Monday, April 05, 2004

Plane Crazy Article

Saw an interesting article in the WaPo (Washington Post) today. Some of the points he makes are good, but much is crap. I will therefore unleash the Fisk of Fury to enlighten you.

The subject of the article is the F-22 Raptor; the Air Forces newest and most expensive fighter. The article begins:

Imagine paying $300 million for just one fighter plane. That's enough to build a 300-bed hospital or 10 new high schools, or pay for the national school lunch programs in the District, Maryland and Virginia for more than a year. Yet, the way things are going, now $300 million is what one Air Force F-22 fighter plane is going to cost us taxpayers.

Yawn. Thanks for the meaningless comparison. It is trivially easy to take some high dollar item, like a fighter jet or an aircraft carrier, and try to point out what else could be done for this money. It's not the federal government's job to build hospitals or schools, but it is up to the Government (with a capital G) to provide for defense. It would be valid to point out how many thousands of infantry could be paid for and sent to help in Iraq with $300 million, but the examples he provides are crap. It is a different question to say that this money could be used for non-defense needs; we've already decided that this money will go towards defense.

The Pentagon's figures show that it intends to buy 278 F-22 fighters for $72 billion, or $258 million a plane, counting research and development costs already spent to bring it into being. But the General Accounting Office has just told Congress this will not be enough. The GAO says it will take an additional $8 billion-plus to finance the planned upgrades to make the F-22 a high-tech ground attack aircraft as well as air superiority fighter. This improvement would push the F-22's price tag up to $300 million.

The reason the thing is so damn expensive is in the first line of this paragraph. At one point, we were planning on building 442 F-22's, and so Lockheed-Martin (who's building it) planned for 442 aircraft and chose the manufacturing methods and materials to match. When you cut the number built in half, of COURSE the cost is going to go up. Not only would they potentially be using different methods, but the development costs would be amortized over fewer vehicles. This is what happened to the B-2 and why it cost $1.2 billion (yes BILLION), because they only built 22 when they (Northrop-Grumman in this case) had been planning on hundreds. It's elementary economics but unmentioned in the article.

The $80 billion to buy a fleet of F-22's is one-third higher than this year's Education Department budget and about eight times as much as the State Department's current annual budget. The top priority the F-22 is getting as the president and Congress apportion tax dollars suggests this is a must-have airplane. But in fact changes in the world and other developments argue against buying this plane in the numbers being contemplated. President Bush is scheduled to decide whether to put the F-22 in full-scale production this December. Here are some reasons he should say no:

Welcome back to meaningless comparison land. Having the world's best military, by far, is expensive. If we're already going to be spending this money on defense then comparing it to other spending is ridiculous. If you look here you'll see that the U.S. spends ~3.2% of GDP on defense, or number 47 in the world in this index. This is still smaller than was spent during most of the Cold War (about 5% of GDP). To reiterate again, don't compare spending money on ONE defense program to non-defense related items; it is meaningless. After this first point the author digs himself a deeper hole. He says that we shouldn't build "this plane in the numbers being contemplated". That's a good idea. Let's build less of them so that they'll cost more per plane and he can write another article about how the costs have grown (see above). Maybe he's thinking of his job security. Let's go through some of his reasons the plane shouldn't be built.

The threat that the plane was designed to combat no longer exists. Back in 1986, when the F-22's gestation began, the Cold War was on. Air Force leaders successfully argued that they needed a super fighter plane that could down, at long range, the swarms of warplanes the Soviets were expected to put over Europe in a shooting war. The Pentagon is not worried about that kind of war today.

By this guy's logic after the Cold War we should have scrapped the whole military because it was designed for a threat that no longer existed. The military is flexible, as was proved in Iraq and Afghanistan it is capable of using vehicles in ways to counter whatever particular threat exists. And what's this about not expecting swarms of warplanes? Has he not heard of China? They have hordes of obsolete aircraft, and a significant number of Su-27s equal to the best of what we currently have, that we may someday have to fight. Much better to be prepared than caught with your pants down, especially when it takes such a long time to develop a new aircraft.

The United States has less expensive fighter bombers flying and others in development that could shoot down any enemy's warplanes. For example, the updated F-16 fighter bomber, which is still in production, remains a deadly killing machine. One thing I learned in auditing the Navy's 11-month test pilot training course at Patuxent River was that today's air battles are usually won by the side that has the best "systems" -- the high-tech radar, communications and missiles -- and crews. The metal airplane itself, the platform, has become so secondary that pilots often complain they have been reduced to office managers running the systems. The United States has a huge lead in systems and air crews.

"Others in development" must be referring to the Joint Strike Fighter (the F-22's little brother), which is the only other fighter aircraft in development. The JSF is a great airplane but not nearly as capable as the F-22; it is designed to replace a wide variety of aircraft in a wide variety of missions and is therefore a compromise design when it comes to air-to-air combat. The F-22 is the point of the sword and the JSF is the edge of the sword, so to speak, to be most effective you need both. Also the F-16 is no longer in production for the U.S.; Lockheed is building them for Israel and Singapore, I believe. And when these orders are done the manufacturing facility will be converted for use in building JSF's, so it is unrealistic to build more of these. Finally, the author talks about how the airframe is so much less important than the innards of an airplane in making it more effective. This is true, but the stealthiness of the F-22 is still a big edge. Also, the systems on the F-22 are more advanced than anything we have, so it would be, by his own logic, more effective. The clincher is that the systems are also the most expensive part of an airplane. So his bitching about the cost of the F-22 would apply to upgrading any other aircraft, except that the maintenance costs for the F-22 would be much less for a new aircraft compared to our current '70s era fleet.

The Navy has to worry about the same threats that have driven the Air Force to keep building the F-22 even though the Cold War is long over. Former defense secretary and now vice president Dick Cheney decided that Navy pilots could safely go to war in a lesser and cheaper plane than the F-22. He canceled the A-12 flying wing fighter, which had many of the same expensive stealth characteristics as the F-22 and which the Navy had planned to base on aircraft carriers. Cheney said the A-12 was costing too much. The Navy settled for the $92 million-a-copy F/A-18 E and F to combat enemy planes and penetrate air defenses on the ground. If this Chevrolet is good enough for the Navy, why do we need to buy almost 300 of the Air Force's F-22 Cadillacs?

Let's repeat, it is primarily the internal systems (more specifically the software to run the thing, not stealth) that make it so expensive. The author also clearly does not understand why the F-18E/F was developed. The F-18E/F is supposedly just an upgrade to the existing F-18s but is in fact essentially a completely new design. Why did the Navy try to pass it off as an upgrade? Because it was an easier sell to Congress, a lesson learned from the A-12 program. This is not a good example.

For the threats beyond what the F-16 and F/A-18 E and F can handle, the Pentagon is already far along in building a new fighter bomber, the Joint Strike Fighter. It is expected to cost less than a third of what the F-22 does, $80 million vs. $300 million. Some of the Joint Strike Fighters will be able to do something the F-22 cannot: take off and land from a short runway or carrier deck. This is a highly desired capability in many global hot spots where long runways are scarce.

As mentioned above, the JSF was built for a different reason. It is a smaller, cheaper airplane because it is less capable. The Air Force philosophy is to have a high-quality aircraft in fewer numbers (currently the F-15) to do the primary air-to-air and a lower-quality aircraft in higher numbers (currently the F-16) to be primarily air-to-ground. It is unrealistic to expect the JSF to be able to replace the F-22; it will not be as capable for air-to-air. Period. And when he says the JSF can take over vertically he's only half telling the truth. The vast majority of JSF's will be built for the Air Force and Navy and will NOT be able to take off vertically. A small number will be built for the Marines and the British that can (at a cost in performance), but it is not an advantage shared by the whole fleet.

Although the F-22's ability to foil enemy ground defenses is indeed impressive, there is a bloodless way to destroy them in the works. It takes the form of unmanned bombers that can fly low and hit antiaircraft sites while manned aircraft direct the drones from a safe distance above.

Here he shifts gears in his attack to something completely new. This two sentence throw-away paragaph suggests that manned aircraft period are obsolete. If he seriously wants to present this as an alternative he needs to back it up. But I'll consider it anyway. The Air Force is envisioning the use of unmanned vehicles to take out anti-aircraft sites, but this is not the mission the F-22 would be used for anyway. It is an air-to-air vehicle that will have a secondary role as a bomber after the enemy defenses are swept away. This is a related mission, but significantly different; an unmanned vehicle could take out the enemy's air defenses while the F-22 destroyed its air defenses. They are complimentary, not contradictory, which could be why this is barely mentioned.

Buying the expensive F-22 would worsen the Pentagon's death spiral in procurement. Even within today's huge Pentagon budget there isn't the money to buy enough expensive planes to modernize the military's aging air fleets. Only a few flying Cadillacs can be purchased in any one year. Yet the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps need to keep hundreds of aircraft flying to patrol their global police beats. So the armed services spend billions to keep old crates flying to cover the hot spots. These gigantic maintenance costs eat up money needed to buy new planes, meaning our aircraft fleets keep getting older and more dangerous to fly despite the billions being spent on them.

To repeat myself, the defense budget is large in absolute terms, but not that big in relative terms. The reason it is so much bigger in absolute terms is because our economy has grown so much since the Cold War. After this first line, this guy proceeds to destroy his own argument. He says that we spend massive amounts to keep our ancient airfleet flying. OK. Doesn't this make the argument for buying new aircraft stronger? We need to build new planes to replace our old and expensive-to-maintain current ones, not cancel one of our very few airplane development programs.

We don't need the F-22 no matter what it costs. President Bush and Congress owe it to the taxpayers to ask themselves whether this trip into the wild blue yonder is necessary.

Wait a minute. In the previous paragraph did he not say that we need to replace our current aircraft. Now he's saying "we don't need the F-22 no matter what it costs." Well, which is it? Do we need to replace our aircraft or don't we? A little consistency please. I say we need to replace our airplanes (though in the interests of full disclosure some of the paid research I'm working on is for Lockheed on the JSF program, so I AM biased).

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