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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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Within the defense industry, the situation is known as Augustine's Law. Former Lockheed Martin Chairman Norman R. Augustine observed once that if the cost trend continues, one day it will take the entire defense budget to buy a single fighter plane that the services will have to share on alternate days.

The paradox is that no program has been more targeted for reform than his company's F-22, and no program better illustrates how stubbornly the problems persist.

'Learned our lesson'

A cold, springtime wind scoured the Mojave Desert as a truck slowly pulled one of the only two F-22s out of its hangar. Workers escorted the plane as ceremonially as ushers at a wedding.

"Everybody here recognizes that this is a national asset. We see it as our own baby," said Air Force Lt. Col. C. D. Moore, who heads the F-22 test team at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

Pilots from Edwards stop by to pine over the supersecret plane, but most aren't allowed even to look at it. Exceptions can be made, though: In December, Lockheed Martin and the Air Force volunteered the F-22 for a Mariah Carey music video, even letting the pop star climb onto the back of the plane and dance.

For all its mystique, the F-22 does not look like much on the ground. Its body is chunky, thick through the middle because it carries its weapons inside. The huge vertical tails are bigger than the wings on some planes, making the F-22 stand out on a distant runway like a kid with jug ears in a crowd.

But while the F-22 is neither as sleek as older jets nor as futuristic-looking as the B-2 stealth bomber, it holds a position of unmatched glamour within an Air Force that reveres fighters above all other aircraft.

Packed with thrust and firepower, a fighter allows a single pilot to surgically destroy many targets and take on enemies in one-on-one tests of skill and potency.

The most prestigious even among fighters is the "air superiority" jet, which is designed simply to shoot down enemy planes. The McDonnell Douglas Corp. F-15 Eagle has been tops in that role since 1976, allowing newer cousins such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon to attack ground troops, missile sites or the stray enemy pilot.

But even as the F-15 and F-16 were being developed in the 1970s -- and the F-117 stealth fighter-bomber took shape in secret -- the Air Force pestered Congress for yet another fighter.

Congress saw no reason until intelligence reports began suggesting that the Soviet Union was developing a generation of superplanes that would beat the F-15 in dogfights. That gave the Air Force the justification it needed.

The Advanced Tactical Fighter, or ATF, won its first significant funding in 1983. It would one day become the F-22.

Today, supporters say the plane will guarantee the safety of U.S. pilots and ensure that the United States can control the skies in any future conflict.

"That has become a key issue here. ... We do not want a fair fight, we want an overwhelming advantage on our side," acting Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters said in an interview.

Such faith in the plane makes supporting it "one of those almost moral dilemmas," said Tom Burbage, who until an April promotion was Lockheed Martin's F-22 program manager. "If you were the [pilot] that's on the runway, waiting to take the first airplane into downtown Baghdad ... would you not want to be in the best technology that your country could give you?"

The program took shape during the height of the Reagan administration's military buildup, with seven contractors each submitting multiple designs so the Air Force could choose the qualities of its dream plane.

Even some within the Air Force questioned whether the program was being "gold-plated" with wish-list technology. The service's Tactical Air Command, which then oversaw fighter forces, complained in a 1982 memo that the aircraft's planners were putting too much emphasis on new technology and paying "scant" attention to what was really needed to counter the Soviet threat.

The Air Force eventually demanded expensive technologies that are so ambitious, they contradict one another.

The aircraft is supposed to be almost invisible to radar, which requires odd shaping, but also highly maneuverable, which demands sleek aerodynamics. It is supposed to fly at supersonic speeds for long periods, but also carry its weapons internally, which displaces fuel. It is supposed to have the most sophisticated sensors in the sky, but also to fight with its sensors turned off to hide them from enemy radar.

"This is the most complex airplane that's ever been designed, period, bar none," said James A. "Micky" Blackwell, president of Lockheed Martin's aeronautics sector. "You're inventing physics as you go."

The technology push is a major reason development costs are about 35 percent higher than original projections. Pentagon studies show that programs routinely cost 20 percent to 40 percent more than promised. Nonetheless, the Air Force assured Congress in 1985 that F-22 costs would "change and be reduced" as the program progressed.

Such claims were part of the Air Force's efforts to cast the program as the flagship of a revamped purchasing system -- with streamlined paperwork, more competition in the design phase and government employees working on industry teams. Over the years, the F-22 has been invoked repeatedly as evidence that the Pentagon has cleaned up its practices.

"The Air Force has had a hard time producing anything in recent years," Rep. Norm Dicks, a Washington Democrat, complained during a 1994 House heariing. "I mean, I have sat here through every major procurement program, and each has been a disaster. I am worried about this F-22. You come here with this great report, but I heard those same reports on the B-1 [bomber]. I heard those same reports on the B-2. And none of it was true."

Replied Air Force Gen. Richard E. Hawley: "But we have learned our lesson. The F-22 is a model program."

'Upfront and honest'?

What Dicks and others in Congress didn't know was that the Air Force had kicked off its model program by making a promise that it knew it could not keep.

"While we seek dramatic improvements in maneuverability, supersonic persistence, range and endurance, sortie rates, self-sufficiency, maintainability and lower radar and infrared signatures, we are also committed to adhering to our unit-flyaway-cost goal of $35 million," Air Force leaders reported to Congress as late as 1987 and again, in almost the samee language, in 1988.

At that time, the cost of an F-15 was approaching $25 million, so the Air Force was promising huge new capabilities for minimal additional cost. One of the people bothered by that claim was Piccirillo, the Air Force's first program manager for what became the F-22.

"It's very disturbing to anybody in charge of a program to have somebody saying it's going to be $35 million when you know in your heart it isn't going to be $35 million," Piccirillo, now retired, said recently.

A 1985 Air Force study had shown that a tough but plausible cost goal for the proposed plane was $40 million to $45 million apiece. It was the Reagan administration, Piccirillo said, that forced an impossible price on generals after "heated discussions" and confrontational meetings.

Piccirillo's immediate superior, Gen. Lawrence A. Skantze, complained in a memo that the $35 million figure lacked logic and was "speculative at best." But the Air Force presented a united front to Congress, and Piccirillo stood by the price rather than jeopardize the program.

"I tried to be as honest and straightforward and focused as I could," he said. "But to be realistic and honest, nobody's going to volunteer bad news."

Contractors who were bidding on the project at the low price also knew that it was bogus.

Everest Riccione, a retired Air Force colonel who worked for Northrop in the mid-1980s, said he reported to an executive at his company that the real price was likely to be about $70 million a plane.

Lockheed Martin's Blackwell recently characterized the $35 million figure as "a bogey" intended only to push the performance of contractors.

"If you'd not set that goal," agreed Maj. Gen. Claude M. Bolton Jr., a former technology manager on the ATF who now supervises fighter and bomber acquisition programs for the Air Force, "how much more expensive would this aircraft be today?"

But former Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas said the Air Force is notorious for playing games with such numbers. "You can never really tell whether they're being upfront and honest with you or not," he said.

Part of the problem is that there are many ways to calculate the cost of an aircraft. That slipperiness can serve supporters and critics alike.

"You can get pretty much any cost you want," acknowledged Lockheed Martin's Tom Burbage. "Depending on what your agenda is, you can make any case you really want, too."

That was what happened April 9, 1997, when Lockheed Martin and the Air Force staged a smoke-and-laser-soaked spectacle to unveil the first test version of the F-22. The Air Force spent $70,000 flying two planeloads of dignitaries and journalists to the event at Lockheed Martin's Marietta, Ga., assembly plant.

With patriotic songs, marching workers and giant video screens as a backdrop, Air Force leaders made their case before the international media for a plane they were supposedly still deciding whether to buy.

"For roughly 25 percent above the cost of today's aircraft, we're going to get an airplane that's about nine times more capable," then-Air Force Secretary Sheila N. Widnall said.

Many journalists reported that comparison. But it was misleading.

The F-22's cost is more than twice that of the F-15, the fighter it is to replace. And the new aircraft is designed -- but not yet proved -- to be twice as capable.

What Widnall haad done was take the lowest justifiable cost for an F-22 and average it over the length of the program. Then she compared that to a high, one-time cost for the F-15E Strike Eagle, a modified, ground-attack fighter that the Air Force has warned is not comparable to the F-22.

"I cannot confirm that," Widnall said last fall when asked about the comparison. She said she was not familiar with the details of F-15 costs. "I always assumed they were comparable, but I kept up more closely with the F-22."

In the two years since Widnall made that comparison, the sticker price of the F-22 has risen more than 19 percent and now is expected to be $97.7 million, Air Force figures show. But that doesn't represent the full public investment in the plane.

Development and production costs are expected to total $62.7 billion. Dividing that figure by the 339 combat F-22s the program will produce results in a taxpayer cost of almost $185 million for each plane -- enough per plane to cover four years of tuition at the University of Maryland for almost 10,000 people.

'Logic' not established

F-22 officials at Lockheed Martin say that they are doing everything possible to hold down costs but that some pressures are beyond company control. "I would classify them not as technical [pressures]. I would classify them as political, bureaucratic," said Blackwell, the Lockheed Martin aeronautics president. "I wouldn't penalize the airplane for that. I'd penalize the process for that."

From his perspective, the most dangerous process is the one that requires action from Congress every year to secure funding for the program. Any disruption in the flow of money -- and Congress has cut F-22 funding three times in recent years -- causes delays and the renegotiation of hundreds of subcontracts.

Keeping Congress satisfied, then, becomes an overriding concern of contractors. One way to do that is to minimize the program's apparent risk of failure.

A key measure of risk is called "concurrency," which is the amount of testing and product development under way when production lines start up. If late testing disclosed problems in the design of the F-22, it would be expensive to fix the defective fighters coming off the assembly line.

The Air Force has often clouded the issue to make the F-22 look like a sure thing. In a hearing in 1996, for example, then-Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Arthur L. Money assured Congress that the F-22 did not have a dangerously high level of concurrency. Three times, Money insisted that "we will have delivered only three aircraft when the testing ... is over."

Finally, California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter interrupted to point out that in fact, about 70 planes would be in various stages of completion before testing ended.

Since then, program cuts have lowered that number to 58 planes. But that represents an investment of roughly $12 billion before anyone knows for sure that the fighter will perform as promised.

Moving from development to production is the final and most important hurdle for any big weapons program. Before that leap takes place, the program must be reviewed by a panel of top military officials -- the Defense Acquisitions Board, or DAB.

In May 1998, some in the Pentagon worried that the F-22 was jumping into production without enough testing. Acquisitions chief Jacques S. Gansler responded by announcing that he would postpone the plane's DAB review for one year, setting it for December 1999.

But Gansler, who declined to be interviewed for this series, still approved using production money to buy the first two assembly-line fighters last December for $571 million.

The result of Gansler's change was that the F-22 program moved into production with less than a full DAB review.

"They backed Gansler into a corner," said a senior Pentagon official who insisted on anonymity. "What's he going to do? Is he going to step out in front of that train? Hell no. People in the Air Force and the congressional delegation would kill him."

Peters, the acting Air Force secretary, said a traditional DAB review is not necessary because the F-22 is closely monitored on a daily basis.

He pointed to one of the most highly touted aspects of the F-22 program: its use of "integrated product teams," groups of Air Force officials and personnel who work closely with contractors and their employees, even down to mechanics on the flight line.

Military and industry workers have boasted from the beginning that they were operating "in lock-step" and that "if the contractor failed, the government failed," as Air Force Maj. Richard Justice, then an F-22 official at the Pentagon, wrote in a 1996 article in Program Manager magazine.

But experts who study Pentagon culture worry that the public interest goes unprotected in such a partnership.

There is no incentive for the military partner of a defense contractor to report waste or other bad news because the officer's career depends on the approval of generals whose "No. 1 priority is keeping a program alive and moving through the acquisition process," a 1995 study by the Pentagon's Defense Systems Management College concluded.

Lockheed Martin executives insist that the relationship does not impair critical scrutiny. "Believe me, if [Air Force team members] don't think we're being efficient, they tell us," said Carll Martinez, deputy chief engineer at Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth, Texas, plant.

But one former Pentagon official said the F-22 has enjoyed a privileged status that allows it to skirt protocol and receive favorable treatment. "Things that would ordinarily be required of them, they didn't have to do," said Roy Hempley, who retired last year from the Pentagon's Office of Testing and Evaluation.

Earlier in his Pentagon career, Hempley reviewed "cost and operational effectiveness analyses" for military aircraft. Fledgling programs had to file those reports at specified intervals, plotting the cost of the weapon against its expected benefit to the military to justify its continued existence.

Hempley reviewed the first two such analyses for the F-22 program. Both times, Hempley said, he failed the reports, finding that they did not demonstrate the plane's effectiveness in relation to its cost and that the Air Force did not justify decisions about the plane's capabilities.

And both times, Pentagon brass intervened to get the reports passed, he said.

"The truth of the matter is the F-22 program today has poor cost-effectiveness justification," Hempley said. "As far as I'm concerned, the logic has never been established" for continuing the program.

'Makes me nervous'

Bolton, the general who oversees bomber and fighter acquisition programs, acknowledged that the Air Force is determined to see the F-22 to completion.

Asked whether the service would stop at nothing or spend an unlimited amount to get its top priority, Bolton said, "The answer is no, we won't do that."

Lockheed Martin has intense interest in keeping the F-22 alive. It makes "good money" on the program, Blackwell said, and needs the work to maintain its status as the nation's premiere defense contractor.

The company has been scrupulous about cultivating the program's political power inside the Pentagon and beyond -- an effort expected and welcomed on Capitol Hill.

Politicians demanded to know their stake in the fighter program as soon as serious money started to flow, and companies responded by lining up subcontractors in key congressional districts, said Piccirillo, the original program manager.

Some companies even hired Piccirillo's former Air Force buddies in an attempt to curry favor with him, he said.

Lockheed Martin continues to execute final assembly of the F-22 at its factory in Georgia, even though its Texas plant has far more experience making fighters.

"There was a political element, quite frankly," in that decision, said Dain Hancock, president of the Texas plant.

Both plants have vast sections of factory floor that are dark or used for storage, raising the question of why the F-22 work has not been consolidated to save taxpayers the enormous overhead costs of keeping both plants running.

"I asked that same question when I came into the [Pentagon]," Gansler, the acquisitions chief, said in a meeting with reporters last year. "That's something that preceded my administration. It would probably be unfair to ask them to move at this point, but it is an obvious question."

The F-22 has become so politically entrenched that Lockheed Martin claims to have spent relatively little on marketing and advertising for the program.

"Who am I trying to convince?" asked Blackwell. "Really, the chief of staff of the Air Force is the number one champion of this airplane. It is his airplane and has been with every chief that's been there. I mean, they'd give their first-born for this airplane."

That zeal bothers Richard L. Armitage, a former assistant secretary of defense and former ambassador who served in 1997 on the National Defense Panel, a military policy review board appointed by Congress and Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen.

"If Cohen asked my advice, I'd tell him to be very careful with this one," Armitage said. "This is something the Air Force is willing to mortgage its soul for that costs an arm and a leg and that could cause a raid on other services' procurement dollars. ... It just makes me nervous."

The cost is all the more worrisome, he said, because of one crucial element the F-22 program lacks: a foreign military enemy.

"It's almost an unseemly haste," he said, "given that there's not a threat right now."

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Today: Begun with the false promise of a bargain sticker price, the F-22 fighter plane has failed to live up to its status as a "model program" for reforming Pentagon excess.

Tomorrow: The world's most ambitious fighter plane lacks one crucial component: a foreign military threat which disappeared with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Tuesday: Despite promises of unprecedented cost controls, the F-22 has already doubled in price -- and costs are going up.

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