Simple Answers to Smart Questions

Kevin Drum on how both the F-22 and the F-35 fighter projects cost vastly more and delivered vastly less than promised:

[I]t does make you wonder why we seem to have lost the ability to build a next generation fighter that works well at a reasonable cost. Have we reached some inherent plateau of complexity that we’re not currently able to surpass? Have all the smartest engineers all decamped to Silicon Valley? Or what? These are hardly the first Pentagon programs to sink under their own weight, but they’re certainly among the longest-lasting and highest-profile failures ever. I wonder what’s really going on here.

In brief, the Pentagon has gradually de-emphasized the original purpose of weapons projects in favor of making the projects themselves unkillable. You might make the best fighter plane for the least money if you make it out of bits made that come from just five states. However, that only puts ten Senators at risk of losing their seat if they vote to kill any given tank, plane, submarine, stealth bicycle, gay bomb or rottweiler catapult. Private firms compete for Pentagon contracts to make big ticket items, and whereas Pentagon employees can just shrug and move to something else if the government changes its mind, many folks at Raytheon or Northrop will find themselves collecting unemployment checks. Even businesses that make widgets to kill foreigners and protect Americans exist to make money and serve their shareholders before anything else, so you can bet that they will gladly let their widget suffocate some pilots and vaporize fewer brown people if they can cut down the risk that the government will stop buying their widget. Ninety-nine percent* of government/defense contractor corruption comes from the intense pressure to reduce the risk of investing in an expensive program that gets canceled (and, of course, to win contracts in the first place).

Then you have feature creep. The Air Force has a pilot culture that worships derring-do by brave young men in awesome jets. The problem is that awesome fighter jets cost a lot of money, so new jets don’t come out very often, so when one does come around everyone wants to see their pet idea thrown in.

The F-35H, artist's conception. Features include an air horn and a patriotic hood ornament.


The F-35H model includes an air horn and a patriotic hood ornament.

Winslow Wheeler:

[T]he F-35 lacks the F-16’s agility in the air-to-air mode and the F-15E’s range and payload in the bombing mode, and it can’t even begin to compare to the A-10 at low-altitude close air support for troops engaged in combat. Worse yet, it won’t be able to get into the air as often to perform any mission — or just as importantly, to train pilots — because its complexity prolongs maintenance and limits availability.

Want an example of Pentagon procurement done right? Look at the A-10. During the Vietnam war flyboys in fancy jets were getting their asses kicked by small arms whenever they flew low enough to tell a hostile speck from a friendly one, so the Air Force had to design something that could fly low enough to kill a tank and not fall to pieces when the tank shot back. However, it is important t note that the Air Force never wanted a plane like the Warthog. Nobody would mistake himself for Tom Cruise flying, as the joke went, the only plane vulnerable to bird strikes from the rear. Air Force brass let it happen because it more or less had to happen but they definitely did not want to leave their fingerprints on the distasteful thing. More important context comes from this utterly critical line from the plane’s Wikipedia page (quoted from original sources). Emphasis mine.

On 6 March 1967, the Air Force released a request for information to 21 defense contractors for the A-X. The objective was to create a design study for a low-cost attack aircraft.

The Warthog could not cost much, as planes go at least, because it would be stupid to spend twenty million dollars on a plane that enemy infantry can hit with a rock**. Therefore the A-10 project was both ignored by the Air Force and only marginally interesting to contractors, who left the project’s designers alone to do their job in peace. As it turns out they did their job quite well. Fairchild Republic made a cheap plane that could kill a lot of bad dudes at close range, protect the pilot, get home with one engine and a cheese grater for wings and get turned around fast by field mechanics with a high school education. Score one for benign neglect.

(*) Seventy-five percent of statistics are made up on the spot.
(**) In fact the A-10’s chain gun is g*ddamn terrifying to hear and most enemy troops hide under something and shit themselves when they hear it coming. Braver ones do like to pepper it with tank rounds, machine guns, rifles, sidearms, shotguns, slings, arrows and green laser pointers.






128 replies
  1. 1
    James Hare says:

    I’ve never understood the Air Force’s disdain for the A-10. It’s a damn fine aircraft.

  2. 2
    chopper says:

    oh jesus, the A-10. the devil’s cross. a giant machine gun with wings.

  3. 3
    dmsilev says:

    @James Hare: Air Force culture has historically valued two things: Dropping large quantities of bombs on enemy cities and shooting down other people’s airplanes. Close-in tactical support ranks a distant third, if that.

  4. 4
    rlrr says:

    @James Hare:

    Sub sonic ground support plane – not sexy enough.

  5. 5
    Kevin Phillips Bong says:

    Former Hawg driver here, I have used and wholeheartedly endorse the product. The problem is lack of “multimission” capability. We do Close Air Support, Forward Air Control (Airborne) and Combat Search and Rescue, all slow moving air to ground missions. That’s it. No air-to-air, long distance interdiction, etc. etc. So you need other jets to do that. What Big Blue wants is one airplane that does everything even if it doesn’t do them all very well. First the F-16, which will get schwacked by the F-15C all day in air to air and lacks the legs and payload to be a meaningful interdiction platform like the F-15E, and next the F-35.

    No answers here, just pointing out the problem.

  6. 6
    rlrr says:

    Towards the end of WWII some wanted to ditch piston engine planes and switch to jets. It was decided the piston planes were plenty good enough…

  7. 7

    It won’t be long till we have advanced fighter and bomber aircraft manless drones, along with the rinky dink UAV’s we have now. War by remote control with no skin in the game, is the wave of the future. Catch it, and fuck up your country of choice, from air conditioned Quonset Huts in the states, and be home by dinner.

  8. 8

    Manned fighter craft? What a quaint notion.

  9. 9
    joel hanes says:

    Really, it’s the Army that should own the A-10; they’d love to be able to do close support with that kind of firepower.

    But as I understand it, the traditions evolved from inter-service rivalries give all fixed-wing aircraft to the airforce, and limit the Army to rotary-wing craft.

    Hence, the Air Force, which doesn’t want the close-support mission and hates the unglamorous A10, nevertheless has the mission and the aircraft, while the Army has to depend on reluctant flyboys to bring the A10 around when it’s needed.

  10. 10
    MikeJ says:

    Feature creep is how the DoD fucked up the shuttle too. They had a nice, clean design for a little spaceship that could get up and down cheap. Then DoD wanted demanded direct to polar orbit, a capacity that was never once used, and made it five times bigger and a hojillion times more expensive.

  11. 11
    Doc Sportello says:

    This is one of the better posts I’ve read all day, and it’s on the Warthog?

    Go BJ!

  12. 12
    Amir Khalid says:

    This is precisely what I’ve been thinking for a long time about the F-35 and the F-22. At those prices, and given the limited benefit of stealth technology, wouldn’t the DoD be better off just putting new technology in existing models like the F-25, F-16, and F-18? Those are already developed and tested in actual combat, and it seems to me like less work modernize them rather than create a new plane from scratch.

  13. 13
    pseudonymous in nc says:

    The commentary from Canada, where Harper basically signed up for the F-35 sight unseen, is especially withering.

    Australia just delayed its order and may go with more F/A-18 Super Hornets instead; the UK is probably going to revert to the F-35B instead of the F-35C because of the cost of retrofitting the aircraft carriers.

    …because it’s one thing to fuck up your own military plane project, but another thing to sign on for buying someone else’s fuckup.

  14. 14
    Amir Khalid says:

    @Amir Khalid:

    models like the F-25, F-16, and F-18?

    Silly me. I meant the F-15.

  15. 15
    Tokyokie says:

    I’d argue that since becoming a separate service branch, the Air Force has oversold its capabilities in virtually every campaign. Put the prima donnas back under Army supervision.

  16. 16

    It’s not easy to build an airplane with the ability to hover and take off from hover at very high speed. And then expect it to do much else.

  17. 17
    celticdragonchick says:

    I have actually seen a proposal to bring back the old P-51 Mustang in a dedicated COIN platform. Great airframe, lots of machine guns, decent bomb load and it can get down in the weeds.

  18. 18
    Enhanced Voting Techniques says:

    Private firms compete for Pentagon contracts

    those companies being Lockheed and Boeing with who ever wins ending up subcontracting to the other. It’s pretty small and incestuousness in the defense now.

  19. 19
    celticdragonchick says:

    @General Stuck:

    It’s not easy to build an airplane with the ability to hover and take off from hover at very high speed. And then expect it to do much else.

    Yep. VSTOL is great for small aircraft carriers and rough landing fields, but you cut your payload (among other things)in half.

  20. 20
    Enhanced Voting Techniques says:

    @Tokyokie: You mean long before, go read about General Bill Mitchael and his fake bombing tests in the ’20s.

  21. 21
    Bnut says:

    There was nothing that made you feel as safe as a grunt than the FAC telling you that an A-10 was on station. That cannon sounded like God’s own anger when it went off.

    Also, isn’t it pretty much a requirement to be a fighter jock to make it star rank in the Air Force? No wonder we can’t get a decent COIN plane built with all the fast zoomies in charge.

  22. 22
    celticdragonchick says:

    @joel hanes:

    Really, it’s the Army that should own the A-10; they’d love to be able to do close support with that kind of firepower.

    I was a helicopter mechanic in the Army when the proposal came down that the Army was going to make a play to get the A-10’s back in 1995. We were ecstatic. I was going to reclass to A-10’s in a heartbeat if we got them.

  23. 23
    carolus says:

    @Kevin Phillips Bong:

    Exactly.

    But it’s a two-partner tango; in order to see any new weapons platform to Congress, DoD has to sell it as doing everything.

    If DoD were to try to sell a new system as doing one thing extraordinarily well–it’d be a non-starter. It has to be multi-mission.

  24. 24
    DFS says:

    I was a big fan of the A-10 during my warplane geek phase as a kid. It’s sort of uniquely designed to appeal to put-upon nerds — it’s ugly as fuck, the cool kids don’t like it, and it has the biggest gun.

  25. 25
    Nied says:

    The F-35 definitely has it’s share of problems (though it seems to be doing a surprisingly good job of overcoming them over the past year), but Winslow Wheeler is widely considered to be a crank in aviation circles. He seems to have gotten stuck in an early ’70s mindset where missiles never work stealth doesn’t exist, and radar on an airplane is good for little more than ballast half the time. While he compares the F-35 to the F-16 (which he helped develop) in the quote you posted he also think the F-16 as it exists today is a horrible fighter because the air force insisted on wasting weight on radar and missiles and the ability to drop bombs. Hell he’s mad about the recent upgrades to the A-10 because now it’s “too complex”.

  26. 26
    celticdragonchick says:

    @Enhanced Voting Techniques:

    What was fake? He blew a German battleship out of the water when the brass said it could not be done with bombers. That little experiment got replayed a lot in WW II.

    See: USS Arizona, HMS Repulse, HMS Prince of Wales, Italian battleship Roma, Japanese battleships Musashi and Yamato, etc…

  27. 27
    SamR says:

    @James Hare: The USAF has multiple reasons for disliking the A-10. But at a fundamental level, it isn’t about that its “ugly” (though that’s part of it), its the mission.

    The USAF does not want to simply play a supporting role to the army or random rebels. It would prefer its role to be strategic bombing (preferably with super-cool Stealths). This is only more true given that if the USAF were reduced to a supporting role, more might join Robert Farley in suggesting that the USAF doesn’t need to exist and should be merged with the Army (as it was originally).

  28. 28
    Sly says:

    @joel hanes:

    Really, it’s the Army that should own the A-10; they’d love to be able to do close support with that kind of firepower.

    Serious question: What would the A-10 give the army in terms of close support capability that they don’t have with the AH-64?

  29. 29
    WJS says:

    Look at the A-10. During the Vietnam war flyboys in fancy jets were getting their asses kicked

    Perhaps if John McCain had flown the A-10, he would have had fewer “mishaps”

  30. 30
    Forum Transmitted Disease says:

    The Air Force fought the A-10 all the way through delivery, and then promptly mothballed all of them.

    Until Gulf War I. Somebody made them deploy them.

    Where they then accounted for over 55% of all material objects that were destroyed in the war.

    Lesson? The Air Force doesn’t want effective weapons, they want big-ticket projects so that they can retire their procurement people into high-paying contractor jobs.

    Solution? Get rid of the Air Force. And that’s a solution that’s being talked about seriously in the military, at command levels much higher than you might think.

  31. 31
    Brachiator says:

    Not much new here. Years ago, Northrop thought it might win a contract to build a low cost, easy to maintain fighter jet. At one point, they had ordered party balloons and were getting ready to celebrate the announcement of the awarding of the primary contract.

    Then, their balloon was popped. The contract was cancelled and the project abandoned. Among the reasons: some of the nations that might most benefit from buying a low cost, easy to use aircraft (if they needed one at all) complained bitterly that they were being put in a second class neighborhood because they were not offered sexy planes like the F-15 or F-16. Cost and suitability were poor wingmen to ego.

    At those prices, and given the limited benefit of stealth technology, wouldn’t the DoD be better off just putting new technology in existing models like the F-15, F-16, and F-18?

    Why is Microsoft abandoning Windows XP, even though millions of people are still using it and it is a reliable and stable operating system?

    Some questions just don’t have reasonable answers.

  32. 32
    John Cole says:

    The A-10 is a monster. Someone google “highway of death kuwait.”

    I’ve seen first hand what they can do. Driving through that was some crazy, crazy, horrifying shit.

  33. 33
    Nied says:

    @General Stuck:

    It won’t be long till we have advanced fighter and bomber aircraft manless drones, along with the rinky dink UAV’s we have now. War by remote control with no skin in the game, is the wave of the future. Catch it, and fuck up your country of choice, from air conditioned Quonset Huts in the states, and be home by dinner.

    Actually the latest UCAV proposals (look up F/A-XX) have unmanned aircraft flying as “wingmen” to an almost identical two seater fighter with the back seater controlling the drones, so there will still be “skin in the game” just less.

  34. 34
    Robert Sneddon says:

    The A-10 suffered from mission creep too — the Giant Dick-Waving Exercise that is the Avenger gun is a waste of space, payload and functionality in what otherwise could have been a perfect close air support bomb truck.

    By the time the first A-10 flew the gun was outclassed by the latest Soviet MBT armour suites, its raison d’etre and it never got better. Trading off the otherwise useless volume and airframe structure gobbled up by the GDWE for more fuel tankage and/or internal payload bays carrying a bunch of Hellfires would have been the way to go but the GDWE is not a field-swappable piece of pylon-mounted ordnance, more’s the pity.

    The UK is currently converting its Typhoon air-superiority fighter fleet to be bomb trucks since that’s the current mission — it’s always been the mission in reality but the zoomie-boomies in the RAF would never admit it to themselves so we will have a horribly expensive supersonic fighter designed to manoeuvre at high speed and high altitude trundling along at treetop height in thick air to do half the job something like the A-10 could do in its sleep.

  35. 35
    Forum Transmitted Disease says:

    Serious question: What would the A-10 give the army in terms of close support capability that they don’t have with the AH-64?

    @Sly: Survivability of the aircraft and pilot. An A-10 can take far more airframe damage and come home than any helicopter ever made.

    It can also carry a metric fuckton more munitions, but the survivability thing is what makes it a no-brainer.

  36. 36
    MTiffany says:

    (*) Seventy-five percent of statistics are made up on the spot.

    Or 750 percent if your first name’s Megan and you’ve got the shits.

  37. 37
    StevenDS says:

    There is actually a ton of interesting background on this and other things in the biography of John Boyd. He and his acolytes fought the good fight for years, one of whom (Pierre Sprey) was largely responsible for the very successful (and relatively inexpensive) A-10 and others the F-16.

    Here is a good article.

    http://www.airforce-magazine.c.....rmers.aspx

    The book is highly recommended:
    http://www.amazon.com/Boyd-The.....0316881465

  38. 38
    MonkeyBoy says:

    Another thing with such projects is the enormous growth in the paperwork required for each.

    A lot of this paper work is to avoid systems problems that have plagued similar projects in the past. So the longer the history the larger the requirements of things to avoid.

    This may help explain why the various drone programs seem to be evolving so fast – they have little history and failure of a drone is not a catastrophe fatal to its operators. Drones have no pilot safety issues and it mainly becomes an economic issue if drones crap out some percentage of the time.

  39. 39
    Cassidy says:

    Hehehe…grunts love the sound an A-10 makes

  40. 40
    Ben Cisco says:

    I worked on the avionics/laser tracking and targeting systems on that bird. Absolutely LOVED it.

  41. 41
    Robert Sneddon says:

    @Forum Transmitted Disease: I had an argument with someone a while back about modern single-seat CAS aircraft and WWII bombers. He claimed the modern CAS airframe could carry more bombload than any crewed bomber did in WWII. He was wrong, but not by much and I had to point out the Grand Slam bomb on a modified Lancaster (22,000lbs) to beat out the A-10’s maximum pylon bombload of about 16,000lb.

  42. 42
    Julia Grey says:

    @Tokyokie:

    I’d argue that since becoming a separate service branch, the Air Force has oversold its capabilities in virtually every campaign. Put the prima donnas back under Army supervision.

    Yeah, that’ll happen.

  43. 43
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Kevin Phillips Bong:

    One plane that does all the missions (badly) at 10 times the price of an CAS plane, an interceptor, and a dog fighter. COMBINED.

    Air Force generals: idiots.

  44. 44
    Sir Nose'D says:

    Want an example of Pentagon procurement done right? Look at the A-10.

    The Air Force never wanted the A-10. It was effectively a bottom-up cram-down from a a very clever Colonel who thought having the plane in the arsenal was more important than making general.

    And yes–what StevenDS (post 37) said and linked to.

  45. 45
    WJS says:

    In fact the A-10’s chain gun is g*ddamn terrifying to hear and most enemy troops hide under something and shit themselves when they hear it coming

    When I went through basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in the 1990s, the sound of that thing scared the crap out of us.

    This is a darned good approximation of it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8r58vfk_QI

  46. 46
    Martin says:

    I think the complexity argument isn’t an unsound one.

    When the A-10 was made, the objective wasn’t zero casualties or loss of craft. It was an acceptable level of each – which in the glow of Vietnam was a relatively low bar.

    40 years on that bar has gotten very high. Our planes are expected to have a loss rate of near zero and are expected to outperform rivals by a massive margin. Further, they’re expected to work in every situation. We’re not designing a plane to beat our enemies, because our enemies largely don’t have planes – or they have rather shitty planes. So, we have no measured objective here.

    So we’re designing planes to beat some hypothetical future aircraft that is almost certain to never materialize. And if the mil-ind complex wants more money, all they need to do is envision a better hypothetical plane to compete against. That’s easy. So they’re trying to build planes well beyond our capacities, as if our sheer demonstration of technological capacity will serve as a deterrent against competing aircraft even being developed. That’s probably true, but it doesn’t mean it’s prudent.

    By comparison, the drone development programs have gone pretty well. They’re still being measured against conventional aircraft and there’s currently a plan to build a drone A-10 equivalent. The outcome is pretty simple – do what the A-10 does, longer loiter time. That’ll probably be a fairly straightforward, on-budget project.

  47. 47
    Julia Grey says:

    Air Force generals: idiots.

    Fixed that for you.

  48. 48
    Nied says:

    @Amir Khalid:

    This is precisely what I’ve been thinking for a long time about the F-35 and the F-22. At those prices, and given the limited benefit of stealth technology, wouldn’t the DoD be better off just putting new technology in existing models like the F-25, F-16, and F-18? Those are already developed and tested in actual combat, and it seems to me like less work modernize them rather than create a new plane from scratch.

    The big problem is most of the budget for both the F-35 and F-22 is in the development of those wiz-bang gizmos instead of the stealth or raw performance (and despite what Winslow Wheeler says above both the F-22 and F-35 blow their older counterparts out of the water in those regards). A new F-15 with tech half as good as on the F-22 costs 80% as much as the F-22. The latest and greatest F-16 we sold to the UAE actually costs more than what the F-35 is projected to cost (although in the end they’re likely to be equal) with no where near the performance, and the Super Hornet (the latest version of the F-18) is roughly the same.

    Basically the cost of making all the good stuff from the F-35 work in an F-16 or F-18 is pretty close to the cost of an F-35 to begin with and is half as good for seven eights the price so it’s just not worth it.

  49. 49
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @joel hanes:

    But as I understand it, the traditions evolved from inter-service rivalries give all fixed-wing aircraft to the airforce, and limit the Army to rotary-wing craft.

    It’s not so much evolution as a negotiated agreement that the Army can’t have fixed wing aircraft, except in very limited transportation roles. Which is why you have rotary wing aircraft for the Army’s dedicated battlefield support. The zoomies HATE HATE HATE the A-10 because it doesn’t zoom. It reminds them that they exist to support those disgusting grunts on the ground, not be all alone off in the wild blue yonder somewhere.

  50. 50
    Bnut says:

    @Robert Sneddon: You should see what that cannon does to structures and fighting positions though. More efficient and cheaper than a Hellfire or Maverick, no? Sort of like failing upwards.

  51. 51
    Opie says:

    @Kevin Phillips Bong:

    Kevin Phillips Bong,

    A Viper could hold its own against an Eagle in a close in fight. Of course, you have to defeat the long range face shot and get to the merge first.

  52. 52
    Martin says:

    @Nied:

    Basically the cost of making all the good stuff from the F-35 work in an F-16 or F-18 is pretty close to the cost of an F-35 to begin with and is half as good for seven eights the price so it’s just not worth it.

    That’s great if you’re worried about Tyndall declaring war on Holloman. But the goal isn’t for our aircraft to be able to be our aircraft. The goal is to beat their aircraft. How obsolete is a non-modernized F-16 or F-18 in that scenario?

  53. 53
    Mike Furlan says:

    @dmsilev:

    Historically the Airforce has valued one thing, keeping the Army from having fixed wing aircraft.

  54. 54
    chopper says:

    @Forum Transmitted Disease:

    you could blow apart half the airframe and one and a half wings and the fucker could still limp home and land. no helicopter came close to that level of robustness.

  55. 55
    Oregon Guy says:

    Excellent post and discussion. Current Active duty Army, here. Look up the Key West Agreement if you want to understand why the Army has rotary-wing and the Air Force has fixed-wing assets.

    In addition to the fuckups regarding the F-22 and F-35, consider the fate of the C-27.

    http://www.airforcetimes.com/n.....27-012612/

    Total falsehood in the article by the way. The C-27 is a fucking godsend for smaller, isolated posts and fields in Afghanistan. The Army wants to keep it, of course. The C-27 allows troops and supplies to be brought into theater and spares Chinook helicopters for air assault missions (where they really belong).

    The Air Force has NO strategic role, and simply tries to justify its own existence with fancy fighter jets, all the while the important tasks they actually perform (CAS, air logistics) are increasingly performed by either Army rotary-wing or drones.

    Oh yeah, speaking of drones.

    The same platforms are currently used by both the Army and the Air Force, since they didn’t exist in 1947.

    The Army will use a 23-year-old E-4 or E-5 to fly them, since, hey, kids and their videogames. The Air Force uses an O-4 or O-5, because – hey they’re pilots!

    Um, fuck the fucking Air Force. And give Army Aviation the A-10 and the C-27 and the C-130 for that matter.

  56. 56
    MikeJ says:

    @Martin:

    But the goal isn’t for our aircraft to be able to be our aircraft. The goal is to beat their aircraft.

    @Mike Furlan:

    Historically the Airforce has valued one thing, keeping the Army from having fixed wing aircraft.

    Remember who the real enemy is: the other branches of the armed services.

  57. 57
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Oregon Guy:

    The Army will use a 23-year-old E-4 or E-5 to fly them, since, hey, kids and their videogames. The Air Force uses an O-4 or O-5, because – hey they’re pilots!

    In the Army, enlisted do the fighting. Officers direct the enlisted, that is, provide them with support to get their jobs done.

    In the Air Force, officers do the fighting. Enlisted maintain the platforms the officers use to fight in.

    During WWII, you had such a thing as enlisted pilots. When the USAF spun off the Army after WWII, they got rid of the enlisted pilots.

  58. 58
    Amanda in the South Bay says:

    Blah blah blah the AF sucks, roll it into the Army, let me suck the cock of zombie John Boyd, who cares about how impressive the avionics are on the F-35, lets continue using 40 year old aircraft.

    That about sum up this thread?

  59. 59
    gaz says:

    While I’m not so much into machines of war, the A-10 is usually my first choice in any videogame that offers it. =)

    That thing is fun.

    /nerd

  60. 60
    Nied says:

    @Martin:

    That’s great if you’re worried about Tyndall declaring war on Holloman. But the goal isn’t for our aircraft to be able to be our aircraft. The goal is to beat their aircraft. How obsolete is a non-modernized F-16 or F-18 in that scenario?

    Actually the goal is more to beat their Surface to Air Missiles (although the latest Su-27s, Mig-29s or J-10s equal or outclass our F-15s F-18s or F-16s). Systems like the S-300 (basically the Russian version of a Patriot missile) and it’s equivalents can knock a F-16 or F-15 out of the sky with ease, they’d have a much harder time with a F-35 though. They’re also quite cheap, so there are quite a few places that have bought them in bulk.

  61. 61
    Amir Khalid says:

    @Martin:
    Or as I like to put it: The USAF already has the bestest fighter planes on the planet. Does it really need new fighter planes that are bestestER?

  62. 62
    MTiffany says:

    @Martin:

    So they’re trying to build planes well beyond our capacities, as if our sheer demonstration of technological capacity will serve as a deterrent against competing aircraft even being developed. That’s probably true, but it doesn’t mean it’s prudent.

    Not to get all pollyanna-ish, but don’t discount serendipity — the pursuit of advancing technology in one arena can yield unexpected benefits in others. The Manhattan Project ultimately led to inexpensive and reliable smoke detectors, after all, and those have saved a lot of lives world-wide. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf57.html

  63. 63
    Oregon Guy says:

    Here’s a reality-based discussion about the C-27.

    http://www.dodbuzz.com/2012/04.....g-reviews/

  64. 64
    Robert Sneddon says:

    @Bnut: Actually it takes several tonnes of Avenger gun and ammo to spray-and-pray a ground target and to do that the aircraft has to fly in a straight line for several seconds close to the ground and directly towards the target, not more than a kilometre or two out from the hostiles for accuracy.

    In comparison a Hellfire missile has an maximum range of 8km, weighs 100lb and is in its modern variants “fire and forget” with laser-designation, GPS track-to-target and even radar-guided target-seeking (the Longbow variant). There are thermobaric, conventional HE and HEAT warheads available for the golfbag approach to target obliteration. Trading the AUG-8 and ammo for, say, a magazine-fed launcher with 40-odd Hellfires in an internal bay would give it much more bag for the buck. Alternatively adding another four or six Mavericks to the pylons in exchange for the AUG-8’s weight penalty would also provide a lot more bang for the buck too, and at even greater range.

  65. 65
    Linnaeus says:

    For some reason, Deal of the Century comes to mind here.

  66. 66
    Enhanced Voting Techniques says:

    @celticdragonchick: How many of those were sunk by B17s flying at 30,000 feet? That’s what Mitchel and his supporters were pushing. Light attack aircaft ended up being the ship killers.

  67. 67
    Bnut says:

    @Amanda in the South Bay: There are great parts of the Air Force. The Nightstalkers, FACs, PJs, flight medics and rescue birds come to mind. But really, the rest of the service is pretty incapable of operating efficiently and with any sense of introspection. Not that any of the services are brilliant at the highest levels, but the Air Force does it worst.

    And talk of rolling them back into the Army is no less stupid than talk of getting rid of the Marines and dovetailing that to the Army as well. It may not be popular, but having ridden in the craptastic AAV-7’s and seeing the terrible job the Corp is doing at fielding a new EFV, it can be argued losing non-air OTH amphibious assault troops isn’t a legit conversation to have.

    @Robert Sneddon: But then I wouldn’t have had to worry about uranium exposure doing BDA after a pass! Where’s your sense of adventure?

  68. 68

    @Enhanced Voting Techniques:

    those companies being Lockheed and Boeing with who ever wins ending up subcontracting to the other. It’s pretty small and incestuousness in the defense now.

    This.

    The 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, saw a slew of mergers and acquisitions in the defense aerospace industry. The F-15 was built in an era when there were at least 5 companies that could build such a thing. As in any other industry, more competition in the bidding process tended to drive down costs.

    Nowadays, as you point out, there are really only two major players. You might as well just flip a coin at procurement time to see who gets the contract. Which will, of course, be a cost-plus contract, virtually guaranteed to overrun. The industry is really ripe for some modern-day Howard Hughes to jump in and provide some competition, but with such high financial and political barriers to entry, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. All the cool billionaires appear to be focused on space at the moment, anyway.

    I do know that the Navy is getting serious about procurement reform… don’t know enough about the other services to comment.

    (I don’t work or currently subcontract for any of the companies mentioned).

  69. 69

    The Navy never did get its USS Montana class built, so maybe there’s a chance of sanity.

  70. 70
    Richard says:

    [T]he F-35 lacks the F-16’s agility in the air-to-air mode and the F-15E’s range and payload in the bombing mode, and it can’t even begin to compare to the A-10 at low-altitude close air support for troops engaged in combat. Worse yet, it won’t be able to get into the air as often to perform any mission — or just as importantly, to train pilots — because its complexity prolongs maintenance and limits availability.

    An old story.

    A big reason why they still are flying B-52s after almost 60 years is because both the B-2 and B-1B are down for maintenance far more often. The B-52 has a 80% ready rate, compared to 30% for the B-2 and 53% for the B-1B.

  71. 71
    celticdragonchick says:

    @Enhanced Voting Techniques:

    Michell “cheated” by bringing his bombers in at a far lower altitude then he was ordered to come in at. It worked. He also got court martialed for it, as I recall. In the Air Force, he is widely viewed as the American progenitor of tactical air power.

  72. 72
    Oregon Guy says:

    The history of Air Power is not glorious.

    Curtis LeMay and Bomber Harris come to mind.

    Typically, proponents of air power underperform. While air superiority is vital to winning on the modern battlefield, you can also win without it. See Dien Bien Phu.

  73. 73
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Davis X. Machina:

    The Navy actually cancelled it themselves, when they realized that aircraft carriers ruled the seas now, and that they needed more of them more than they needed large floating targets. Actually fighting a war tends to heavily moderate a lot of the parochial BS that dominates military procurement in peacetime.

  74. 74
    mclaren says:

    Read America’s Defense Meltdown. It answers all your (and Kevin Drum’s) questions.

  75. 75

    @Villago Delenda Est: I’m thinking that point is coming soon, with UAV’s playing the role of carriers…

  76. 76
    chopper says:

    @Cassidy:

    grunts are the sound an A-10 makes. it’s like god farting.

  77. 77
    Amanda in the South Bay says:

    @Bnut:
    I don’t like the AF flying what are by most standards ancient aircraft, and realize that we really need new and upgraded aircraft. Its the cult of John motherfucking Boyd that says that aircraft must be cheap and low performing, and that I think is responsible for a lot of the anger against the F-35 and F-22.

    I dunno, I just find it hard to bash a service because…well, because they arent intimately involved with the GWOT? I’d hardly describe them as useless, only if you assume that wars from here on out are going to asymmetric and unconventional.

  78. 78
    Kevin Phillips Bong says:

    Actually, the gun is pretty handy for all sorts of things. It’s good for low collateral damage CAS against small structures, soft skinned vehicles and guys in the open, it’s good for poking a target to see if they’re going to shoot back, and rounds are cheap. We almost never use the depleted uranium now, it’s usually all high explosive incendiary. I’m flying (operating?) a platform now that uses a lot of Hellfire, and it’s a decent weapon for some things but guys walk away from direct hits more often than we’d like, which gets expensive at $60k per shot. Can’t think of many A-10 guys who’d trade 1174 rounds for a drum full of Hellfires. We can carry enough Mavericks externally to kill anything hard enough to resist JDAM, GBU-12 or the gun. Plus, it’s fun. We employ in everything from a 60 degree dive from up in the 20s (sporty!) to a 10 degree low angle pass, which gets you down in the weeds. Way more fun than doing grinders in your Eagle at 45,000 feet.

  79. 79
    srv says:

    I’m a huge fan of the F-35. No other weapon system in history will have a bigger impact on tactical air power than the F-35.

    That is, if you want to rat-fuck the air power of the exceptional nation and her allies.

  80. 80

    @Oregon Guy:

    See Dien Bien Phu.

    Well, yea, when you build your base in a valley surrounded by jungled hills to let your enemy reign artillery down on you. Dien Bien Phu was unintentional suicide by the idiot French Generals.

  81. 81
    srv says:

    @Bnut:

    Its the cult of John motherfucking Boyd

    What’s really amazing about those idiots is that he never wanted the F-16 to have a radar (or all the other doo-dads) and that the light-weight fighter has been predominantly used as an air-to-ground platform.

    The stoopid, it just burns.

    ed- oops, that was Amanda’s comment

  82. 82
  83. 83
    mainmati says:

    @chopper: Absolutely perfect description of the beast except leaving out that it looks like a terrifying owl coming at you.

  84. 84
    Cromagnon says:

    The A10 was the baddest attack jet ever. The Air Force hated it because supporting the ground-pounders at low-level isn’t what they consider ‘cool’. But the Army loved it I can tell you that.

    The problem for the Air Force is that advances in cruise-missile and RPV technology is rapidly making manned attack aircraft obsolete alltogether.

  85. 85
    Triassic Sands says:

    @General Stuck:

    “The Battle of the X-Planes” a NOVA documentary about the competition between Boeing (loser) and Lockheed Martin (winner, but maybe the bigger loser) is available on Hulu. It doesn’t deal with the current production problems, but just with the initial competition that was supposed to determine who would build an affordable fighter. It is now the most expensive weapons program in history. So much for affordable.

  86. 86

    @Triassic Sands:

    I watched that some time ago, it was fascinating the process of competition between the two contestants.

  87. 87
    Triassic Sands says:

    @Richard:

    As we used to say when I was in high school about other really bad deals:

    Well, it (F-35) may be ridiculously expensive, but at least it WON’T do what it was designed to do.

    Fun factoid about the B-2. When it was originally built, taking into account the price of gold at that time, the B-2 would have been cheaper to build out of solid gold.

    (Note: a friend of mine and I did some calculations, and it appears that claim was either true or very close to true. With the price of gold today, of course, that is no longer the case.)

  88. 88

    […] F. at Balloon-Juice replies: In brief, the Pentagon has gradually de-emphasized the original purpose of weapons projects in […]

  89. 89
    Cromagnon says:

    @Oregon Guy:

    On a conventional battlefield air superiority gives the side that has it an unbeatable advantage. See WW2 Western Front, or Desert Storm as examples. On a non-conventional battlefield, its far less advantageous

  90. 90
    Triassic Sands says:

    @General Stuck:

    My initial impression was that the Boeing plane was so comical looking it would never be chosen. Boeing’s production problems certainly gave the Pentagon the cover they needed to choose the Lockheed Martin design, but I’ve always had the nagging feeling that the Pentagon was never going to go for a plane that looks like it belongs in a Disney animated feature. The X-35, whatever its current problems, looks like a serious fighter, but the front air intake on the Boeing plane looks to me like one incredibly goofy, giant, gaping grin.

    How did the appearance of the Boeing X-32 strike you?

  91. 91
    trollhattan says:

    @Forum Transmitted Disease:

    Solution? Get rid of the Air Force. And that’s a solution that’s being talked about seriously in the military, at command levels much higher than you might think.

    Amen. It used to be the Army Air Force for a reason. The Navy and Marines have their pilots or aviators or whomever, why not the Army?

    Bonus–we close the Academy and all the Colorado Springs wingnuts lose their main entre into the military.

  92. 92
    Triassic Sands says:

    @trollhattan:

    Bonus—we close the Academy and all the Colorado Springs wingnuts lose their main entre into the military.

    What close down the Air Force Seminary? How will our pilots get proper religious instruction if that happens.

  93. 93
    Amanda in the South Bay says:

    @trollhattan:
    Because the Air Force was a new branch and no one knew what to do with it?

  94. 94
    Amanda in the South Bay says:

    I still don’t get the USAF hate:
    1. Fundie fuckwads at the Academy. Okay, tar the entire branch with that. Like they aren’t in all branches, or that most officers go through OCS or ROTC.

    2. The Army and Marines took the brunt of the GWOT. Okay, lets not fight these kinds of wars that require lots of manpower and unconventional warfare.

    3. Expensive equipment. This is the crux of the issue, I think. How about lets not fight open ended guerilla warfare, and pay for more F-35s instead?

  95. 95

    @Triassic Sands:

    How did the appearance of the Boeing X-32 strike you?

    Like a cartoon fighter. Piloted by Rocket J Squirrel.

  96. 96
    Steeplejack says:

    @Enhanced Voting Techniques:

    Mitchell’s bombing tests happened in the early ’20s. The B-17 wasn’t developed until the late ’30s.

  97. 97
    trollhattan says:

    @Amanda in the South Bay:

    There’s hate in some quarters and in others there’s head-scratching over whether they have enough of a discrete mission to warrant keeping them as a separate service.

    My feeling is their heyday was during the cold war, when SAC swung the biggest, uh, stick and nuclear power seemed to mean the end of war as we know it. The number and value of strategic weapons systems just ain’t what it used to be.

    Big, set-piece ground wars between multinational conventional forces is a dead concept. Mass nuke-flinging across oceans is hopefully a dead concept. I’m not sure where space superiority might fit in to the mess.

    Today’s military has a very different mission than what was occurring in 1947.

  98. 98
    Amanda in the South Bay says:

    @trollhattan:
    How is the Army suited to continental air defense or air to air combat? Bring back Nike-Zeus?

  99. 99
    robertdsc-PowerBook says:

    @DFS:
    Win! Warthog for life!

  100. 100
    trollhattan says:

    @Amanda in the South Bay:

    Continental air defense against…?

  101. 101
    Steeplejack says:

    @Triassic Sands:

    It looks like one of those 1960s boat-cars. Boeing X-32.

  102. 102
    Amanda in the South Bay says:

    @trollhattan:
    How about this: fuck the Marines. They have no discrete mission that doesn’t duplicate anything the Army doesn’t do. They haven’t done opposed landings since Inchon. They merely do what the Army does.

    *Historically you’d be surprised at how many amphibious landings in WW2 were done by the Army.

  103. 103
    Amanda in the South Bay says:

    @trollhattan:
    anyone? for the same reasons other countries do the same thing?

    ETA: oh FFS, how about Russia and China?

  104. 104
    trollhattan says:

    @Amanda in the South Bay:

    Feeling feisty tonight? I’m missing the point here.

  105. 105
    Triassic Sands says:

    @General Stuck: @Steeplejack:

    I kind of admired Boeing for having the guts to show up with such a goofy looking plane, part of which was probably initially due to their plan to have that one huge delta formed out of composite. Perhaps, they expected the performance to outweigh the appearance.

    G.Stuck — I didn’t know Rocket J. Squirrel was licensed to pilot jets. Live and learn. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who felt that way about the appearance, but it makes me even more suspicious about Boeing ever having any chance of winning the contract short of the Lockheed plane crashing and burning.

    Steeplejack — maybe Boeing thought they could sell it as a vertical take-off and landing, amphibious fighter — just eliminate the need for the carrier altogether.

  106. 106
    oldmtnbkr says:

    @celticdragonchick: Actually, if you’re going to go full retro, the P-47 Thunderbolt would be the ticket. Don’t know how that compares to the A-1 Skyraider used thru Vietnam. The P-47 was fearsome in the ground support role in WW2.

  107. 107
    Tom Betz says:

    @joel hanes: Pretty much what military historian Tom Wisker says every week on his, uh, idiosyncratic radio program, Weaponry.

  108. 108
    oldmtnbkr says:

    @Davis X. Machina: @68. Problem is that was during WW2 (they cancelled a lot of stuff when it became clear we’d win, or soon after V-E or V-J Day). That’s before the MIC became active. Sanity prevailing now will take a lot more good luck.

  109. 109
    Tom Betz says:

    @Amanda in the South Bay: The USAF (on the Pentagon level) is run by corrupt idiots. Especially those in charge of Acquisition.

  110. 110
    The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge says:

    @oldmtnbkr:

    @celticdragonchick: Actually, if you’re going to go full retro, the P-47 Thunderbolt would be the ticket. Don’t know how that compares to the A-1 Skyraider used thru Vietnam. The P-47 was fearsome in the ground support role in WW2.

    Since the A-10’s full name appears to be almost unknown among the public, I’d just point out that the “Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II” was so named as a tribute to the “Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.”

  111. 111
    equs_personus says:

    I like the theory that planes are chosen by looks – the A10 being the exception that proved the rule. Archtype story about Curtis LeMay, VP candidate for George C Wallace (and I have the campaign button): Junior staff officer:”…General, what about our enemies, the Russians? ” LeMay, in full peacock puff: “son, listen up: the Russians are our adversary. Our enemy is the ARMY!’

  112. 112
    Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason says:

    Warthog. One of my favorites. Designed to get home if one wing, one rudder, and one engine are shot off. Oh, and titanium armor shaped like a bathtub to keep the pilot flying.

    PS Re: the Thunderbolt. The most off-putting moment in Saving Private Ryan was the P-51 shooting up the tank at the end. C’mon, that’s a preppy airplane. Shoulda been a P-47.

  113. 113
    srv says:

    For all the Fairchild fans, Rutan was righter: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zG9LlHcX8lg

  114. 114
    Bnut says:

    @srv: Man that is pimp. I think it needs fly by wire, but other than that, seems legit. I’ve always favored the Super Tacano for the role. Also, why can’t we reclass some T-6’s for the role?

  115. 115
    Pseudonym says:

    @Brachiator: F-20 Tigershark?

  116. 116
    Another Halocene Human says:

    I just want to thank the editors/bloggers at BJ for posting on this issue. It just kills me how much money is sunk into bomber and jet projects these days for planes that just underperform. We’ve gone from being the ‘can do’ nation to ‘can’t do anything right.’

    Maybe you are right about the nature of these contracts, but you’d think it would all be good in any period of relative stability. I mean, the Dems had control of both houses for years, and then the Republicans had control for a long time.

    I think the degree of secrecy really kills any sort of oversight and feeds the greed and waste and incompetence. (And there is incompetence. Especially when it comes to software (that I know of) the top decision makers did not know anything about the subject and made even worse decisions than their counterparts in industry. How this could happen when DoD has its own stable of insanely talented computer sorts is beyond me, but I think part of the problem is insular culture in each branch of the armed forces. Like lambs to the slaughter for skilled saleswhores.

  117. 117
    Another Halocene Human says:

    Well, looks like everyone above has commented on how the generals in the various branches are like GM execs (before it all came crashing down) more worried about each other than “the adversary”.

    So. Yeah.

  118. 118
    Another Halocene Human says:

    Oh, and in case it’s not clear, the second paragraph in my first post is directed at the OP, Tim F.

  119. 119
    Robert Sneddon says:

    @Kevin Phillips Bong: The GAU-8 gun may be useful sometimes but does it really need two tonnes and 3900rpm do do the necessary on thin-skinned targets and fleshbags?

    There are poddable guns like the ADEN 4 in the 25mm-30mm range that can be hung from pylons and which weigh a lot less as a trade off for lower rate of fire and magazine capacity but with similar lethality against the sorts of targets they are likely to engage nowadays. As you said 30mm DU is pointless against most targets in the current situation(s) so it’s not a usual loadout for the A-10 anyway and that DU round was the reason the plane was built around that gun to start with.

  120. 120

    I think this is what Dick Jones from OmniCorp was bitching about when he took down Bob Morton for upsetting his ED-209 project.

  121. 121
    celticdragonchick says:

    @oldmtnbkr:

    Actually, if you’re going to go full retro, the P-47 Thunderbolt would be the ticket. Don’t know how that compares to the A-1 Skyraider used thru Vietnam. The P-47 was fearsome in the ground support role in WW2.

    Yep. The P-47 and the British Hawker Typhoon were the real deal when it came to tank hunting.

    Here is the Danger Room article I saw that mentioned that a revamped P-51 was being offered as a light COIN fighter for a new Air Force requirement.

    The Enforcer was initially designed around the end of the Vietnam War for the COIN role. Here is the link to the Wikipedia site on it.

  122. 122
    darms says:

    Shades of the V-22 Osprey program, useless, dangerous to its crew yet the program could not be killed…

  123. 123
    uptown says:

    …projects cost vastly more and delivered vastly less than promised…

    Sounds like a lot of corporate wide IT projects. Problem usually is: the big boss never wants to make the hard decisions.

  124. 124

    […] Simple answers to smart questions (Balloon Juice) In which the wisdom of building a high tech fighter plane in 48 of 50 states is taken out behind the woodshed and shot in the head with a shotgun, Old Yeller style. That being said, we’re not so far off from Law #16 in Augustine’s Laws. […]

  125. 125
    Herbal Infusion Bagger says:

    “Drones have no pilot safety issues and it mainly becomes an economic issue if drones crap out some percentage of the time.”

    There’s also the issue of the communications and electronics falling into adversary hands if the drones start dropping out of the sky.

  126. 126
    Ruthless says:

    “Winslow Wheeler is widely considered to be a crank in aviation circles.”

    This. I’ve never heard of the guy, but he seems to have credentials, based on his Wiki page. Problem is, reading his article, I can spot problems with virtually every damned sentence. You will learn as much about modern combat aircraft from this guy as you will learn about space travel from Newt Gingrich.

    He’s a crackpot with an axe to grind.

    The most ridiculous part of his article is that he offers no advice as to what should happen instead except something like “start over”. So after lamenting how expensive this multirole a/c is and how it is behind schedule, his only advice is: Start over from scratch (thus losing billions sunk into the engineering and production line and adding another five or 10 years to production) and build a series of super-expensive, single-mission a/c.

  127. 127
    Ruthless says:

    I will say that the idea that the Pentagon can’t build a/c is stupid. Of course they can. However, what is troubling is the rapidly increasing costs. Everyone has their own pet idea for why this is, but as someone familiar with this industry, I’ll just say it’s many things. And no one should be surprised that a vintage F-16 from 1978 cost so much less to make back then than a JSF today.

    (1) Executive pay has exploded (fighters are super expensive, Bob Stevens is incredibly well paid and there are many, many execs in the management chain. Also, shareholders are treated well. Coincidence?)
    (2) Worker costs have gone up–execs blame the costs on unionization and health care costs. There is some truth to this, since health care costs have exploded and there is basically no automation in the industry (parts are made by hand using very labor-intensive methods.)
    (3) Gov’t requirements are about a million times as thick as they used to be.
    (4) The a/c are much, much more complex. Think about the fact that the first F-15 had basically no software and today’s a/c are super-super-computers with many dozens of complex electronic systems and sensors. So the man-hours required are many times what they used to be (and as there is no almost no automation, it just ends up added as cost.)
    (5) The defense industries have consolidated to the point where there is virtually no competition.

  128. 128
    Alan Smithee says:

    @Triassic Sands:

    Heh – I was at Pax River in the late ’90s / early aughts during the JSF competition. There was no love for the Boeing prototype’s looks from the test pilots, who liked to call it “Monica”…

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