You may have noticed that the Air Force’s prized F-22 fighter – the crown jewel of American air dominance – has had some negative press lately. The bad news peaked Tuesday when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered flight restrictions on the $400 million warplane. Unfortunately for the F-22, the airwaves have been filled with flak capable of hitting and damaging even the nation’s stealthiest aircraft:
– On May 2, ABC News’ Nightline addressed the mysterious oxygen deprivation and/or toxins that F-22 pilots get from their “on-board oxygen generating systems” (OBOGS) and that cost one pilot his life.
– Then, on May 6, CBS’ 60 Minutes interviewed two F-22 pilots who refused-temporarily, it turns out – to fly the F-22 because of the serious safety problem. The troubles were widely reported in the press and summed up at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).
The F-22 quickly engaged its onboard defenses.
The Air Force complained to ABC, and its non-profit booster group, the Air Force Association (AFA), let rip with both barrels. The Air Force distributed “Talking Points” on Capitol Hill reaffirming that:
– the pilot caused a fatal crash of an F-22 in 2010 in Alaska when he was starved of oxygen.
– the Air Force is refusing to divulge, for “privacy reasons,” what, if anything, it is doing in response to the pair of pilots who went on 60 Minutes.
– adding no new evidence (and ignoring other information) about the F-22’s problem, now increasing according to the Air Force’s own data, that is poisoning its own pilots – and ground crews.
The Air Force also added some silly policy-wonk language asserting that the F-22’s presence in the Persian Gulf is keeping the peace there. It’s almost as if the Air Force thinks it can change data, rearrange minds and cause things to happen-and not happen-simply by issuing press releases.
Panetta apparently wasn’t impressed. On Tuesday, he imposed flight restrictions on the F-22, allowing it to fly only “within proximity of potential landing locations,” and requiring the Air Force to speed up the installation of a backup oxygen system aboard each plane. The order from the Pentagon’s civilian chief – and not the Air Force’s top civilian or officer – suggests Panetta doesn’t think the service has given the F-22’s problems the concentrated attention they warrant.
The Air Force’s earlier statements leaping to the F-22’s defense included several rhetorical attacks and a few factual declarations to prove how wrong ABC was. Some of the latter were extremely misleading. Because they have been so often repeated over the years, they need to be put to rest at long last.
For starters, AFA President Michael Dunn, a retired Air Force three-star general, said, “The flyaway cost for the last block of F-22s was $142M each.” This sort of whopper-trying to proclaim a lowball F-22 unit cost-has been around for a long time: for years, the Air Force’s official “Fact Sheet” on the F-22 has similarly claimed a “unit cost” of $143 million.
Dunn is citing something called “flyaway” costs, which incorporates only part of the funds appropriated late in the F-22 production run, to portray generic F-22 unit costs. He is excluding prior year production funding, known as “long lead” money to jump-start the subsequent year’s production. He is also dismissing ongoing annual modification costs for the entire F-22 fleet and virtually all research and development (R&D)-that continues today, still increasing the unit cost. When the Air Force pumped out the same horse-feathers about the $143 million unit cost in a press release in 2009 after an F-22 crashed in California, I wrote a piecedetailing the cost elements of the F-22 that the $143 million claim disregards, even if you drop the initial R&D.
But don’t take my word for it: take GAO’s. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office identified the F-22’s unit cost: $411.7 million. That estimate was in 2011 dollars; a year later, data from GAO made possible a more up to date calculation: $421.0 million.
Dunn’s assertion of a unit cost of $142 million was not just a bit wrong and slightly misleading; it was off by a factor of almost three.
Dunn also said “The last block of F-22s came off the production line without any defects . and on time and budget.” He hasn’t been reading the same materials I have. The GAO reports cited above, and many others, measure the huge cost growth in the F-22 program in past years and the additional, future expenses to address deficiencies in maintenance and stealth, as well as adding upgrades, including for the “last block of F-22s.”
In its letter to ABC News, the Air Force itself asserted “.the 80% Mission Capable rate of the F-22s at Langley [Air Force Base] was comparable to similar fighter aircraft, specifically Block 50 F-16s.” The statement was clearly intended to impress that the F-22 is combat-ready. Contrast that to GAO’s statement: “Last year, the F-22A fleet achieved a 55.5 percent materiel availability rate. Stealth-related maintenance, system component reliability problems, and lack of spare engines were factors contributing to the fleet not achieving the goal.” (GAO explained that “Material availability is defined as the percentage of the fleet available to perform assigned missions at any given time.”)
It is unclear precisely how the Air Force is gaming its definition of “Mission Capable,” but it would seem that it is doing so. Moreover, one would hope that F-16C readiness is not as disastrously low as that of the F-22.
Both the Air Force and AFA President Dunn also tried a little intimidation, mixed with complaints that they weren’t allowed to dominate the discussion. They did so notwithstanding that the official Air Force position got a lot more play in the televised reports than the Air Force or the Air Force Association gives to objective and authoritative analysts, such as GAO’s. The Air Force and AFA statements were heavily populated with declarations like the following:
“Instead, your network chose to air a sensationalized, biased report that demeans the service, sacrifice, and dedication to duty of the Airmen who fly, maintain, and support the F-22 in defense of the United States.”
“You did not interview a single individual capable of presenting an objective assessment regarding the role of the F-22, the problems associated with the onboard oxygen generation system, and airpower’s overarching contribution to national security.”
“We also think the serious nature of this issue requires responsible reporting that is informed by a balanced presentation of facts, not biased opinions that devolve into an attack on America’s Airmen.”
I have been on more than my share of military service and contractor-guided tours of military units, assembly lines and contractor facilities (including those for the F-22, F-18, F-117 and many other aircraft). Unless you come loaded for bear with information, accompanying experts and/or precisely-informed questions, you will be laden with more half-facts and vapid assurances than you will get in a used car lot. Participants in those minder-minded exercises do not get information; they get disinformation.
On the other hand, I was delighted to see both the AFA and the Air Force take a firm stand against unbalanced dog-and-pony shows. Their initiation of that commendable policy for themselves will be a refreshing change.
Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project and editor of The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It.