For the taxpayers, a big leap of faith

Gamble: At stake is $62.7 billion, the cost of the F-22 fighter program. Little evidence exists to reassure skeptics.

July 20, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,Sun Staff

William T. Qualler sat in a mock F-22 cockpit aboard a Boeing 757 high over the Maryland coast.

The flying laboratory was testing the radar system for the new F-22 Raptor fighter jet, and Acting Secretary of the Air Force F. Whitten Peters was watching intently over Qualler's shoulder.

But there was nothing to see.

"OK, I just lost 'em," Qualler said, searching in vain for two blips on the F-22 radar screen. "The radar went down. Doggone it. We're not giving you guys a very good show here."

Qualler and other Boeing Co. technicians finally got the radar working that April morning, and Peters assured them he was not troubled by the slip. In fact, the secretary said, the glitch showed the wisdom of testing electronics on the flying laboratory before putting them on an actual F-22.

Left unsaid was that the Pentagon decided in December to buy the F-22 even though no one knows whether the radar or the plane's other complex electronics will work as planned.

It amounts to a leap of faith with $62.7 billion in taxpayer money, the total projected cost of the program -- faith that the plane will work, faith that Lockheed Martin Corp. can keep costs in check, faith that the nation needs it enough to spend that much.

Unfortunately, the cost record on the F-22 offers nothing to justify such faith. Despite Air Force insistence that the F-22 is a model program that is setting a standard for efficiency, the overall public investment of $184 million per plane is twice the amount originally promised. And Air Force leaders recently acknowledged a potential overrun of nearly $1 billion.

No one has accused Lockheed Martin of mismanaging the F-22. The cost problem is more complex than that and reaches back to the roots of the program:

* The Pentagon tried to have it both ways by promising Ferrari technology at a Hyundai price. That simply cannot be done, so the bills have been higher than predicted.

* The Air Force has continued to make unrealistic claims and downplay problems over the years because backpedaling would put the program at political risk.

* The end of the Cold War eliminated the threat that the F-22 was designed to fight and shrank the amount of money available for defense, increasing the pressure to make the program look affordable and necessary at a time when it might be neither.

Now the program has put the Pentagon in a predicament. Even if the Air Force can overcome the past and keep the F-22 program perfect from here on out, affording it is going to be a major challenge for a military swamped with other needs -- including two other types of fighters, a new generation of ships and costly missile defense systems.

"Looking at current defense budgets, the money will not be there around 2006 or 2008 when you have the cost," said Rep. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican who won an award last year from the aerospace industry for advocating the F-22 and other warplanes in Congress.

The looming defense budget problem is a "train wreck" waiting to happen, Chambliss said. "There's no answer yet. One answer is to put more money in it. ... I don't know where it's going to come from, but we've simply got to put more money into defense."

Even President Clinton's plan to add $112 billion to defense spending over the next six years would not crack the problem of affording all the weapons the Pentagon has on order. And despite the promised "peace dividend" of the post-Cold War era, the nation already spends as much each year on the military as it did throughout the Cold War -- adjusted for inflation -- except for the peaks of Vietnam and the Reagan buildup.

New plan to trim waste

One reason the F-22 is expensive is that it is complicated to build. Defense companies vying to win the fighter contract in the early 1980s used to paint idealized pictures of futuristic robot assembly lines, but the reality is far more mundane.

At one end of Lockheed Martin's mile-long fighter factory in Fort Worth, Texas, the midsection of an F-22 test plane hangs vertically in a blue metal frame. Snaking down either side of the section are the plane's intake ducts, openings that guide air into the jet's two engines.

To apply radar-resistant skins to the twisting ducts, a worker has to climb down into the openings and insert hundreds of fasteners while hanging from a sling, turning at tight angles.

Then workers use a tool to measure precisely how deep each fastener is sunk into the skin. If a single locking bolt is more than 0.009 inch deep, enemy radar could snag on the hole and expose the plane to a deadly missile.

Such work is just a small part of the overall assembly process. It takes about 60,000 hours of hands-on labor to build a midsection in Fort Worth -- more than the 45,000 hours it takes to build an entire F-16 fighter.

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