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 model includes an air horn and a patriotic hood ornament.
[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.