Over the years, the Pentagon has been the target of critics (and comics) who have faulted its purchasing practices on such infamous items as the $600 toilet seats bought in 1987 for America’s submarines. But a 9,000-word article by Adam Ciralski in the latest issue of the magazine Vanity Fair puts the Pentagon’s spending practices in a far more serious light.
Ciralski set out to find out why the most expensive weapons system in American history — it is estimated that over time the program will cost in the neighborhood of $1.5 trillion — is so far behind schedule and so far over budget.
The weapons system’s central element is the so-called “fifth-generation” F-35 fighter jet, designed to replace four “fourth-generation” military jets with a standardized fleet boasting the latest technology, much of it based on supremely sophisticated computer systems.
The F-35 aircraft that are already flying are based here in Florida, at Eglin Air Force Base, but for safety reasons they are prohibited from flying at night, flying at supersonic speed, flying in bad weather — including within 25 miles of lightning — or dropping live ordnance and firing their guns.
The F-35 is built by Lockheed Martin and its vice president for program integration, Steve O’Bryan, declared that the company is “moving at a breakneck pace, adding 200 software engineers and investing $150 million in new facilities.” But he conceded that the F-35 program was “overly optimistic on design complexity and software complexity, and that resulted in over-promising and under-delivering.”
That’s not the worst of it, as the Vanity Fair report suggests. Although O’Bryan insisted that the company is on schedule, “Pentagon officials are not as confident. They cannot say when Lockheed will deliver the 8.6 million lines of code required to fly a fully functional F-35, not to mention the additional 10 million lines for the computers required to maintain the plane.”
According to the magazine, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, J. Michael Gilmore, told Congress that if F-35s equipped with the present software were used in combat, “they would likely need significant support from other fourth-generation and fifth-generation combat systems to counter modern, existing threats, unless air superiority is somehow otherwise assured and the threat is cooperative.”
In other words, if any of those F-35s were to be used in combat in 2015, they not only would be improperly equipped but could even require airborne protection from the very aircraft the F-35 is designed to replace.
Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan, who now is in charge of the program at Eglin, says he has found both the program itself and its prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, deficient on many counts.
“I have a list of the 50 top parts of the airplane that break more often than we expect them to,” he stated. “And what I am doing is I am investing millions of dollars in taking each and every one of those parts and deciding: Do we need to redesign it? Do we need to have someone else manufacture it? Or can we figure out a way to repair it quicker and sooner so that it doesn’t drive up the costs?”
The Vanity Fair reporter was aided in his investigation by an anonymous Pentagon insider he refers to as “Charlie” who told him: “You can trace the plane’s troubles today back to the 2006–07 time frame. The program was at a critical point and Lockheed needed to prove they could meet weight requirements.” And that, he said, led to a series of risky design decisions.
There’s far more to the Vanity Fair story, and none of it is encouraging to taxpayers who expect our government to manage its purchases intelligently, diligently and with integrity.