(** Editing changes added on March 31, 2006)
by Giovanni de Briganti
PARIS --- US Air Force funding and acquisition plans for its two latest tactical fighters, the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, came under heavy criticism this week during Senate hearings, part of the Congressional review of the Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal year 2007.
The sharpest criticism focused on a controversial Air Force proposal to switch to “incremental funding” to finance the acquisition of the 60 remaining F-22s which it currently plans. But the Air Force also was attacked for the way it managed a recently-revealed technical problem with the F-22.
And, in March 28 testimony before the Air Land subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a variety of government audit agencies and privately-funded public interest groups warned that the Air Force’s overall acquisition plans for both aircraft are unrealistic, and should be restructured before additional purchases are authorized. Together, these programs are estimated to cost $320 billion for acquisition alone, but Congressional investigators fear that this still will not be enough to buy all the aircraft the air force needs to renew its inventory of tactical aircraft.
Taken together, testimony by the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service and independent watchdogs paint a distressing picture of the way these two programs are managed.
Specifically, these are the major points that emerged during this week’s hearings:
1. A problem with sections of the F-22A’s titanium forward boom frame (a series of load-bearing structures within the aircraft's fuselage, located between the engine and the wing) was discovered by the manufacturer in December 2005. Air Force officials say that the cause of the problem has been identified, and is not expected to affect any aircraft built after Lot 5.
But, according to the Congressional Research Service’s Christopher Bolkcom, questions arise “about how this problem was made public. The Air Force briefed committee and other congressional staff on the F-22A’s proposed funding strategy on February 22, 2006 and March 13, 2006, but did not mention the potential flaw in either briefing. Yet the potential flaw was discovered in December 2005. Were Air Force leaders unaware of this potential problem in February and March? Or, on the other hand, were Air Force leaders aware of this problem when they briefed congressional staff, and chose not to mention it? If so, this may suggest a lack of disclosure and transparency on the Air Force’s part. Questions may remain on whether other problems associated with F-22A manufacture may emerge.”
2. In its FY2007 budget proposal, the US Air Force proposes switching to “incremental funding” to pay for its remaining F-22s. This plan calls for an additional production lot, and would stretch the funding of the final 60 Raptors over an additional two year period (from FY08 to FY10). This, says the Air Force, would enable it to purchase four additional aircraft (for a total of 183), and extend the F-22A production line by one year, reducing the gap between F-22A and F-35 production.
But this is a major reversal of F-22 acquisition plans with no obvious justification, and carries additional costs, as noted by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter during an earlier, March 1 hearing. “Why [was] the decision was made last year to cut the F-22 production line and then this year [to] reverse that decision and extend the production, in both cases producing about the same number of aircraft, only now for a billion dollars more in program cost?” he asked.
There is also a risk that adopting such an incremental, multiyear funding strategy would tie the hands of Congress. “Under this approach, Congress would have to authorize and appropriate more money – more money than it originally authorized – to either get completed, fully functional aircraft or cancel them. In my mind, the Air Force needs to state a case that justifies why Congress would want to hamstring itself on the F-22 program in that way,” said Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Air Land Subcommittee, in his opening statement for the March 28 hearing.
3. The Air Force’s unorthodox funding proposal is also fraught with other long-term implications and consequences that argue against its approval. In his testimony Donald B. Marron, acting director of the Congressional Budget Office, provided a detailed analysis of these implications, making clear that their risks outweigh any alleged benefits.
4. The Project On Government Oversight, a widely-respected watchdog group, launched a pre-emptive strike against rumored US Air Force plans to reduce F-22 unit costs by exporting the aircraft to Japan. “We find it distressing that the U.S. appears to be at, or rapidly approaching, a point at which the only way we can afford tactical air superiority is to eventually undermine it by selling it abroad,” POGO said in a March 28 letter to McCain. “It strikes us, that if we as a nation are going to continue to develop and upgrade F-15 and F-16 technology not just for our own forces but also for export, we must retain the F-22 exclusively for U.S. use; or, if the F-22 is cancelled, we must limit the upgrade technology available for foreign export.”
5. Echoing its recurring criticisms of the Pentagon’s acquisition strategy, Michael Sullivan, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), told the Air Land committee that “the F-22A business case is unexecutable in part because of a 198 aircraft gap between the Air Force requirement and what DOD estimates it can afford.” Implying that the Pentagon’s tactical aircraft acquisition plans are unrealistic, Sullivan said that DoD “cannot reasonably ensure that new tactical air capabilities will be delivered to the warfighter within cost and schedule targets.” He added that the Pentagon “needs to rethink the current business cases for the F-22A and JSF programs.”
6. The Pentagon’s decision to cancel the alternate F-136 engine for the Joint Strike Fighter on cost grounds was also roundly criticized by the CRS’s Bolkom, who persuasively debunks the arguments put forward by the Air Force and Pratt & Whitney to justify the decision. Bolkom, like others before him, said an alternate engine is necessary to reduce costs, to secure an alternate supplier, to avoid fleet-wide flight safety issues, and to avoid a monopoly in the military engine business by keeping General Electric involved.