As the nation mourns the death of John McCain, Congress must continue with regular order, including approval for military funding. Known for being a Department of Defense (DoD) budget hawk, the Senator’s passing is particularly unsettling in a time where fiscal irresponsibility plagues the DoD.
While McCain was a staunch advocate for defense spending, sometimes taking criticism for his unwavering support of military budget increases, nothing bothered him more than seeing taxpayer money squandered by irresponsible Pentagon brass and unaccountable defense contractors. As a Naval pilot, it is only fitting to honor his legacy in a two-part piece exposing the recent unabashed waste that is aircraft procurement—this week will cover the F-22 contract, and next week the F-35.
Senator McCain once said, “the 168 F-22s, costing over $200 million each, may very well be the most expensive corroding hangar queens in the history of modern military aviation.” His disdain for the aircraft apparently fell on deaf ears. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study published in July, the current Air Force inventory of F-22s as of May 2018 is 186. According to that same study, when the program was first developed in 1991, the Air Force intended to acquire 648 aircraft over 12 years; that number dropped to 381 in 2002; and by 2018, schedule delays, cost increases, equipment malfunctions, and mission priority changes caused the F-22 acquisition to halt at 186. Though no new F-22s are being built, the plane continues to blow through defense funds.
At the end of 2017, the Air Force entered into a 10-year, $7 billion contract with the manufacturer of the aircraft, Lockheed Martin, for what they described as “comprehensive F-22 air vehicle sustainment.” Eight months later, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published a cost analysis of the DoD’s FY 2019 budget submission. CBO found that the annual cost for maintaining a single F-22 was $510 million, and from 2019-2023, the expected total direct spending for the fighter jets would run a blistering $8.7 billion, or $2.18 billion per year. However, in the recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress only allocated $265 million to the F-22 program.
To summarize, the Air Force entered into a $7 billion contract with Lockheed Martin for 10 years of supposed air vehicle sustainment, but only received $265 million from Congress, despite CBO’s $2.18 billion sustainment estimate. In other words, it’s a fiscal nightmare.
In reality, the money will come from somewhere, and with the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund still functioning as the Pentagon’s slush fund, it will most likely be the funding source of these massive costs (though this is only speculation).
The staggering amount of money is not the only problem. According to the GAO, the problems with the F-22 program have been compounded by Air Force mismanagement and poor organization. For example, the last time the Air Force examined the structure of the F-22 program was in 2010; and since then, GAO identified that the unorthodox F-22 squadron size, which consists of 18-21 aircraft instead of the standard 24, “has contributed to low aircraft availability rates” The study continued, asserting that “the Air Force practice of deploying a small portion of a squadron makes it difficult for F-22 squadrons, as currently organized, to make aircraft available for their missions at home station. The Air Force would also face difficulties generating aircraft to support DOD’s concepts for using distributed operations in high threat environments with its current F-22 squadron organization.”
In other words, the program is so badly organized that missions for the F-22 cannot be equipped with the proper amount of aircraft, even in high-risk situations.
Expensive maintenance, disorganized squadron structure, and a lack of urgency by Air Force and Pentagon brass are all compounding into a monumental nightmare that is the F-22 program. Whatsmore, with the new F-35 procurement in full swing, bearing its own host of problems, the technology of the F-22 is entering into the realm of obsolete. John McCain is no longer around to hurl scathing remarks at the Pentagon for this kind of waste. As Americans mourn his passing, Congress has the incredibly tough task of finding an equally strong and credible voice to challenge the military. But for now, the F-22 reminds us of the deep void Mr. McCain leaves behind.