Way Cool But Quite Useless

You learned a lot of things working in the Southern California aerospace industry during the boom years of the eighties. At Northrop the wind-tunnel was smaller than you thought – they used little models – but the F-18 production line was way cool. And back in those days Northrop was producing the last variants of the F-5 – any trip out to the final assembly and flight test area in Palmdale was a giggle. You had had a hard time figuring out whose obscure air force had bought the ones on the hanger floor – the markings were strange. Was that a prancing lion on the tail? And you heard rumors of a strange and super-secret almost invisible airplane Lockheed was testing way out in the middle of nowhere – but no one was talking. That could wait. Being nosey was a real bad idea. You didn’t ask why all the guys were talking about the big flying wing thing Jack Northrop had built in the late forties.

Later, at the satellite and electronics factory – not far from the Beach Boys’ high school oddly enough – you learned other things. There were seamstresses on the payroll – they sowed the thermal blankets on the communications and weather satellites nice and tight. One presumes they were extra careful with the spy satellites. And the young Air Force officers from the Office of Federal Contract Compliance only played at being all tight and serious – after work they could drink you under the table. And there was the fetching young Leslie, a civilian who was what they called a Program Control Administrator – keeping track of where the money on some part of some major contract went, and when. The corporation employed lots of those. That was when you first heard of casually rounding up, or down, to the nearest million dollars, or ten. Her father was a full-bird colonel at the Air Force Space Command down the street, so that must just be the way things were done. And you learned the New Year always started on the first day of October – the start of the federal government’s fiscal year. The funding cycle was everything.

It was an odd time – living at the beach and driving a red convertible, and spending eight or more hours a day in the world of odd engineers and advanced government programs that felt a lot like you were in some science fiction spy movie. Some days there’d be a presentation on the danger of foreign spies trying to lure you into getting goodies for them, and you’d go home and sip scotch on the steps and watch the surfers catching the last waves before the light failed. Sometimes you’d drive up to Hollywood, or take a date for dinner on the Malibu Pier. The next day someone would be talking about how hard it was to find someone who knew all about radiation hardening of microcircuits. Those were strange times. The Beach Boys had covered only a small sliver of life in Southern California.

But mostly you really got into technology – neat gizmos. It was a Howard Hughes thing – the guy who ended up out here, slightly mad, involved in the movie business, but crazy for airplanes. There were all the record-setting airplanes in the thirties, and that Spruce Goose monstrosity – but by the eighties, with Howard long gone, Hughes Aircraft had by then invented the communications satellite and more than half of everything in orbit came from Hughes, and there was all the fancy radar stuff and no one is allowed to say what else. He had pissed off his partners and they formed TRW – even better classified gizmos, from a few blocks south, in Redondo Beach. Forget the Beach Boys. This was Gizmo Heaven.

That’s why it’s hard not to like the F-22 Raptor – just look at it. But in April the Defense Department proposed to cease placing new orders, subject to Congressional approval, for a final procurement – the 187 they have now would do just fine, not all the ones originally planned. Each unit does cost three hundred sixty-one million a pop. Great airplane – but pricy, and no one seems to know what we need them for these days.

But oddly all this does go back to the eighties:

In 1983, I was in the Pentagon meeting that launched the F-22 Raptor. The plan was to buy 648 jets beginning in 1996 for $60 million each (in 1983 dollars). Now they cost $350 million apiece and the Obama budget caps the program at 187 jets. At least they are safe from cyber attack since no one in China knows how to program the ’83 vintage IBM software that runs them.

That’s John Lehman – secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and a member of the 9-11 Commission, and not too impressed. The Raptor finally entered service in December 2005 – that’s a long development cycle. And things got a bit out of hand.

But stopping production means a fight. See Defense News:

Who’s in charge, anyway? Both Congress and the White House claim to control defense spending, and they’re preparing to battle it out over the F-22 stealth fighter.

For weeks, lawmakers have been signaling their displeasure over U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to end production of the Raptor.

The House voted in June to build 11 more, and Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, declared it a matter of “Congress versus the executive in terms of who’s in charge.” Senior White House aides responded by warning of a presidential veto.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted for seven more F-22s. Then the House defense appropriations subcommittee ordered a full dozen.

And then came the counterattack:

On July 13, as the Senate prepared for a vote on the unwanted F-22s, Obama himself threatened a veto.

In a letter, the president emphasized his “strong support for terminating procurement of additional F-22 fighter aircraft.”

“We do not need these planes,” Obama said. “That is why I will veto any bill that supports acquisition of F-22s beyond the 187 already funded by Congress.”

No way – on July 16 the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense voted to begin buying parts and materials for twelve more of these things. So Defense Secretary Gates jumped in:

“It is time to draw the line on doing defense business as usual,” Gates said in a speech in Chicago. “The president has drawn that line. And that red line is a veto. And it is real.”

But it seems Congress doesn’t give a hoot what those two think. Sure, Gates argues that this thing the wrong weapon for the kind of wars we are fighting today and expect to fight in the future:

It was designed specifically to defeat “a highly advanced enemy fighter fleet. The F-22, to be blunt, does not make much sense anyplace else in the spectrum of conflict.”

More relevant to today’s wars, “We now have unmanned aerial vehicles that can simultaneously perform intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance missions as well as deliver precision-guided bombs and missiles,” Gates said.

The Obama budget would buy forty-eight advanced unmanned aerial vehicles – they have a greater range than some manned fighters and can loiter over targets for hours, and seem to Gates to be far more useful. And anyway, he likes the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter better – carries many more weapons and also can be used as an air-to-ground fighter to destroy enemy air defenses and that sort of thing, and costs half as much.

And Gates seems to be big on reality:

“Every defense dollar diverted to fund excess or unneeded capacity – whether for more F-22s or anything else – is a dollar that will be unavailable” to support troops, win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, deter adversaries, or improve weak capabilities, he said.

Ending the F-22 program “reflects the judgment of two very different presidents, two different secretaries of defense, two chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff, and the current Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff,” Gates said.

“Where do we draw the line? If we can’t get this right – what on earth can we get right?” Gates asked.

Why would we virtually disarm ourselves to buy more of this 1983 wet dream?

The Defense News piece goes on to cover what Congress is saying – stopping production would put the country at risk or some such things, and some key Air Force generals want more of these, and they must know something. Even if Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agrees with Gates and Obama, some in the Air Force disagree.

Something else is going on of course, in addition to the Air Force protecting its turf. This item in the Washington Post explains nicely:

Designed during the early 1980s to ensure long-term American military dominance of the skies, the F-22 was conceived to win dogfights with advanced Soviet fighters that Russia is still trying to develop. …

Its troubles have been detailed in dozens of Government Accountability Office reports and Pentagon audits. But Pierre Sprey, a key designer in the 1970s and 1980s of the F-16 and A-10 warplanes, said that from the beginning, the Air Force designed it to be “too big to fail, that is, to be cancellation-proof.”

And that wasn’t that hard to do:

Lockheed farmed out more than 1,000 subcontracts to vendors in more than 40 states, and Sprey – now a prominent critic of the plane – said that by the time skeptics “could point out the failed tests, the combat flaws, and the exploding costs, most congressmen were already defending their subcontractors'” revenues.

John Hamre, the Pentagon’s comptroller from 1993 to 1997, says the department approved the plane with a budget it knew was too low because projecting the real costs would have been politically unpalatable on Capitol Hill.

“We knew that the F-22 was going to cost more than the Air Force thought it was going to cost and we budgeted the lower number, and I was there,” Hamre told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April. “I’m not proud of it,” Hamre added in a recent interview.

But there you have it. None of this has to do with national security or a silly teenage boy’s love of neat gizmos – it was a setup. And at least out here in the late eighties the gizmos worked just fine – the Hughes probes that landed on the moon, the TRW Keyhole spy satellites, and the F-18. Now, not so much:

The United States’ top fighter jet, the Lockheed Martin F-22, has recently required more than 30 hours of maintenance for every hour in the skies, pushing its hourly cost of flying to more than $44,000, a far higher figure than for the warplane it replaces, confidential Pentagon test results show.

The aircraft’s radar-absorbing metallic skin is the principal cause of its maintenance troubles, with unexpected shortcomings – such as vulnerability to rain and other abrasion – challenging Air Force and contractor technicians since the mid-1990s, according to Pentagon officials, internal documents and a former engineer.

Yep, rain is a problem. And the trend is not good:

While most aircraft fleets become easier and less costly to repair as they mature, key maintenance trends for the F-22 have been negative in recent years, and on average from October last year to this May, just 55 percent of the deployed F-22 fleet has been available to fulfill missions guarding U.S. airspace, the Defense Department acknowledged this week. The F-22 has never been flown over Iraq or Afghanistan. …

“It is a disgrace that you can fly a plane [an average of] only 1.7 hours before it gets a critical failure” that jeopardizes success of the aircraft’s mission, said a Defense Department critic of the plane who is not authorized to speak on the record.

It’s the on-the-record stuff that’s a bit galling:

Votes by the House and Senate armed services committees last month to spend $369 million to $1.75 billion more to keep the F-22 production line open were propelled by mixed messages from the Air Force – including a quiet campaign for the plane that includes snazzy new Lockheed videos for key lawmakers – and intense political support from states where the F-22’s components are made. The full House ratified the vote on June 25, and the Senate is scheduled to begin consideration of F-22 spending Monday.

And the facts don’t seem to matter:

When limited production began in 2001, the plane was “substantially behind its plan to achieve reliability goals,” the GAO said in a report the following year. Structural problems that turned up in subsequent testing forced retrofits to the frame and changes in the fuel flow. Computer flaws, combined with defective software diagnostics, forced the frequent retesting of millions of lines of code, said two Defense officials with access to internal reports.

Skin problems – often requiring re-gluing small surfaces that can take more than a day to dry – helped force more frequent and time-consuming repairs, according to the confidential data drawn from tests conducted by the Pentagon’s independent Office of Operational Test and Evaluation between 2004 and 2008.

Over the four-year period, the F-22’s average maintenance time per hour of flight grew from 20 hours to 34, with skin repairs accounting for more than half of that time – and more than half the hourly flying costs – last year, according to the test and evaluation office.

The Air Force says the F-22 cost $44,259 per flying hour in 2008; the Office of the Secretary of Defense said the figure was $49,808. The F-15, the F-22’s predecessor, has a fleet average cost of $30,818.

The Post item also covers the whistle-blower lawsuits. This was a bad deal. And there is this:

In late 2005, Boeing learned of defects in titanium booms connecting the wings to the plane, which the company, in a subsequent lawsuit against its supplier, said posed the risk of “catastrophic loss of the aircraft.” But rather than shut down the production line – an act that would have incurred large Air Force penalties – Boeing reached an accord with the Air Force to resolve the problem through increased inspections over the life of the fleet, with expenses to be mostly paid by the Air Force.

And this:

The plane’s million-dollar radar-absorbing canopy has also caused problems, with a stuck hatch imprisoning a pilot for hours in 2006 and engineers unable to extend the canopy’s lifespan beyond about 18 months of flying time. It delaminates, “loses its strength and finish,” said an official privy to Air Force data.

In the interview, Ahern and Air Force Gen. C.D. Moore confirmed that canopy visibility has been declining more rapidly than expected, with brown spots and peeling forcing $120,000 refurbishments at 331 hours of flying time, on average, instead of the stipulated 800 hours.

But Lockheed and its subcontractors, Boeing and the rest, say things are getting better – really. They would have to:

At the plane’s first operational flight test in September 2004, it fully met two of 22 key requirements and had a total of 351 deficiencies; in 2006, it fully met five; in 2008, when squadrons were deployed at six U.S. bases, it fully met seven.

“It flunked on suitability measures – availability, reliability, and maintenance,” said Christie about the first of those tests. “There was no consequence. It did not faze anybody who was in the decision loop” for approving the plane’s full production. This outcome was hardly unique, Christie adds. During his tenure in the job from 2001 to 2005, “16 or 17 major weapons systems flunked” during initial operational tests, and “not one was stopped as a result.”

So Gates decided this spring to spend 785 million on four more planes and then end production – this was all nonsense. And it got dramatic:

One of the last four planes Gates supported buying is meant to replace an F-22 that crashed during a test flight north of Los Angeles on March 25, during his review of the program. The Air Force has declined to discuss the cause, but a classified internal accident report completed the following month states that the plane flew into the ground after poorly executing a high-speed run with its weapons-bay doors open, according to three government officials familiar with its contents. The Lockheed test pilot died.

Several sources said the flight was part of a bid to make the F-22 relevant to current conflicts by giving it a capability to conduct precision bombing raids, not just aerial dogfights. The Air Force is still probing who should be held accountable for the accident.

It doesn’t matter – it wasn’t designed for bombing anything, it was designed for air-to-air combat with imaginary planes that no one invented, and then it was made essential to the reelection of key members of Congress.

Gates just sees it differently:

The grim reality is that with regard to the budget we have entered a zero-sum game. Every defense dollar diverted to fund excess or unneeded capacity… is a dollar that will be unavailable to take care of our people, to win the wars we are in, to deter potential adversaries, and to improve capabilities in areas where America is underinvested and potentially vulnerable. That is a risk that I will not take and one that I cannot accept.

That bore repeating. And that is politically radical, as Matthew Yglesias notes:

Barack Obama and Robert Gates are trying to bring an end to years of magical thinking about defense spending. George Bush took a federal budget that was in short-term equilibrium but facing large long-term deficits, and decided that the thing to do was to cut taxes dramatically and simultaneously scale up defense spending. Ronald Reagan did the same thing. That’s conservative governance.

But in the real world, you have to make decisions. If the country is going to fix its budgetary problems then the Pentagon is going to have to live on a budget. That means choices have to be made.

So, tell us all again, all about how manly and defense-minded conservatives are fiscally responsible, unlike the tax-and-spend Democrats. And just who is weak on defense?

But – more than anything – tell us why these days we can’t have gizmos that at least work. It almost makes you miss Howard Hughes, and his legacy in Southern California – no, not the Beach Boys – the cool gizmos.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Way Cool But Quite Useless

  1. Jim says:

    One thing about aerospace in the 80’s, it was all about innovation and doing things that had never been done before. Many people were enthusiastic about designing and building the cool gizmos. Now after years of consolidations and cost cutting, much of that enthusiasm and innovative spirit is gone. Today is the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. I ate lunch in the cafeteria of Northrop Grumman Space Systems Division, formerly TRW. Among other things TRW had built the propulsion system for the lunar lander, something that many people thought couldn’t be done. In the former TRW cafeteria they were showing vintage slides and video from the Apollo era. I was just a kid in the 60’s but I remember watching it live on TV and thinking about the future of space travel. Now here we are, 5 months away from the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Yes there have been many cool gizmos invented over the past 40 years. But I can’t help wondering where we would be if the pace of innovation that we had during the Apollo program had been kept up to this day.

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