National Security

Error Report

Is there a government conspiracy to save the F-35?

Until recently, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter had been having a pretty rough time.

In 2012, its estimated average "program acquisition unit cost" was reported to have doubled, from the $81 million per copy anticipated in 2001 to $161 million, flight tests revealed deficiencies in achieving the F-35's modest performance requirements, and scheduled full-rate production was delayed to 2019.

In 2013, the pace of negative events and reports has only increased. So far, the F-35 has been grounded not once but twice (with different components showing signs of failure). Also, not one but two reports from the Defense Department's director of operational test and evaluation (DOT&E) documented serious problems: Existing deficiencies, such as the inability to land safely on aircraft carriers, have not been resolved, and new issues, such as lower than predicted acceleration, are cropping up -- just as the more challenging flight tests are beginning.

Even the F-35 program manager, Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, was quoted in Australia being volubly caustic toward the F-35's two largest contractors (Lockheed-Martin and Pratt & Whitney), saying they were trying to "squeeze every nickel" out of the program, not controlling their costs. Then this week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released this year's annual review of the program. It reported that the first four F-35 production contracts have overrun their targets by $1.2 billion; above that, the F-35s built before 2016 will need an additional $1.7 billion to fix the problems uncovered, so far, by testing. In addition, the amount needed to sustain the F-35 will climb to almost $14 billion in 2018, while the Pentagon is supposed to absorb cuts required by budget deals. As GAO also points out, the program faces a conundrum: Reducing production to save money will actually increase the unit cost of each F-35 built, thereby making the already unaffordable program that much more unsustainable.

And yet, it would seem that in other respects, the F-35 defenders are circling their wagons.

Lt. Gen. Bogdan is a more complicated personality in the F-35 saga than his highly quotable statements about greedy contractors might make him out to be. On inspection, he is an uncompromising defender of the F-35 -- he has trashed unwelcome reports on the F-35's ineffectiveness and, more importantly, tried to intimidate subordinates who have unflattering things to say about the plane.

Speaking at a conference of DOD bigwigs funded by Credit Suisse and McAleese & Associates, Bogdan dismissed one of the DOT&E reports as "premature," and then he went even further. One of the pilots quoted in the report had the strength of character and intellect (based on a few hundred hours of operational aircraft flight experience) to express concern that the design of the F-35 cockpit restricted pilots' ability to see threats to the rear, saying "aft visibility will get the pilot gunned [down] every time." The comment addressed a real flaw in the F-35's airframe design, and it came from an experienced operator. What was Bogdan's response? He told the press at the bankers' conference that "we can always put that pilot in a C-2 [cargo aircraft]...where [he] won't worry about getting gunned down."

Sure, general, that's just what DOD needs more of: Washington-based bureaucrats talking down to servicemen in the field with the character to express their experience-based concerns about defective equipment. Donald Rumsfeld did the same thing in 2004 when a reservist in Iraq had the gall to suggest that soldiers should not have to scrounge in scrap heaps to improvise "hillbilly armor" to survive in their vehicles in combat. Saying, "You go to war with the Army you have," Rumsfeld told the soldier to suck it up.

Lt. Gen. Bogdan, welcome to your own personal alcove in Donald Rumsfeld's hall of conceit.

However, beyond arrogance from "milicrats" at financiers' conferences in Washington, something else -- subtle, but perhaps more sinister -- has been going on.

For years, the GAO has been reporting on the F-35. While some of the reports have not probed as deeply or as completely as others, they have all been a valuable, informative resource. In some respects, the new March 11 report is no exception: F-35 costs continue to grow; capabilities are being achieved late or moved out of the program altogether; after 10 years, most capabilities are yet to be verified, or even tested; what some call the "death spiral" (smaller numbers of aircraft at increased cost) is a major threat to the program.

However, this new GAO report, titled "F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: Current Outlook Is Improved, but Long-Term Affordability Is a Major Concern," makes certain optimistic statements that it does not substantiate, suggesting the Pentagon may have influenced its findings.

Twice in the report, GAO asserts that the F-35 program has made "considerable progress" addressing the problems the F-35's high-tech helmet-mounted display. DOT&E reported that pilots in training frequently saw misaligned horizons, inoperative or flickering displays, and double, unfocused, jittery, washed-out and/or latent images in the helmet display, but the GAO report did not explain the problems, let alone any solutions. Then, GAO stated that "program and contractor officials told us that they have increased confidence that the helmet deficiencies will be fixed." In other words, contractors and DOD officials told GAO the helmet was on the mend, and without meaningful evaluation or evidence, GAO simply regurgitated the assurance in its report.

In another section labeled "F-35 Program Met Most of Its 2012 Key Management Objectives," GAO presented a matrix supporting inferred progress: Seven of ten objectives were declared met. GAO failed to note that several of the achieved objectives were almost impossible to fail. For example, GAO gave the F-35 credit for passing the objective titled "Begin Lab Testing" of the problematic helmet display and for receiving a go-ahead decision for the entire program from DOD's Defense Acquisition Board. These "accomplishments" are tantamount to students giving themselves a passing grade for starting a course, not completing it -- let alone with a passing grade. Also, the F-35 was found to have passed the objective to "Begin F-35A and F-35B Pilot Training," even though the DOT&E report raised serious questions about whether the F-35A was qualified to begin such training.

Interestingly, two of the objectives declared to have been failed were ones that are readily quantifiable: delivering the promised number of aircraft and achieving the Defense Contracting Management Agency's criteria for an audit. When pass or fail was quantifiable, there were problems.

Such vapid but positive findings gave one of the F-35's biggest boosters, Lockheed consultant Loren Thompson, license to author a paean to the GAO report, "GAO Gives F-35 Fighter Its Best Grades Ever," citing the above-mentioned and other supposed signs of progress.

Having worked in the GAO for nine years, I am familiar with some of the problems this GAO report contains.

In the lunch room in the GAO headquarters, we used to crack jokes about weak, "officials told us" reporting. It may be accurate that contractors and officials said the helmet would be fixed, but where is the empirical -- not rhetorical -- evidence of the "considerable progress"? What has actually been improved, what is the proof (from test data) of that, and why would anyone simply repeat the advocates' assurances as the primary evidence? How sad that such fluff suffices as evidence for managers in today's GAO.

While there are other examples in the report of poorly supported assertions, GAO's conclusion is the real stunner: "Overall, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is now moving in the right direction after a long, expensive, and arduous learning process." Other than the weak examples cited, there is no substantiation of this sweeping statement. Indeed, reporting from others, such as DOD's own DOT&E, would seem to indicate the problems in the F-35 program may be growing, especially as it enters the more difficult part of its flight testing.

One has to wonder where GAO got the idea to print such a reassuring, but vapid, conclusion. I think I might know the answer.

Every GAO report should be, and is widely assumed to be, completely independent of any influence from outsiders, especially those who are the subject of investigation. The way I saw GAO operate during my tenure there as an assistant director and as former colleagues and other GAO contacts continue to tell me, that essential independence is sometimes compromised.

A basic element of the GAO report process is to send a final, manager-approved draft of a report to the agency being investigated for its official comments. These comments are routinely published in the report, and any time the agency under investigation finds what it considers to be errors of fact or judgment, it states them -- publically and on the record. GAO has the option, on its own re-examination, to modify the report accordingly or to stick to its guns, citing its reasons why.

However, for many years this important process has been abused by some in GAO. Repeatedly, I would observe others at GAO providing early, not final, draft reports to DOD officials asking for their informal -- not publically recorded -- comments, plus any useful data to substantiate their claims. DOD would even edit report language. The agency's "suggestions" would always come back accompanied by the implication that "if you say it this way, we won't raise any serious objections to your report."

For reasons that always seemed bizarre -- at best -- to me, many top GAO managers preferred findings, conclusions, and recommendations that gave DOD only limited, if any, heartburn. (I devoted a chapter in my first book, The Wastrels of Defense, to these and other serious problems in GAO research. However, to its great credit, the GAO division in which I worked, which specialized in program evaluation and methodology, refused to engage in this under-the-table agency-editing and report-correcting process.)

This problematic behavior has apparently taken deeper root in GAO -- all of it unseen by the readers of GAO reports. DOD is now routinely given a written "statement of fact" that conveys the substantive parts of a report at an early, incomplete stage before the research is closed out. The DOD responses, including edits and other suggestions, are taken as a regular part of the report-writing process. Moreover, staff are admonished that a "good" report is one that DOD does not obstreperously object to: As few "non-concurs" as possible -- if any -- are highly desirable in the final, written agency comments that appear in the end of a published report.

In short, DOD appears to have an unseen hand in influencing the text of GAO reports, and the management guidance as perceived by the GAO staff is to accept the DOD guidance to reduce as much as possible any areas of disagreement. The differences may only be subtle in a final GAO report, or they could appear in the form of strangely unsubstantiated assertions and conclusions -- the sort of vapid statements that appear in GAO's new F-35 report.

Indeed, the only other explanation for the data-free assertions might be that the work at GAO, especially the review process, was sloppy and did not merit what used to be the highly prized declaration (known as the "GAGAS statement") that all the work for the report was performed "in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards," which -- justified or not -- appears on page two of the report.

My knowledge of this sort of practice led me to view as highly suspicious Appendix III in this latest GAO F-35 report: "Comments from the Department of Defense." It is a one-page letter stating, "The DOD values the GAO's analysis of the F-35 program. We agree with GAO's concluding observations and appreciate the recognition of the Department's responsiveness to previous recommendations. The Department will continue to be supportive of the annual GAO review of the F-35 program."

With a love letter like that from DOD to the agency that is supposed to be Congress's watchdog, it is time to worry how far self-interested interventions have penetrated a respected and heretofore sacrosanct agency. All may not be so well with the F-35 -- or with GAO.

Samuel King/DVIDS

National Security

A Stampede of Hysterics

America's generals are just as morally bankrupt as Congress.

I read two critically important reports this week on the impact that sequestration would have on national defense. That possible reduction in military spending -- $48 billion, or 7.4 percent of the $645 billion currently appropriated for fiscal year 2013 -- is being characterized by the stampede of hysterics who run the Pentagon as the virtual end of national security as we know it. What these two reports show is that we should now consider the Pentagon as morally and mentally broken as Congress.

The first report, by Chuck Spinney, who spent a few decades inside the Department of Defense evaluating budgets, weapons, and bureaucratic behavior, was published at Counterpunch and Time's Battleland blog. The second was a Congressional Research Service report by Amy Belasco, who has spent the last few decades at CRS and the Congressional Budget Office parsing defense budgets and their implications.

Both authors indirectly address the testimony this week of the deputy secretary of defense and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff at the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. To a man, they lent all the rhetorical and substantive support they could muster to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's depiction of sequestration as "doomsday" and to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey's description of it as an "unprecedented crisis" -- a characterization he augmented by adding that he was "jumping up and down." He truly was.

Put simply, the chiefs and their ostensible civilian masters plan to implement the cuts mandated by law in the most destructive, negative way possible, which has the convenient effect -- for them -- of pushing Congress and the White House to cough up more money. According to their testimony, the Army will reduce training levels to such a low point that units cannot be sent to Afghanistan. The Navy plans to postpone, if not cancel, maintenance for ships in a fleet already at historic lows for upkeep and repair, and deployments to the Persian Gulf have already been postponed. The Air Force is going to further reduce its historically low training of pilots, and maintenance will also hit new lows. Throughout the services, civilian maintainers, auditors, and program overseers will be furloughed, aircraft will be grounded, and ships held in port.

However, there is no reason for this to be so. Had Spinney and Belasco also been testifying at these hearings -- had anyone in the committees been even slightly interested in a little balance or a few budget facts with cogent historic and objective perspective -- the chiefs would probably have experienced a bureaucratic form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

What Spinney might have told the committees can best be summarized by this graph from his article:

Spinney

The essential point is that even under the dreaded sequester, President Obama will spend more on defense than most other postwar presidents (and without the sequester he will outspend all of them, including Reagan). Moreover, it's all in dollars adjusted for inflation.

That's quite some "doomsday." Surely, you will agree it's an "unprecedented crisis," no?

For its part, Belasco's CRS report looks into the weeds of sequestration and finds that the chiefs are proposing to cut about twice as much as they need to from the central military readiness account in the operations and maintenance part of the Pentagon budget. They plan to lop off 20 percent, instead of the 10 to 12 percent that they could limit themselves to. They could be obviating many of those horrendous readiness cuts by hitting up less readiness-critical operations and maintenance accounts. But, of course, they chose not to.

And -- not coincidentally I suspect -- after all the cutting is done as planned, the chiefs will find themselves with even more money than they requested for some of their favorite hardware items. After the sequester has taken a cut out of the Pentagon's (separate and legally distinct) procurement account, the Air Force funding for aircraft will increase by $829 million; Navy shipbuilding will have $155 million more than requested for 2013 waiting to be spent, and the weapons and tracked combat vehicles account in the Army budget will have $404 million too much. Only in the collective of mindlessly selfish and careerist politicos in today's Congress and Pentagon "leadership" can a budget doomsday result in more than was asked for in certain -- apparently covertly preferred -- categories. It's quite staggering, but it's laid out explicitly in Belasco's report.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Cater put the cherry on top of this pile of absurdity when he testified that, when he was offered the flexibility to cut where he deemed appropriate (rather than the across-the-board cuts mandated by Congress), he actually declined.

What we have here is the mother of all Washington Monument budget drills: A classic Beltway gambit where agencies warn that any budget cuts whatsoever will force them to end their core mission, rather than cut out the fat. (The head of the National Park Service was fabled to testify that any cuts in his agency budget would force him to close the highly popular Washington Monument to the public.)

Today, Congress professes itself all too eager to fall for the ruse. At the hearings this week, members railed on about the stupidity of the laws the vast majority of them voted to enact; several of them even purported that it was all the Pentagon's fault, which didn't exactly go over well with the money-grubbing Joint Chiefs.

The irony, however, is that the rancor, self-aggrandizement, and cowardice that dominates so thoroughly in Congress means that the dreaded sequester is almost sure to take place on March 1. While both parties in both the House and the Senate have prepared bills to divert it, each side has -- very consciously -- written legislation that they know the other side will enthusiastically reject: The Democrats want tax increases to pay off the sequester; the Republicans want to decimate the federal work force. More intended for fund-raising and election-maneuvering, the bills were not just dead on arrival; they were dead in procreation.

Thus, we have a freakishly large budget being characterized by the Pentagon's military and civilian leadership as so small that they must literally destroy the armed forces' ability to fight. We have a Congress of Republicans and Democrats who declare themselves near universally dedicated to fixing the problem -- with more money -- while at the same time they work feverishly to make sure nothing happens. And just to reinforce just how serious they are, their action in the immediate aftermath of the hearings is to go on vacation for a week.

The biggest loser -- and fall guy -- in all of this is Chuck Hagel, who is anxiously trying to squeak by in his effort to replace Leon Panetta as secretary of defense. It comes after a profoundly depressing performance in his confirmation hearing, at which he inarticulately but effectively ate his own words on issue after issue in order to curry favor with even the most junior member of the Armed Services Committee. Eschewing also the opportunity to inject badly needed insight, information, and spine into the budget situation, Hagel also pandered eagerly to conventional wisdom, calling the sequester a "straightjacket" that would "devastate" the military and require DOD to "significantly revise the defense strategy."

In the final analysis, Congress will do something to accommodate the budget protection gambit being performed by the real masters of the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Meanwhile, the new secretary of defense, who has pre-emptively capitulated to the chiefs' budget fancies, as he has to everyone else, has made it abundantly clear that he will sit on his hands as the Pentagon decimates military readiness.

Chuck Spinney has tracked for decades our military forces as they have shriveled -- counter-intuitively -- at ever-increasing cost, and Amy Belasco has reported to Congress time and time again opportunities for doing things smart, not ugly. Both will be foregone for the easier and politically remunerative way the current system prefers to do things: stupid, crooked, and ever-so expensive.

Win McNamee/Getty Images