And no, this has nothing to do with buying furniture.
Lots of folks enjoy playing the armchair general; picking apart historical battles, replaying them endlessly and trying to improve upon history through the benefit of hindsight and your hypothetical enemies not actually trying to kill you.
I am not one of those people.
I’d much rather explore new scenarios than replay Waterloo for the three millionth time, after all.
But I do indulge in speculation, analysis, and general griping about the methods through which the military gets all of its fancy new toys. Because like most train wrecks, there’s a lot of noise, explosions, and shattered lives, with an end result that is typically enormously expensive to clean up.
It’s been my opinion for some time that most modern United States military hardware, at least in terms of major systems, is either overly ambitious, insufficiently produced, excessively political, or all of the above.
And I’ll explain what I mean by that with the simple example of the F-22 Raptor.
First, let me state that the Raptor is without a doubt the finest air superiority platform in service today with any military in the world. We’re talking about a fighter with avionics capable of enabling it to act as an AWACs aircraft, the ability to cruise faster than some fighters can fly, high degrees of stealth, and unmatched maneuverability.
It is, in effect, a fighter whose only limitation in combat against most of its current enemies is how many missiles it can carry.
Unless, of course, the pilot blacks out because the oxygen system stops working. Or the plane’s avionics crash because you crossed the international date line. Or you crash the plane on landing due to oscillations in the flight control system. Or any of the other bugs that are still cropping up fifteen years after the first production model rolled off the line.
The F-22 is a classic example of an overly ambitious weapon system. It was designed to do too much, and on top of that, to acquire new capabilities as the system matured. Which is a good part of the reason that it took fifteen years between the flight of the first prototype and the entry of the aircraft into service. And whenever a system takes that long to deploy, it starts to run into that second problem I mentioned.
The Raptor, for its stated role, is under-produced. The initial intent was to produce 750 of the aircraft. Every few years, however, that number would be reduced. Almost immediately it was cut by a hundred aircraft; just a few years later, it would be slashed by two hundred more.
By the time the fighter actually entered service, the production run was cut down to 187 aircraft, just about a fourth of what the US Air Force had originally intended to buy.
Now, these planes are expensive. Insanely expensive, depending on how you do your math. And that’s part of the problem.
When people talk about the cost of a given system, there are two “costs” to consider. On the one hand, there’s the total cost of the program, including development, as split across the number of platforms actually being acquired. And on the other hand, there’s the actual cost of production of the aircraft, not including development, what’s referred to as the “flyaway cost”.
Which one you use depends largely on whether or not you’re trying to get the program cancelled. Because while the initial plans for the F-22 would have seen the planes costing something on the order of $40 million dollars per plane (an extremely optimistic estimate, I might add), the ultimate costs of the program would be almost ten times that high, at least when you factor in development costs.
The problem is that about half of the program’s total cost wound up being in development. The flyaway cost of an F-22 is “only” about $150 million per plane. Had the original number of planes been built… well, while the total cost of the program would be higher, those development costs would be sunk across four times as many aircraft.
And that becomes part of the problem. When a program becomes unpopular in Congress, it starts drawing fire not on the production costs per unit, but the production and development costs per unit. When you start slashing the number of units produced, you increase the total cost per unit, and the cycle continues, in effect a death spiral wherein cutting production seems to raise the price of each aircraft, thus serving as justification for further cuts.
Bear in mind that this completely leaves out the fact that with its incredibly limited production the aircraft is, in fact, unable to meet the requirements originally set out for it. While it remains a very impressive platform, there simply are not enough Raptors to cover the responsibilities originally envisioned in the program. It’s also interesting to note that the slashed production numbers have been spurred in recent years by a desire to wait until the “cheaper” F-35 becomes available. I say “cheaper” because at the moment, the flyaway costs of an F-35 are roughly comparable to that of an F-22, and the possibility has been raised of the program entering the same death spiral that afflicted the F-22, given that the F-35 is yet another overly ambitious and excessively political program.
Which segues nicely into what constitutes an “excessively political” program.
There’s a dark underbelly to contracts like these, you see. When the military goes to Congress asking for money to develop and acquire a new system, Congress frequently exacts a price of its own, in a way. Specifically, in just how the money for that weapons program will be spent.
After all, if a congressman can get the system produced in his state, he gets to claim responsibility for the added jobs and tax revenues that will result. The F-22 would ultimately be produced across forty six states, by a conglomerate of nearly a thousand different corporations, a vast increase in logistical complications solely designed to get the program passed through Congress.
Most analyses indicate that that aspect of the program added significantly to its total cost. How much may never be known, but in effect, that money can be considered a bribe, spread across the politicians whose votes were secured not out of national interest, but personal interest.
The Raptor, ultimately, remains a bone of contention among many people both in the military and defense industries. On the one hand, the current iteration of the aircraft lacks a number of capabilities that would make it more relevant in a generation of asymmetric warfare. On the other hand, it has capabilities missing from its hypothetical successor that would become extremely relevant in a conflict with a major foreign power.