other abrasion — challenging Air Force and contractor technicians since the mid-1990s, according to Pentagon officials, internal documents and a former engineer.
While most aircraft fleets become easier and less costly to repair as they mature, key maintenance trends for the F-22 have been negative in recent years, and on average from October last year to this May, just 55 percent of the deployed F-22 fleet has been available to fulfill missions guarding U.S. airspace, the Defense Department acknowledged this week. The F-22 has never been flown over Iraq or Afghanistan….
“It is a disgrace that you can fly a plane [an average of] only 1.7 hours before it gets a critical failure” that jeopardizes success of the aircraft’s mission, said a Defense Department critic of the plane who is not authorized to speak on the record. Other skeptics inside the Pentagon note that the planes, designed 30 years ago to combat a Cold War adversary, have cost an average of $350 million apiece and say they are not a priority in the age of small wars and terrorist threats.”
The entire piece is pretty damning, both in terms of the reliability of the F-22 and what its problems say about the Pentagon’s weapons-acquisition process. You should read the whole thing, but here’s a taste:
“Its troubles have been detailed in dozens of Government Accountability Office reports and Pentagon audits. But Pierre Sprey, a key designer in the 1970s and 1980s of the F-16 and A-10 warplanes, said that from the beginning, the Air Force designed it to be “too big to fail, that is, to be cancellation-proof.”
Lockheed farmed out more than 1,000 subcontracts to vendors in more than 40 states, and Sprey — now a prominent critic of the plane — said that by the time skeptics “could point out the failed tests, the combat flaws, and the exploding costs, most congressmen were already defending their subcontractors’ ” revenues.
John Hamre, the Pentagon’s comptroller from 1993 to 1997, says the department approved the plane with a budget it knew was too low because projecting the real costs would have been politically unpalatable on Capitol Hill.
“We knew that the F-22 was going to cost more than the Air Force thought it was going to cost and we budgeted the lower number, and I was there,” Hamre told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April. “I’m not proud of it,” Hamre added in a recent interview.
Sprey and Thomas Christie, also cited in the piece, are renowned as advocates of effective air power and reform of the Pentagon’s overly politicized contracting system. They were colleagues of the infamous Col. John Boyd, maybe the best fighter pilot this nation has produced and a man who helped revolutionize air strategy and military theory. Their story is told in Atlantan Robert Coram’s book “John Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.”