Cancel The F-22

Yesterday, Barack Obama repeated his threat to veto the defense authorization bill if it contains money to buy more F-22 fighter jets. He’s absolutely right. I hope he prevails over the various Senators who are trying to put the money back in. For one thing, it’s not clear that our biggest need right now is for an even niftier fighter plane, as opposed to something that might come in handy in, say, Afghanistan. For another, the F-22 has a lot of problems. This Washington Post article is worth reading in its entirety. A few bits:

“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. (…)

“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. (…)

There have been other legal complications. In late 2005, Boeing learned of defects in titanium booms connecting the wings to the plane, which the company, in a subsequent lawsuit against its supplier, said posed the risk of “catastrophic loss of the aircraft.” But rather than shut down the production line — an act that would have incurred large Air Force penalties — Boeing reached an accord with the Air Force to resolve the problem through increased inspections over the life of the fleet, with expenses to be mostly paid by the Air Force.

Sprey said engineers who worked on it told him that because of Lockheed’s use of hundreds of subcontractors, quality control was so poor that workers had to create a “shim line” at the Georgia plant where they retooled badly designed or poorly manufactured components. “Each plane wound up with all these hand-fitted parts that caused huge fits in maintenance,” he said. “They were not interchangeable.”

Polidore confirmed that some early parts required modifications but denied that such a shim line existed and said “our supplier base is the best in the industry.”

The plane’s million-dollar radar-absorbing canopy has also caused problems, with a stuck hatch imprisoning a pilot for hours in 2006 and engineers unable to extend the canopy’s lifespan beyond about 18 months of flying time. It delaminates, “loses its strength and finish,” said an official privy to Air Force data. (…)

There has been some gradual progress. At the plane’s first operational flight test in September 2004, it fully met two of 22 key requirements and had a total of 351 deficiencies; in 2006, it fully met five; in 2008, when squadrons were deployed at six U.S. bases, it fully met seven.

“It flunked on suitability measures — availability, reliability, and maintenance,” said Christie about the first of those tests. “There was no consequence. It did not faze anybody who was in the decision loop” for approving the plane’s full production. This outcome was hardly unique, Christie adds. During his tenure in the job from 2001 to 2005, “16 or 17 major weapons systems flunked” during initial operational tests, and “not one was stopped as a result.””

One of the problems with its high-tech skin is “vulnerability to rain”. Perhaps we’re only planning to use it in rain-free environments.

Think about this, though. Here we have a plane that suffers from huge problems, is incredibly expensive, and meets only seven of its 22 “key requirements”. It was designed for the Cold War, which is over. An Air Force Major is quoted in the article as saying that “it is one of the easiest planes to fly, from the pilot’s perspective”, but I’d imagine that ease might be outweighed by being imprisoned inside it, or having the boom give way and suffering “catastrophic loss of the aircraft”, or any of the other “critical failures” that occur once every 1.7 hours of flying time.

And yet, at a time when we need to save money, somehow Senators from some of the many, many states in which Lockheed-Martin’s suppliers are located cannot be persuaded to cancel it.

We need jobs. But there are many, many more efficient ways to produce them, and many investments that we genuinely need to make. This is not one of them.

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