Battleland

Adventures in Babbleland: Technological Bloat

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Air Force photo / Tech Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth

An F-22 gets ready for flight.

Second of two articles (first one here)

The most prominent effect of a major increase of money in the defense budget since 2001 has been decay in our forces. It has consisted of fewer combat units (such as Air Force squadrons and battleforce ships), aging of our major weapons inventories, and declining readiness of fighting personnel, such as pilots and tank drivers. It has actually been occurring for decades, as some insightful people have been pointing out for a long time.

Most defense analysts are oblivious to all that, or they deny the shrinkage at increasing cost has meant decay. Our shrunken, more expensive forces are more high tech and therefore more effective than ever before, they argue. Some of the more voluble advocates of this conventional wisdom argue that high cost is excused on the premise that nothing is too good—by that they mean expensive—for the troops.

However, in the American political-military system a double game is played: even though apparently high, the actual cost of weapons is far more than what the public is told; while simultaneously, the actual performance is less—sometimes astoundingly less.

The quintessence of the best possible hardware being regrettably, but necessarily, expensive is the F-22 fighter/bomber. Described as an “exponential leap in warfighting capabilities” in the Air Force’s own factsheet, the Raptor is an unmistakable emblem of American technological superiority. It is such a classic object of what politicians think is “pro-defense” thinking that presidential candidate Mitt Romney advocated putting it back into production during a campaign visit to swing-state Virginia.

There are, however, two sides to the F-22 story, regarding both cost and performance.

As to cost, that F-22 fact sheet states a unit cost of $143 million for each aircraft. While this amount is shamefully high for any fighter aircraft, it is also a gross understatement. It ignores the following –

– What are called “long lead,” prior year procurement costs for production elements of each aircraft that take longer to acquire.

– All prior year research and development (R&D) costs.

– New, contemporary R&D costs (that in 2012 alone were over $500 million for the F-22 fleet).

– Contemporary year modification costs ($230 million in 2012 for the F-22 fleet).

– The cost of future modifications and research, which the Government Accountability Office (GAO) tallies to be several billion dollars, not including an additional billion dollars to reopen the production line in a Romney Administration.

Counting most but not all of these costs, GAO estimated the F-22 unit cost at $412 million, each (almost three times what the Air Force’s fact sheet cost).

The F-22 is also extraordinarily expensive to operate. Despite the Air Force’s original promise that the F-22 would be easier and cheaper to operate than the F-15, it turns out to be a maintenance nightmare. In 2010, a single F-22 cost more than $60,000 for each hour it flew. According to official Air Force data, when they were grounded in 2011, thereby increasing the per-hour operating costs, they cost more than $128,000 per hour of flight. Aging F-15Cs and F-16Cs, including all expenses to upgrade them, were $40,000 and $21,000 per hour, respectively, in 2011. To operate a single F-22 (at its lower $60,000 per hour rate) for 200 hours per year over a 30 year lifetime will cost $360 million per plane. That’s more than a third of a billion dollars.

The total cost to the taxpayer for each F-22, including acquisition and operating costs, would come to over $770 million per aircraft in today’s dollars.

For that gigantic total ownership cost, we may be getting something less than the extraordinary performance implied by the term “fifth generation” that the Air Force uses to describe the F-22’s performance. That term usually applies to four features: stealth, super-cruise, long-range air-to-air combat, and extraordinary agility in a close-in dogfight.

Let’s examine each of them:

Stealth does not mean invisibility to radar; it does mean reduced detection ranges against some radars at some angles. In the presence of certain radars, such as long wave length search radars, the F-22 and other stealth aircraft can be detected at very long ranges, as were the stealthy F-117s that were successfully attacked by antiquated Soviet era radars in the 1999 Kosovo air war when a Serbian air defense crew with a 1970s era SA-3 surface to air missile system shot down one F-117 and damaged a second. In addition, at angles other than nose-on or around the “water-line” of the aircraft, the F-22 is also more detectible, such as from the rear and above and below.  Continuing problems with maintaining the F-22’s stealth coatings in real world conditions call into question just how stealthy the F-22 will be as a practical matter. The F-22’s most touted feature, stealth, is less than some would have you think.

Supercruise is the ability to fly at supersonic speed without requiring the engines to be in their highest fuel consumption setting—in afterburners.  However, the volume of fuel the F-22 carries is too low for sustained supercruising, and coincidental information in Air Force reports on F-22 “mishaps” reveals that F-22s flying at supersonic speeds in exercises need to refuel quite frequently from aerial tankers. As with stealth, the F-22 does possess the supercruise characteristic, but it is something less than is frequently advertised.

– Long-range air-to-air combat is also much-touted for both the F-22 and the F-35. Its key is the ability to detect, identify and engage enemy aircraft from beyond visual range (BVR) with radar-controlled missiles. However, the history of such technology is one of failure, and even in more modern formulations, BVR radar missiles have a far from impressive performance record. When I traveled to Langley and Nellis Air Force bases in 2006 to look into the F-22, I learned that the Air Force assumes a lethality (“probability of kill”) for such BVR missiles at least twice what would be reasonable to expect in actual aerial combat against a competent foe. This unrealistically high expectation of missile lethality is one of several biases that dominate F-22 exercises against legacy aircraft. The results may be hugely impressive exchange ratios against F-16s and F-15s, for example, but serious questions cloud the reliability of those ratios.

– Extraordinary agility is what is supposed to give the F-22 the edge in a visual range dogfight with an enemy (given the frailty of radar-based air-to -air engagement assumptions, such dogfighting could be common against a competent enemy). However, when one compares some of the F-22’s basic aerodynamic characteristics (thrust-to-weight, wing loading, ability to sustain a turn), it becomes apparent that the F-22 performs in a regime very similar to, and sometimes not as good as, early versions of the F-15 and F-16 when flying in an air-to-air configuration. After 30 years and almost $70 billion, the Air Force has produced a fighter with legacy-aircraft characteristics on this score.

That disappointment was prominently justified when German pilots flying Eurofighter Typhoons successfully engaged the larger, heavier F-22 in visual range mock dogfighting last June. While the Typhoon itself is no bargain and is not exactly small and highly agile,  the articles describing these exercises came as a surprise to many in the U.S. aviation community. They should not have.

Perhaps, the F-22’s biggest disappointment may be in its most important dimension: how well the Air Force has supported its own F-22 pilots.  Because the F-22 is so expensive to fly and difficult to maintain, its pilots get too few hours in the air to train. Reports make it clear that they get only from eight to 10 hours of in-air training time per month. That is less than half of what fighter pilots received in the 1980s, and it is less than a fourth what Israeli pilots received when they were at the height of their skills in the past. It is surely a major factor in the disappointing F-22 dogfighting performance against the German Typhoons in June, along with the basic cost, performance and maintenance characteristics of the F-22.

There is second burden the Air Force has imposed on its F-22 pilots: a controversy has raged over how safe the F-22 is to its own pilots and ground crew.  While powerful toxins populate the source regions of the F-22’s oxygen system for its pilots, the Air Force has asserted that such “contamination” has nothing to do with the physiological problems pilots have been experiencing. Instead, the Air Force has identified a valve and an associated pressure vest as the source of the problems F-22 pilots (and ground crew!) have been experiencing during—and after—flights. Close observers of this controversy are skeptical that the Air Force is taking the proper care to protect F-22 pilots from likely toxic contamination. Already two pilots have been killed in accidents where those toxic effects are possibly at play, even if the Air Force went to great lengths to virtually blame the pilots for their own deaths.

The history of aerial combat shows pilot skill to be the dominating factor in determining who wins. And yet, the Air Force has decided it cannot afford to give F-22 pilots sufficient time in the air to train, and it requires pilots to train in an aircraft that is not free of potential toxic effects. F-22 pilots are not given every advantage, physically and mentally, to succeed in an extraordinarily physically demanding and technically challenging combat environment.  Regardless of whether the F-22 is or is not the world-beater the Air Force claims, that it treats its pilots in the manner it has is not the sign of a first-rate military organization.

lockheed martin

President Obama has an answer to all the F-22 cost and performance problems: the F-35. If you think that is a solution, you are not paying attention.

Less training for F-22 pilots and a potentially toxic environment in an airplane that cannot vastly outperform older, cheaper “legacy” aircraft is just one example of the high cost technological bloat that clogs our armed forces. Other examples include, but are hardly limited to, the hapless Littoral Combat Ship, the unaffordable F-35, missile defenses that fail even in cooperative testing, and high cost, low effectiveness Reaper drones.

Some contend all this creates the best military in the world, if not history, and something that people like President Obama, Senator John McCain and others can use against any other military in the world as if it were a “speed bump.” If the illusion were not so troubling, it would be amusing.

23 comments
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Aescaepulus
Aescaepulus

1. Buy more boots, more bullets, and spend more money training our troops to be terrifyingly efficient at delivering firepower onto folks we don't agree with. Stop wasting money on 200 million dollar aircraft and buy lots of 20 million dollar ones (F-15/18s). Precision guided weapons sure are pretty on TV, and they do destroy important targets, but we need a hail of dumb bombs raining down on the bad guys to get the job done. More dead bad guys = less of them around to shoot at us.

2. Stop wasting money on "non=lethal" technologies. Can't see why using a million dollar microwave oven to chase off intruders when a soldier using a $.20 bullet can do the same thing, permanently, while sending a message to others "do not mess with us".

3. Stop whining about the fear of casualties as a reason to blow money away on high tech toys. We kill and maim more people in car accidents annually than we have lost in both Iraq and Afghanistan for the entire period of occupation, I don't see folks freaking out on the Big Three to build million dollar cars that are totally safe.

4. Stop the "nation building" nonsense, it doesn't work. We got lucky in Germany and Japan because we did what needed doing, we destroyed the enemies capability to fight, and unpleasant as it sounds, killing a lot of the civilian population does just that. IF it's worth our trouble to go to war, then do it right, just ride in there like J.E.B. Stuart, shoot up everything, then leave, and let everyone know that each time they get our backs up, this is what's gonna happen.

O_Pinion
O_Pinion

Those Luftwaffe pilots are darn good. Goering would have been proud.

Paweł Kasperek
Paweł Kasperek

Germans had real good pilots since WW 1 Immelman wrote the first thesis on air combat...

climbhi67
climbhi67

While the details of numbers cited in the article can be debated, the general gist of the author's point has a lot of merit to it.  The airplane on paper pretty much always is more capable than it is in reality.  The costs are always a bit to a lot higher than quoted.  And if you think that the only criteria for selection of new combat systems is the best for the warfighter, boy is your head in the sand.

This is how defense technology contracts work:  The government lawyers and the company lawyers sit down around a table with the technical experts and reach a compromise on deliverable capabilities for a projected future wartime environment.  Then the contractor builds the item, many times having promised technical capability that has never been lab tested, let alone fielded.  Test "articles" are manufactured and measured against the specifications agreed upon.  You would be amazed at how many specifications and key performance areas the new toys fail.  What happens then?  They may get fixed at the government's expense (or rarely the contractor's), or just as likely, they may just accept the reduced capability while the contractor still pockets all the money promised.  Why?  Because the contractor is out to have the highest profit margin, warfighter be damned if it interferes with the bottom line.

This compromise at the expense of the pilots (in this case) is one part of the issue.  Another huge one is the question of attrition.  Anyone versed in warfare will tell you that zero losses is not feasible in a combat environment.  So what do you do when on day one, we lose 1/20th of our F-22 fleet?  You certainly can't replace them any time soon and the country would be bankrupted trying.  The fascination with gadgets overrides common sense in defense spending to the detriment of our defense capabilities and the taxpayer's pocket. 

Signed,

An F/A-18D Hornet Pilot

akpat
akpat

I can just see Ike and Churchill now putting up with BS like this. Just as well we didn't have the same problem then or we would have lost.

Steve Cowan
Steve Cowan

Why aren't we using the available inventory of current hardware, and gradually updating it?  The B52 bomber is living proof of how a well designed, robust system can live well beyond the projections.  Let's build robust, but inexpensive, platforms that can be adapted to changing situations.  Too many military procurement plans since VietNam have looked for 'bigger, better, more expensive' as if that solves every problem.  WW2 proved that cheap and plentiful could beat costly and rare.

Paweł Kasperek
Paweł Kasperek

B-52s could go over Iraq in 1991 only once F-117s breached the air defences, and Wild Weasels finished the job of suppresing them. Though perfected F-15s and F-16s would be definitely fine for rounding up the numbers of F-22s at maybe half price of F-35...

SpudmanWP
SpudmanWP

Right off the bat -  Adv procurement costs are included in Flyaway costs.

From page 63: http://www.saffm.hq.af.mil/sha...

Follow the bouncing ball:

1.  The first 4 lines represent the F-22 itself (engine, avionics, airframe,etc)

2.  These numbers are added up and are represented on Line 5 "FLYAWAY COST SUBTOTAL"

3.  Line 6 represents Prior Adv Procurement Costs that are subtracted (since they have been paid in prior years)

4. Line 7 represents Current Year Adv Procurement Costs that are added to this year's costs.

Did you notice that line 3 (deducting Prior Year Adv Procurement)  happens AFTER Flyaway costs are calculated?

In other words, why let a little research (or common sense) get in the way of Wheeler bashing anything he does not like.

Jennifer J. Gildea
Jennifer J. Gildea

(Consider the flying range alone. ) Stop the waste; kill all manned fighter aircraft production and mothball the existing ones. ..KingofProfits2012.webs.com

Nonaffiliated
Nonaffiliated

There are two main reasons for the technological "bloat".  1) America is extremely averse to any casualties.  If we can spend 10 times the money and save a few more lives, we'll do it.  2) Defense contractors don't get nearly as much profit out of training as they do out of hardware.  So, their lobbying is always directed at selling new equipment.  They sell it to our elected government as generating jobs and fewer casualties.  That's something even Democrats have a hard time arguing against, especially when the jobs are in their districts.

Michael Wellman
Michael Wellman

"... can be detected at very long ranges, as were the stealthy F-117s that were successfully attacked by antiquated Soviet era radars in the 1999 Kosovo air war when a Serbian air defense crew with a 1970s era SA-3 surface to air missile system shot down one F-117 and damaged a second."

Two F-117's... first generation stealth technology... out of how many HUNDREDS of sorties?  Yep, definitely quite the achellies heel there.  Stealth Technology allowed us to establish overwhelming air superiority and neutralize a majory of the Serbian air defenses so that other, less stealthy aircraft could fly their missions in relative safety.  That's the point of stealth.  No, it doesn't make you invisible... it just reduces the threat of interception from ~80% to ~0.01%, which a pretty good defensive technology in my book.  And again, that was first generation stealth technology.  The F-22 and F-35 are far better at concealing their radar cross-sections.

"Long-range air-to-air combat is also much-touted for both the F-22 and the F-35"

By itself, you're right... it's not very impressive.  What's impressive is BVR detection and engagement from a stealth aircraft that has a very high likelihood of not being detected and engaged.  Maybe the wargames are rigged... maybe the F-22 does need to fire two missiles instead of one to get a kill.  Who cares?  It could fire four or five missiles before the F-15 or F-16 gets in range and maintains radar contact long enough to return fire.

"Extraordinary agility is what is supposed to give the F-22 the edge in a visual range dogfight with an enemy... "

Another great "taken in a vacuum" statement.  Yes, I can agree that the F-22 doesn't handle as well as an F-15 or an F-16.  That's not the point.  The point is it's a stealth aircraft that, despite the design considerations (shape and size of the aircraft being chief among them, since an internal weapons bay is key to retaining stealth), the F-22 still handles almost as well as two of the best fighter aircraft in the world.

Paweł Kasperek
Paweł Kasperek

Can you spell "casualty averse"? US military sees even those few casualties as "too much".

John DSouza
John DSouza

I think the essence of the article is reflected in the fact that it has cost so much to finally come out with an aircraft that does not justify the expense of research and development gone into it.

what is the point of all that additional expenditure, running into billions of dollars, if all there is to show for it is average BVR capabilities, average dog fighting skills and average stealth technology.

you say "maybe the F-22 does need to fire two missiles instead of one to get a kill.  Who cares? "  but we do care, because that extra missile it has to fire from a BVR range also costs money to develop and build and that is exactly what the additional money into BVR research was supposed to improve

we could have stuck with building additional F15A/F16's that cost much less to maintain not to mention the savings in research costs.

to have spent billions of dollars and have come out with a fighter that barely beats its predecessors and the competition, puts it's pilots at risk and costs so much more to operate, is a waste of tax payer money.

Michael Wellman
Michael Wellman

The point of my response is that even if you DO have to fire a second missile from BVR range, you're still taking advantage of an opportunity that wouldn't even exist for the F-15 or F-16.  You're still taking two shots before the enemy (or even your non-stealth NATO peers) can fire their first shot.  We made the investment to allow us to engage our enemies without being engaged back, rather than continue to improve old platforms like the 36 year old F-15 where we could, at best, simply improve its capabilities under fire.  And we did so because we understand that the American People care less about the monetary cost of such technology than they do about the human cost, in terms of pilots lost, of not developing that technology.

climbhi67
climbhi67

Michael,

I appreciate your enthusiastic support of the technological capabilites embraced by our military, I really do.  I encourage you to read Nonaffiliated's comment above, because he has captured the heart of the argument.  There WILL be losses in actual combat, no matter the system.  Sheer numbers involved and the fog of war ensure that to be true, no matter what the low observable capabilites of an aircraft are.  You don't need a radar to detect an airplane if it's leaving contrials or just fired a missile, or more comonly if it's engines are running and hot.  I won't go into radar and electro-optical theory as it's not really necessary, but suffice it to say that no vehicle (land, sea, or air) can be made to be invisible. 

You, and almost all Americans don't want to see our pilots die due to inferior systems.  As a military pilot I thank you for this sentiment.  But I'm afraid that you have rose colored glasses on.  Every measure we field is countered as quickly as possible by our advesaries.  The broader point is that we have spent excessively to have a very small number of aircraft that have marginally better performance, rather than refining much lower-cost options while only suffering a slight decrease in the capability of each individual unit (aircraft).  This alternative approach can actually lead to an equivalent survival ratio when factored in with sortie generation capabilities, mutual support, systems integration, etc.  One of the largest factors in air combat success is pilot proficiency, WVR or BVR.  The defense budget is so heavily weighted to buying gadgets, that flight time is one of the first sacrifices.  That does a huge disservice to the pilots that are supposed to employ their weapons systems effectively in wartime.

You may not agree with my point of view, but I encourage you to examine the small technical advances gained at very high monetary cost in the context of a much broader synergistic capabilities picture.

Signed,

An F/A-18D pilot

EconModerate
EconModerate

Fighter aircraft were developed to escort bombers. What purpose do they serve today? Drones are are cheaper and perform for this mission just as well or better. (Consider the flying range alone. ) Stop the waste; kill all manned fighter aircraft production and mothball the existing ones.

Paweł Kasperek
Paweł Kasperek

Modern drones still are vulnerable to even old fighters. Designing a drone of capable of air combat is still many years away. And those won't be exactly cheap if they are to have adequate performance...

Fatesrider
Fatesrider

Inasmuch as drones aren't the be-all and end-all answer, the fact is drones will be considerably better at air-to-air combat and likely considerably cheaper than any manned fighter we have today for two reasons:

1. No pilot.

2. No pilot support gear.

Both add considerable weight and constraints to the design of an aircraft in terms of speed, performance and cost.  Case in point: The F-22's oxygen delivery system.  If it didn't have a pilot, this would not be an issue.

The problem derives from the way we buy weapons systems.  We create design parameters that are changed (they shouldn't be) and expect developers and manufacturers to produce something without much consideration for cost.  With so few actual aircraft manufacturers these days, low-bid contracts are a joke.

It would save everyone a hell of a lot of money if the contracts were held to the parameters originally bid on and the contractors held to the limits of their bids, with financial penalties (perhaps in terms of future support and spare parts rather than outright fines) for failing to deliver as promised ON TIME and ON BUDGET.

Cost-overruns and failing to consider all aspects of a project are two reasons costs for systems are so high.

As for drones, there are a variety of ways to keep anyone from jamming them that I can think of right now (quantum pairing comes to mind if that can be made into a viable communications system, or AI which has its own limitations) and lacking a pilot in the seat, it can easily be made to outmaneuver any other aircraft ever built.  Most of the control systems in today's aircraft are LIMITED to keep the pilot from becoming paste against the canopy if he suddenly tells the aircraft to do a -90 G dive.  Unlike modern aircraft, an unmanned aircraft could fly to the edge of its structural integrity without killing the pilot and without a pilot, it could be made smaller and stronger (more structurally sound, maneuverable and faster).

Smaller, stronger, faster, no complicated limiters on the controls.  It would be a quarter or less of the cost of the F35.

Don't dismiss drones out of hand.

Paweł Kasperek
Paweł Kasperek

The pilot is there for a reason... in melee of maneuver air combat, he has superior situational awareness to operator half world away. Yup, unmanned drones can sustain higher G-forces, but if you dont know something is on your six, no maneuvrability can help. Add to this the problem of jamming (ouch, our drone just lost connection is flying straight-and-level on autopilot - can you say "sitting duck"?) and  we are not ready yet technologically for fighter drones. Where drones shine is endurance - making them perfect for patrol and recon duties with occasional strike mission. But they are not universal solution - yet. 

Andy Wisniewski
Andy Wisniewski

 Fighter Aircraft were not designed to escort bombers, that is one role of a multi-role fighter, however the primary role is Air-superiority, Fighters are designed to dominate the airspace allowing other aircraft to operate freely therein. Without controlling the airspace drones could not operate freely and would be easily destroyed, furthermore as Iran proved when they hijacked a drone last year, fly by remote technology has some inherit disadvantages. (ie with a few lines of code your opponent can potentially use it against you.) Furthermore in a non permissive environment (ie your fighters were not able to maintain absolute superiority of the airspace) your communication and command facilities would be the first target and once they were taken out your vast fleet of drones would be entirely neutralized. Meanwhile in a manned fighter out of central communication the pilot though at a disadvantage would still be able to communicate with nearby aircraft and make decisions accordingly.

Michael Wellman
Michael Wellman

Indeed.  Drones have not yet advanced to the point that they can be used to establish or maintain air superiority.  They're too slow and too under-gunned for such a role.  That will likely change in the future, but that will cost money, which seems to be counter to the demands of this article.


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