Red-hot fighter, trail of deception

Procurement: Planning the F-22, the Pentagon took the pledge: no more costly excess. Now, taxpayers are getting a plane designed for the Cold War, which is over. And the price tag is a shocker.

July 18, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,Sun Staff

Albert C. Piccirillo felt trapped. He was trying to create the world's greatest fighter jet, and his bosses at the Pentagon promised Congress the plane could be built for the bargain price of $35 million apiece.

"Everybody knew it wasn't going to be $35 million," the now-retired Air Force colonel said recently.

But the military had to make the plane seem affordable to win funding from Congress. So the F-22 fighter program was born in the mid-1980s with a false promise, and deception has become routine over the past 16 years as the Air Force tries to protect its top-priority new weapon system.

Today, the last great superplane of the Cold War is set to enter service in 2004 with an average sticker price of $97.7 million each. Research and other expenses bring the total public investment to at least $184 million per plane, making the F-22 Raptor the most expensive fighter ever built. It is a decade behind the original schedule, and the number of planes on order has been slashed to 339 from 750.

That might sound like a typical case of Pentagon excess, except for one thing: The military planned the F-22 as the weapon that would break the cycle of waste, dubbing it "the showpiece for Air Force acquisition ingenuity."

The F-22 program's failure to break that cycle despite continuing efforts shows how flawed the Pentagon weapons-buying process remains. And the plane's survival at a time when generals say they cannot afford spare parts is a case study in how the military, industry and politicians can push a major program forward despite rising costs and declining need.

In an 11-month-long examination of thousands of pages of congressional testimony, Pentagon documents and outside reports, as well as interviews with 100 experts and people involved with the fighter's design, testing and management for the military and industry, The Sun found:

The Air Force deliberately underestimated costs upfront to win political support. For at least the first three years of the program, Air Force officials told Congress they were committed to a $35 million fighter, which they knew was unrealistic. A 1984 Air Force memo noted "concern that showing the projected high unit ... costs to Congress at this time could jeopardize the current [good] level of support for the program."

To justify rising expenses, the service overstated the need for the fighter. The F-22 was designed to counter a new generation of Soviet superplanes that never materialized. In 1990, after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the Cold War, Pentagon finance expert Ron Garant was asked to help analyze whether the military still needed the advanced fighter. He complained in a memo that staff members could use the same data to justify the program or terminate it, depending on how they were instructed. They justified the program.

Alternatives to the F-22 were stripped away to narrow lawmakers' options. Congress ordered the service to consider modifying existing planes instead of building the F-22, and the Air Force reported that only the new plane would suffice. Then generals defended the F-22 against cuts by complaining that they had no other options. As early as 1990, then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry D. Welch warned Congress that if Washington axed the new jet, "the next step is to have no modernization programs. ... I just don't think you want that."

The contractors spread jobs around the country to ensure political support for the F-22. Lockheed Martin Corp. kept final assembly in Georgia partly to please its senator at the time, Sam Nunn, and later because its factory abuts the district of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The Air Force cautioned members of Congress last summer that "more than 25,000 jobs" in "46 states and Puerto Rico" would be affected if the Senate approved a budget amendment delaying the F-22 program. The amendment failed.

The Air Force has pushed the government to commit to the program before demonstrating that the weapon works. On Dec. 17, the Pentagon's top weapons buyer approved initial production of the F-22 based on only 4 percent of the plane's flight-test program -- about 200 hours of a 4,337-hour test plan. None of the plane's stealth or electronics capabilities have been flight tested. Such testing is notoriously unpredictable; the Navy's new F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter flew nearly 2,000 hours of tests before a potentially major wing problem came to light.

None of those practices is unique to the F-22, a fact that helps explain why a shrinking U.S. military demands more and more money.

Budgets prepared with unrealistically low cost estimates always fall short. If costly programs cannot be canceled because they are too politically entrenched and no other options exist, Congress can only nibble at yearly funding. Those cuts cause program delays that ultimately drive expenses even higher.

When new weapons cost more, less old equipment gets replaced, so maintenance costs soak up still more dollars.

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