Friday, July 10, 2009

Kill, Kill, Kill, the F-22

A New/Old Way to Solve Budget Problems

The Washington Post's Jeff Smith has done a great job outlining the problems with the F-22, the pricey and delicate super plane developed to fight the Soviet Union, and finally put into production long after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (see Premier U.S. Fighter Jet Has Major Shortcomings). In useful detail, Smith recounts the technical failures and production difficulties that have bloated the price of the jet well beyond original cost estimates. He also provides a little insight from several whistleblowers who once worked at various stages of the program with defense contractors and the Pentagon. It is hard to see how the average reader (and taxpayer) could read the story and conclude that we gotta have more F-22s at an average cost of $350 million per plane.

The Air Force is currently the proud owner of some 185 of these flying lemons, which require about $50,000 of maintenance and repair for every actual hour in the air. Of course, all high-tech contrivances are also Rube Goldberg-machines. The F-15, an older fighter still capable of licking any other military jet on the planet, costs a cringe-worthy $31,000 in maintenance per flight hour. But in 2005 a spanking new F-15 cost about a quarter of the price for an F-22 (according to a Marine Corps analysis, which can be found on the web here). In the four years since, the cost of a new F-22 has continued to soar.

I'm no aviation expert (though I'd be perfectly willing to play one on TV), but if 185 F-22s were to fly 45 hours per year for five years (2005-2009, inclusive), maintenance alone would cost about $2.1 billion. It would cost about $1 billion less to run F-15s on the same schedule. Buying F-15s in the first place, instead of F-22s (at 2005 prices), would have saved about $19 billion more.

Of course, on the theory that we have always had more military equipment than any one country ought to have, buying nothing new and maintaining and repairing nothing new would have saved upwards of $25 billion. For a few pennies more we could bailout California (think of all the newsprint that would save).

To that figure add the $100 billion that would be saved if the Feds were to cancel the Boeing super-tanker (see Kill, Kill, Kill the Boeing ...) and we're marching towards the savings we need to launch the public plan part of any reasonable health care compromise. All of this brings us face-to-face with the question: Why don't we cut these military weapons systems and other programs like them?

Smith's article in the Post suggests one obvious answer:
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.

The problem of military contractors, their political contributions and the political pressure that their employees can bring to bear is the single biggest obstacle to a rational economy in the U.S. According to a webpage maintained by, "more than 1,150 firms in 46 states and Puerto Rico, along with firms in seven international countries make up the F-22/F119 subcontractor team."

Obviously, profit greatly concentrates the minds, hearts and political activities of select groups. And there are perverse rationales that make such dynamics appear to be the very definition of democracy (Republican free-market mantras, for example). But we who hope for economic justice, universal health care, quality public education and other quaint notions are the carriers of the democratic gene. Unfortunately, the gene is seeming a little recessive nowadays, and needs serious mutating.

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