National Security

Hard of Hearing

Why the House's attempt to save defense spending might flop.

It was probably the most ballyhooed congressional hearing on defense for the year. As the monthly economic news continues to show poor job growth, and as the elections heat up, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon, and defense contractor Lockheed-Martin saw a major opportunity to protect the Pentagon budget and their bottom line. On Wednesday, just as the House of Representatives was about to debate the 2013 Department of Defense Appropriations bill, McKeon held a big hearing with Lockheed and other industry representatives to explain why the American economy could not possibly stomach the $55 billion in defense cuts set to occur in January, as required by last summer's Budget Control Act and the failure of the congressional "Super Committee" to cut a broad budget deal.

To heighten fear of the so-called "sequester," McKeon and Lockheed have been arguing that an obscure piece of legislation called the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act requires contractors to send out notices of impending pink slips to tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of defense industry workers. And because of what they maintain is the WARN Act's 60-day advance-notice requirement, those warnings would come just a few days before the November elections. The only possible rescue from the predictable panic among politicians, especially Democrats, would be to undo the $55 billion in automatic cuts to the defense budget and save the jobs. Or that's been the idea.

But leaving nothing to chance, the day before the hearing, the defense manufacturers trotted out yet another study arguing that the sequester would cost over a million jobs in defense and related work; former Vice President Richard Cheney was brought into Washington to chime in on how destructive the Pentagon budget cuts would be; Lockheed's testimony was leaked to the Washington Post to produce an article published the morning of the hearing to soften up any reluctant politicians; and press conferences abounded.

All the usual hot rhetoric was rebroadcast in excess. To supplement Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's memorable description of the sequester scenario as "doomsday," the president of the manufacturer's mouthpiece, the Aerospace Industries Association's Marion Blakey, called the alleged impending lay-offs "Armageddon." Describing his own hearing as "probably one of the most important hearings I can remember," McKeon chimed in with "catastrophic" (another Panetta term) and termed the Obama administration's purported lack of concern about this looming event a "cavernous silence."

I fully expected that these crude tactics would be effective and that the Democrats at the hearing would be stampeded into clamoring for the sequester to be repealed with little to no concession from the Republicans.

I was quite wrong: From the McKeon/Lockheed perspective, the hearing was a complete bust.

The Democrats on the committee didn't buy any of what McKeon and the manufacturers were putting down; actually, they made the hearing into an embarrassment to McKeon and his industry sidekicks, as McKeon's deflated and underwhelming comments at the end of the hearing made painfully clear. Instead of badgering his Democratic colleagues into submission, the chairman was left making excuses for the corporations' planned exploitation of their own employees, saying they were "just trying to run their businesses in an orderly manner."

Despite repeated prompting, the Lockheed witness, CEO Robert Stevens, could not identify a single contract that would be terminated, nor specify the number of workers that would be laid off. All he really had was more rhetoric: "devastating," "undermining the aerospace industrial base," and then "catastrophic" and "meat axe," again borrowed from Panetta. Even though he did not know what contracts would actually be affected or how, he nevertheless insisted that he would need to send out those thousands and thousands of pink slip warnings just before the elections.

Another major witness, EADS North America CEO Sean O'Keefe, was not even sure of that. The closest he got to warning of pink slip notices was saying that EADS "will have to do something." He was clearly not entirely on board with Lockheed and McKeon. The president of Pratt and Whitney, David Hess, was even less helpful; he didn't really know what the law requires or what he would do; it was all "not clear." A small-business contractor, Della Williams, president of Williams-Pyro in Fort Worth, Texas, volunteered that her company was "not covered" by the WARN Act. Not exactly the clarion call McKeon and Lockheed wanted to broadcast.

They were lucky no one asked them about the schedule the WARN Act actually requires or the number of jobs that the $55 billion sequester might actually take out of defense production. Some sharp reporting by Bloomberg and some skeptical analysis by a former OMB official at Washington's Stimson Center have cast serious doubt on both the concocted requirement to send pink slip warnings just before the elections and about the real number of jobs that $55 billion less in Pentagon spending next year would incur. The Bloomberg story explained that the notices, when required, would not be called for until well after the elections, and Gordon Adams at Stimson made clear that the job numbers in question were wantonly inflated by including thousands upon thousands of employees who do no defense work.

Nor did the witnesses get to what the budget sequester would actually mean to the Pentagon, if it occurs. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), it would reduce Department of Defense "base" spending, not including additional war spending, to $469 billion. That amount, also according to CBO, would return the Pentagon to the 2006 level of spending, adjusted for inflation. In historic terms, Pentagon spending would therefore remain about $35 billion above its average Cold War level, and it would stay as much as $100 billion above the low points that followed previous high spending periods, such as the Korean and Vietnam wars and the Reagan era. Finally, it should be noted, the level of spending, not including additional war spending, would still be more than twice the combined defense budgets of China, Russia, Syria, North Korea, and Iran.

There are problems with the sequester. The cuts would be abrupt, and -- according to some -- they might have to occur automatically across various selected accounts, perhaps even individual programs. But those are not the elements that the plaintiffs are primarily concerned about. They are concerned about the amount of money -- and the truth is the amount left by the sequester is historically generous. But to McKeon, Cheney, Lockheed, Panetta, and the other hysterics, these data mean nothing. Unfortunately for them, the chasm between their rhetoric and the facts has become so gigantic that people in Washington are actually beginning to notice.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

National Security

The Jet That Ate the Pentagon

The F-35 is a boondoggle. It's time to throw it in the trash bin.

Click here to see pictures of the supersonic albatross. 

The United States is making a gigantic investment in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, billed by its advocates as the next -- by their count the fifth -- generation of air-to-air and air-to-ground combat aircraft. Claimed to be near invisible to radar and able to dominate any future battlefield, the F-35 will replace most of the air-combat aircraft in the inventories of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and at least nine foreign allies, and it will be in those inventories for the next 55 years. It's no secret, however, that the program -- the most expensive in American history -- is a calamity.

This month, we learned that the Pentagon has increased the price tag for the F-35 by another $289 million -- just the latest in a long string of cost increases -- and that the program is expected to account for a whopping 38 percent of Pentagon procurement for defense programs, assuming its cost will grow no more. Its many problems are acknowledged by its listing in proposals for Pentagon spending reductions by leaders from across the political spectrum, including Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), President Barack Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and budget gurus such as former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Alice Rivlin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office and Office of Management and Budget.

How bad is it? A review of the F-35's cost, schedule, and performance -- three essential measures of any Pentagon program -- shows the problems are fundamental and still growing.

First, with regard to cost -- a particularly important factor in what politicians keep saying is an austere defense budget environment -- the F-35 is simply unaffordable. Although the plane was originally billed as a low-cost solution, major cost increases have plagued the program throughout the last decade. Last year, Pentagon leadership told Congress the acquisition price had increased another 16 percent, from $328.3 billion to $379.4 billion for the 2,457 aircraft to be bought. Not to worry, however -- they pledged to finally reverse the growth.

The result? This February, the price increased another 4 percent to $395.7 billion and then even further in April. Don't expect the cost overruns to end there: The test program is only 20 percent complete, the Government Accountability Office has reported, and the toughest tests are yet to come. Overall, the program's cost has grown 75 percent from its original 2001 estimate of $226.5 billion -- and that was for a larger buy of 2,866 aircraft.

Hundreds of F-35s will be built before 2019, when initial testing is complete. The additional cost to engineer modifications to fix the inevitable deficiencies that will be uncovered is unknown, but it is sure to exceed the $534 million already known from tests so far. The total program unit cost for each individual F-35, now at $161 million, is only a temporary plateau. Expect yet another increase in early 2013, when a new round of budget restrictions is sure to hit the Pentagon, and the F-35 will take more hits in the form of reducing the numbers to be bought, thereby increasing the unit cost of each plane.

A final note on expense: The F-35 will actually cost multiples of the $395.7 billion cited above. That is the current estimate only to acquire it, not the full life-cycle cost to operate it. The current appraisal for operations and support is $1.1 trillion -- making for a grand total of $1.5 trillion, or more than the annual GDP of Spain. And that estimate is wildly optimistic: It assumes the F-35 will only be 42 percent more expensive to operate than an F-16, but the F-35 is much more complex. The only other "fifth generation" aircraft, the F-22 from the same manufacturer, is in some respects less complex than the F-35, but in 2010, it cost 300 percent more to operate per hour than the F-16. To be very conservative, expect the F-35 to be twice the operating and support cost of the F-16.

Already unaffordable, the F-35's price is headed in one direction -- due north.

The F-35 isn't only expensive -- it's way behind schedule. The first plan was to have an initial batch of F-35s available for combat in 2010. Then first deployment was to be 2012. More recently, the military services have said the deployment date is "to be determined." A new target date of 2019 has been informally suggested in testimony -- almost 10 years late.

If the F-35's performance were spectacular, it might be worth the cost and wait. But it is not. Even if the aircraft lived up to its original specifications -- and it will not -- it would be a huge disappointment. The reason it is such a mediocrity also explains why it is unaffordable and, for years to come, unobtainable.

In discussing the F-35 with aviation and acquisition experts -- some responsible for highly successful aircraft such as the F-16 and the A-10, and others with decades of experience inside the Pentagon and years of direct observation of the F-35's early history -- I learned that the F-35's problems are built into its very DNA.

The design was born in the late 1980s in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon agency that has earned an undeserved reputation for astute innovation. It emerged as a proposal for a very short takeoff and vertical-landing aircraft (known as "STOVL") that would also be supersonic. This required an airframe design that -- simultaneously -- wanted to be short, even stumpy, and single-engine (STOVL), and also sleek, long, and with lots of excess power, usually with twin engines.

President Bill Clinton's Pentagon bogged down the already compromised design concept further by adding the requirement that it should be a multirole aircraft -- both an air-to-air fighter and a bomber. This required more difficult tradeoffs between agility and low weight, and the characteristics of an airframe optimized to carry heavy loads. Clinton-era officials also layered on "stealth," imposing additional aerodynamic shape requirements and maintenance-intensive skin coatings to reduce radar reflections. They also added two separate weapons bays, which increase permanent weight and drag, to hide onboard missiles and bombs from radars. On top of all that, they made it multiservice, requiring still more tradeoffs to accommodate more differing, but exacting, needs of the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy.

Finally, again during the Clinton administration, the advocates composed a highly "concurrent" acquisition strategy. That meant hundreds of copies of the F-35 would be produced, and the financial and political commitments would be made, before the test results showed just what was being bought.

This grotesquely unpromising plan has already resulted in multitudes of problems -- and 80 percent of the flight testing remains. A virtual flying piano, the F-35 lacks the F-16's agility in the air-to-air mode and the F-15E's range and payload in the bombing mode, and it can't even begin to compare to the A-10 at low-altitude close air support for troops engaged in combat. Worse yet, it won't be able to get into the air as often to perform any mission -- or just as importantly, to train pilots -- because its complexity prolongs maintenance and limits availability. The aircraft most like the F-35, the F-22, was able to get into the air on average for only 15 hours per month in 2010 when it was fully operational. (In 2011, the F-22 was grounded for almost five months and flew even less.)

This mediocrity is not overcome by the F-35's "fifth-generation" characteristics, the most prominent of which is its "stealth." Despite what many believe, "stealth" is not invisibility to radar; it is limited-detection ranges against some radar types at some angles. Put another way, certain radars, some of them quite antiquated, can see "stealthy" aircraft at quite long ranges, and even the susceptible radars can see the F-35 at certain angles. The ultimate demonstration of this shortcoming occurred in the 1999 Kosovo war, when 1960s vintage Soviet radar and missile equipment shot down a "stealthy" F-117 bomber and severely damaged a second.

The bottom line: The F-35 is not the wonder its advocates claim. It is a gigantic performance disappointment, and in some respects a step backward. The problems, integral to the design, cannot be fixed without starting from a clean sheet of paper.

It's time for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the U.S. military services, and Congress to face the facts: The F-35 is an unaffordable mediocrity, and the program will not be fixed by any combination of hardware tweaks or cost-control projects. There is only one thing to do with the F-35: Junk it. America's air forces deserve a much better aircraft, and the taxpayers deserve a much cheaper one. The dustbin awaits.

U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin via Getty Images