The Madness of the F-22 Fighter

Tiffany’s on wings. That’s how one senate aide refers to the Pentagon and its contractor’s latest dream weapon: the F-22. “It’s showy, unimaginably expensive, fragile and utterly useless”, the aide tells us. “But there’s no stopping it.”

The F-22, known to its press agents as the “Raptor”, has been on the drawing board since 1981, at which time the Air Force announced that it wanted a generation of new tactical fighter planes to replace the F-15. In 1986, Lockheed was picked to lead the development of this plane, then known as the Advanced Tactical Fighter.
Across the next 15 years, billions of dollars have been poured into the project with little to show for it. Indeed, the F-22 has enjoyed the longest coming out party of any plane in the history of the Pentagon. And, according to Pentagon analysts, it’s still nowhere near ready to go into production. Indeed, some argue that the plane, designed to attack an enemy that no longer exists, is already obsolete, both technologically and strategically.

But don’t expect these trifling details to stand in the way of the Pentagon, Air Force brass, Lockheed and the F-22’s two other prime contractors, Pratt/Whitney and Boeing. These parties are now rushing to put the troubled plane into what’s called “initial low rate production” at a date as close as March 30 of this year. Unless the Bush administration intervenes, the Air Force will be saddled with at least 10 of these technological relics and billions more will flow into the coffers of the contractors.

Along with the V-22 Osprey, the F-22 presents a case study for the Pentagon’s procurement pathology: call it the buy-before- you-fly syndrome. “One of the oldest tricks is putting off testing until production has begun,” says Danielle Brian, director of the Project on Government Oversight. “As a result, the contractor gets paid twice: once to make a flawed system and once to fix it.”

Even by historical standards the escalation in the price-tag for the F-22 has been jaw-dropping. Originally, the Air Force said it was going to purchase 880 planes for around $40 billion. Within a few months, the price doubled to $80 billion. In 1991, the Pentagon’s Selected Acquisitions Review looked at the F-22 and decided that fewer planes should be built, scaling the order down to 680 planes for $64.2 billion. Then the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review cut the number of planes even further: 339 aircraft for the same price. The $35 million fighter has now turned into a $190 million plane, four times the cost of an F-15.

But that’s not all. When the GAO looked at the mounting cost overruns, they estimated that the $64.2 billion cap would only enable the Pentagon to buy 254 planes, 630 hundred fewer than originally advertised. Rep. John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat, is even more circumspect. He predicts that only 150 fighters will be bought. In other words, the planes could cost as much as $350 million apiece.

None of this troubles Lockheed, as long as the entire $64.2 billion is spent. Indeed, the fewer “limited edition” F-22s Lockheed unloads on the Pentagon, the more “copies” it will sell to Israel, Germany, Chile and Indonesia.
But what has all that money bought? Not much when compared to the F-15 and F-16. Even the Pentagon’s top testing officer disagrees with the performance status of the F-22. In a December 20, 2000, memo to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Phillip Coyle, director of Operational Testing and Evaluation for the Pentagon, concluded that the problems with the F-22 were so overwhelming that a decision on putting the plane into production should be delayed indefinitely.

Coyle’s memo discloses a litany of problems with the plane, ranging from testing delays, cost overruns, mechanical failures, and serious problems with the avionics system. Coyle warned that the plane couldn’t begin operational testing by August 2002 without encountering “unacceptable risks”.

The F-22 hasn’t proved all that safe to fly either. In one of its first test flights, the F-22 began to wobble uncontrollably as it attempted to land, finally smacking into the runway without landing gear, then skidding for 8,000 feet before it caught fire and partially burned. The third test flight was cancelled because the hydraulic gearing didn’t work. In March of last year, the Air Force was forced to suspend test flights for six weeks after a review found problems with the plane’s brakes, landing gear, environmental control systems, avionics software, missile launch detector, plus cracks in the cockpit canopy.

The Air Force touts the F-22’s supposed stealth capabilities as a point of superiority compared with the aging but durable F-15. But the F-22 hasn’t proved to be all that invisible, after all. From one discreet angle, the F-22 slips past radar screens. But from other apertures and latitudes, the plane, in the words of a Senate staffer, “lights up like the Budweiser blimp”.

Because it’s a fighter intended for aerial combat with other fighter planes, the F-22 will be restricted largely to daytime flights. But the plane is so large-partially because the designers put the missiles inside the fighter in order to lower its profile to enemy radar systems-that it will be easily detectable to the naked eye. It’s five times the size of the F-16.

“The only way to make the F-22 stealthy is to tear the eyes out of enemy pilots’ heads,” says retired Air Force Col. Everest Riccioni. Riccioni is one of the so-called “fighter mafia”, along with the late Col. John Boyd and CounterPuncher Pierre Sprey (now the director of Mapleshade Records), who helped to design the F-16, probably the best fighter plane ever produced. The colonel is now one of the F-22’s most savage critics.
One intractable problem involves the F-22’s complex and unwieldy avionics system, being developed by Boeing.

“The avionics for the F-22 was obsolete before the plane even went into production”, a Pentagon analyst tells CounterPunch. That’s because the computer systems that act as the plane’s brain are powered by five-volt silicon chips. These went out of date in 1992 when Intel introduced the 3.3 volt Pentium chip. Now most computers run on the even faster Pentium III, a 1-volt microchip. “Imagine if this plane ever joins the fleet and is running on computer systems that are already 10 years out of date and will be 30 years out of date in the future,” a senate staffer said. “It will be like trying to run a spreadsheet with an abacus.”

Just to keep the planes maintained the Pentagon will have pay Boeing and Lockheed to keep open old plants to make the archaic parts for the F-22. The Pentagon has already set aside a billion dollars to address the problem of obsolete parts, a problem that will only get more bothersome over the lifetime of the plane. “It’ll be like the Pentagon’s version of the blacksmith shop at colonial Williamsburg,” the senate staffer tells us.

Even in the unlikely event that the F-22’s technical and mechanical problems can ultimately be resolved, the plane still won’t meet the Air Force’s stated goal of rejuvenating an aging fleet of fighter planes. In fact, it will only exacerbate the problem. Under the F-22 program, the Air Force will find itself with fewer fighter planes with an older average age. This problem didn’t just sneak up on the Air Force overnight. It was predicted as far back as 1991 in an independent report by Pentagon analyst Franklin Spinney.

In 1999 Republican congressman Jerry Lewis of California led a successful effort to cut off funding for the opulent fighter jet. The measure passed by an overwhelming margin: 334-45. But Lewis and his colleagues underestimated the Pentagon’s power. In a budgetary sleight of hand, the $2.9 billion annual appropriation was simply reallocated by the House/Senate conference committee from procurement accounts to that gold mine of the defense contractors: research and development.
A year later Rep. Peter Defazio, the Democrat from Oregon, went back on the attack. In July 2000, Defazio denounced the F-22’s cost as obscene and offered an amendment to the defense appropriations bill which would have knocked down funding for the F-22 by $932 million. This blasphemy roused into action Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a California Republican and a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War.

Cunningham rushed to the floor of the House to defend the honor of the Air Force and its contractors. “Our liberal and socialist friends would tell us the Cold War is over and there is no threat,” Cunningham blustered. “Our kids are going to die, and its amendments like this that have stopped our military from surviving and put us in a situation where we have got 21 ships along a pier that cannot be deployed because they are down for maintenance.” When Defazio denounced Cunningham’s tirade as “bizarre”, Cunningham screamed that he had visited the Democratic Socialists of America website and discovered a link to the website of the Progressive Caucus, headed by Defazio.

The funding of a big ticket defense system usually hinges on where it’s being built. For optimum appropriations, the factories must be located in congressional districts with political clout. The F-22 fits this bill nicely: the engine is being built by Connecticut-based Pratt Whitney, the troubled avionics system is being developed by Boeing in Seattle and the whole bag of tricks is being put together by at Lockheed’s plant in Marietta, Georgia. This brings together a powerful cocktail of political powerbrokers, including Democrats Joe Lieberman, Christopher Dodd, Norm Dicks , and Zell Miller.

The plane also had a friend in Bill Clinton. As part of his final budget, Clinton included $2.5 billion for the production and purchase of 10 F-22s in 2001. It was the centerpiece of his $60 billion procurement plan. Lockheed was represented on the Hill by Peter Knight, Al Gore’s closest friend and finance chair of the Clinton/Gore 1996 reelection campaign. During Clintontime Lockheed poured more than $2.1 million into DNC accounts.

There was some early hope that Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld might rein in the program, especially if it frees up money for any even bigger spending spree: the new Star Wars scheme. Cheney has a history of bucking Pentagon brass. In 1991, as secretary of defense, hre pulled the plug on the Navy’s A-12 attack plane, a $57 billion boondoogle.

But similar boldness with the F-22 seems unlikely. When the F-22 was under attack from a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, including Lewis and Defazio, on the Hill, Cheney and Rumsfeld both came to its rescue, signing a letter touting it as a vital component of the new military. Of course, these days Cheney and Rumsfeld keep talking about the modernization of US military hardware, a code-word for billions in expenditures for R&D programs and new high-tech systems-hence Bush’s $310 billion defense budget.

A GAO report in 1994 concluded that it would be cheaper and perhaps even more effective from a military point of view to stick with the F-15. “Instead of confronting thousands of modern Soviet fighters, the US air forces are expected to confront potential adversary air forces that include few fighters that have the capability to the challenge the F-15-the US frontline fighter. Our analysis shows that the F-15 exceeds the most advanced threat system expected to exist. We assumed no improvements will be made to the F-15 but the capability of the ‘most advanced threat’ assumes certain modifications. Further, our analysis indicates that the current inventory of F-15s can be economically maintained in a structurally sound condition until 2015 or later.”

So what’s behind the F-22? The project’s driven in large measure by what some Pentagon analysts call “the cult of stealth”. In the mid-80s the Air Force, struggling to stay relevant, realized that “stealth” was a great marketing tool. The public was fascinated by those black, oddly configured, “invisible” airplanes and so were members of congress. It didn’t matter if the stealth bomber was just as visible to most Russian radar system as the B-52 and cost 50 times as much to produce.

“The F-22 is not going to be a fighter-versus-fighter airplane,” says Riccioni. “And if you want that capability, you can get it if you don’t design for stealth. And if you don’t design for stealth, you can make it affordable. And if it’s affordable, you can get the numbers you want.” Riccioni’s right, of course, except for the fact that the Air Force doesn’t even need a new fleet of planes because there’s no existing fighter threat, hasn’t been one since the Korean War, and there’s none in the foreseeable future.

Some high-ranking Republicans are beginning to shake their heads at the Pentagon’s incessant begging for ever-larger budgets and more expensive weapon systems, like the F-22, even in the face of epidemic cost over-runs.

“The Pentagon does not know how much it spends”, says Senator Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who now heads the Senate Armed Services committee. “It does not know if it gets what it orders in goods and services. And the Pentagon, additionally, does not have a handle on its inventory. If the Pentagon does not know what it owns and spends, then how does the Pentagon know if it needs more money? Ramping up the Pentagon budget when the books are a mess is highly questionable at best. To some it might seem crazy.” CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.