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Only a handful of lawmakers showed up Tuesday to question Pentagon officials on the troubled F-35 program

The House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces held an oversight hearing on air combat programs Tuesday. The first panel focused on the F-35 fighter—at $380 billion, the Defense Department’s most expensive program in recent memory, and perhaps the most costly weapon system in American history.

Of the subcommittee’s 25 members, 17 didn’t bother to show up. It was a stunning phalanx of overstuffed empty leather chairs that faced the witnesses. Surely the ratio of missing overseers to dollars has never been higher.

The F-35 is not only DOD’s most pricey program; it is also the most problematic.  While the GAO testified to massive $119 billion cost overruns, that was just since a change in the program baseline in 2007.  A handy table in the GAO testimony permits us to shrink the rubber baseline back to 2001; there has actually been $164.1 billion in cost overruns—and the program also shrank by 409 aircraft from 2,866 to 2,457.

All that and the horrific performance disappointments in the F-35 were a matter of total indifference to the majority of the members of the HASC Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces.

With one possible exception, the performance of the eight who did show up was quite pathetic.  The hearing started with the Chairman (Roscoe Bartlett,  R-MD) and Ranking Member (Silvestre Reyes, D-TX) reading off staff-scripted statements.

Their reading frequently stumbled over the words, indicating—at least to me—that it was the first time they saw the script and that they were both a little unfamiliar with the data and the issues pertaining to the F-35.  However, even the staff-scripted content revealed nothing new about the fantastically mismanaged history of the F-35 and its design—or its air combat power ruining future.

The questioning, if that is what you want to call it, was no better than the ineptly read scripts.  Each of the questioners also read off staff memos.  Watch them as they mouth the words.  Some of them did not seem to even know where they were: Congressman John Flemming, R-LA, read off a question about the new strategic bomber (not a subject in the hearing, nor even for the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee).

Jon Runyon, R-NJ, read off a general question about Air Force procurement and seemed confused when the witness did not respond as he expected, resulting in Runyon’s surrendering the rest of his time for questions in a decidedly embarrassed manner.  Michael Tuner, R-OH, read off a question about FAA rules and drones (also not a subject of the hearing) and retreated quickly when the responding witness said he didn’t know much.  Only Vicki Hartzler, R-MO, seemed to understand the question she read off.

Her first question was an important one: about when the F-35 would be operationally ready.  She got fog for an answer from the program manager, Vice Admiral David Venlet, who quite deceptively prattled about when the F-35 would get software upgrades, rather than when any F-35 units will have their “initial operational capability” (IOC) to be deployed.  Had Hartzler, or her staff, read the GAO testimony before the hearing she would have realized, or been told, that Adm. Venlet has given up the ghost on being able to answer her question.

The GAO testimony shows the IOC to be “TBD;” the honest Venlet answer would have been “we don’t know.”  Not apparently knowing that the answer Venlet gave was BS, and not being told by any staff, Hartzler blankly moved on to another question having nothing to do with the intriguing issue of DOD’s having no idea when any F-35 squadron will be operationally ready and what is the mountain of problems that is causing that known unknown to be unknown.

Sadly, the House Armed Services Committee has sunk so low in its performance of figuring out what is going on in the Pentagon that Hartzler’s “questioning” was the highlight of the hearing.

The last straw came when Chairman Bartlett lectured the witnesses about the “insanity” of the F-35 program and how he and others on the committee saw it coming years ago.  Really? They questioned the unworkable design when?  They opposed the crooked buy-before-you-fly acquisition plan when?  They stopped the concurrency when?  They called onto the carpet, if not demanding the firing of, officials offering wantonly unrealistic, even misleading, testimony when?  If it were true they knew the program was a loser years ago, then the committee would have done something about it.  Or, having not done so, they are—by their admission—complicit in the collapse of the F-35 program.

Is there a way out of this mess?

When I first came to Capitol Hill in the early 1970s, I was impressed by some transcripts of hearings at the Senate Armed Services Committee.  The questions were not being asked by senators, who had the self-awareness to know they were clueless; they were asked by staff.  Even when the questions were meat balls, the staff knew when they were being fed horse after-product, and if you read those transcripts, you learned something new.

After the staff softened up the witnesses, it was interesting how the DOD officials tried to more completely answer the senators more general questions.  (It probably also helped that the officials knew the staff could still intervene.)  Back then, it was from reading those hearings that I learned that the B-1 bomber was a dog and that the F-15 was a major departure from the kluge the Air Force had originally conceived for itself.  (Of course, the SASC never acted on the insights from its own hearings, but the information was there.)

Perhaps, if the members of the HASC were actually interested in some oversight, they would permit the staff to start hearings on technical issues, like airplanes, to get the data out of the DOD witnesses. It would also give us an insight about the staff as well—how well they actually have probed into the issues and understand them better than the dissembling the DOD witnesses did at the F-35 hearing this past Tuesday.

At least, it would be a start.

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