Sunday, February 10, 2008
Weekend Wings #6: Modern Military Aircraft - Cost versus Effectiveness
The problem of cost-effectiveness in military aircraft is as old as flight itself, and is nowhere near being solved. It has a profound impact on air forces today and will be decisive in the aircraft they fly tomorrow, but it's not very well understood by general aviation enthusiasts. I'd like to devote this "Weekend Wings" post to a look at the issue.
When fighting a war (or preparing for one) a government spends what it must to equip its armed forces with the tools they need to win the fight. This is seldom justifiable in purely economic terms and is usually very expensive: but the cost of not providing such equipment (defeat) outweighs the expense of buying it in the first place. However, the demands of defense spending must be balanced against all the other budgetary requirements of running a country. There's never enough money to fund everything at optimum levels.
Unfortunately, the lure of huge government contracts leads to enormous efforts on the part of aircraft manufacturers to sell their products to the State. In their eagerness to "get on the gravy train" such companies have in the past been guilty of bribery, corruption, influence-peddling, overcharging and a host of other irregularities. Companies are quick to point out that the military establishment is guilty of dithering, indecisiveness and changing their specifications to the point where an initial contract can bloat into a huge, almost ungovernable project. The military, in its turn, points to inefficiency, overcharging and lack of co-ordination among companies and contractors as the main reason for problems. There's usually some truth on both sides. (There's also a third aspect, political pressure, which we'll address later in this post.)
Let's have a look at four case studies playing out right now in the US military.
CASE ONE: A NEW PRESIDENTIAL HELICOPTER.
After 9/11 it was decided that the President of the United States should have a more modern, updated helicopter fleet (the existing Sikorsky aircraft had been in service almost thirty years and were showing their age). The European-designed EH-101 won the contract in 2005, with Lockheed-Martin and Bell Helicopter Textron heading a consortium to build it in the USA under the designation VH-71A Kestrel. (As always, click on the pictures for a larger view.)
However, the project is now in serious financial trouble, costs having ballooned from an initial figure of 6.1 billion dollars to an estimated 11 billion dollars at present. For a proposed fleet of only 23 helicopters, that amounts to almost half a billion dollars per aircraft!!! The reason? The Department of the Navy (the prime contracting agency for the helicopters, which will be operated by the US Marine Corps) has initiated hundreds of changes to the initially contracted specification, demanding increased power and range, major electronic system enhancements and a host of other details (some so extensive as to require major airframe modifications). The military has criticized the performance of the companies developing and producing the helicopter, but the latter (with, I think, considerable justification) point to these changes as the primary cause of their poor performance, each change necessitating major adjustments up and down the flow of designs, materials and equipment to and from the factory and sub-contractors.
Amidst the charges, counter-charges and confusion the entire program may be restructured. Needless to say, competitors are hoping that the problems will become so intractable that the entire contract will be cancelled and the procurement process re-started. Personally, I think that to take a helicopter costing about $25 million in its standard form, fully equipped, and morph it into a monstrosity costing twenty times as much is absolutely unconscionable, completely unjustifiable and a colossal waste of taxpayers' money.
CASE TWO: A MARINE BATTLE TRANSPORT.
The V-22 Osprey is considered by the US Navy, Marine Corps and Special Operations Command to be an essential and revolutionary component of their future capabilities.
However, it's had a long, painful, sometimes disastrous and extraordinarily expensive development process. Each Osprey will cost four to five times as much as a helicopter that can do many, if not most, of the same tasks (albeit flying more slowly). That's a bitter pill for many to swallow, but efforts to cancel the program in the early 1990's were derailed for political reasons.
The aircraft has been in development for over twenty years, and upwards of thirty people have died in crashes in the process.
There's been fierce controversy about the Osprey, with accusations of major technological problems, political favoritism and falsification of test results. All of these problems appear to have been overcome, and the aircraft is now in operational service with the Marine Corps (it's just been deployed in Iraq). Nevertheless, it's estimated that the entire program (development and production) will eventually cost upwards of $50 billion. That's an enormous sum, particularly when spread across fewer than five hundred aircraft scheduled to be purchased. The unit price is staggering - comparable to an F-35 fighter. A helicopter to lift the same payload over the same distance would cost a fifth to a quarter of that amount.
Any fair observer would have to agree that the Osprey in its current form represents a major technological achievement. Its performance is truly impressive.
However, it's consuming a huge proportion of US defense expenditure, to the detriment of many other important programs. The question has to be asked: is it worth it? I'm afraid that I, personally, would answer "No". I'd rather see the US commit a quarter of that sum to purchase a similar number of already-proven helicopters (e.g. the Sikorsky S-92 or the AugustaWestland EH-101) that can do most of the work allocated to the Osprey, and use the money saved to buy other much-needed equipment.
CASE THREE: A PROLIFERATION OF FIGHTERS.
The US has two major combat aircraft programs under way at present. The first, nearing the end of its planned acquisition cycle, is the extremely capable F-22 Raptor.
This stealthy fifth-generation aircraft is said to be superior to anything currently fielded by other nations - but it costs over $350 million apiece, including amortization of development costs over the number of aircraft expected to be purchased. That's a colossal figure. From an initial proposal to buy over 700, the US Air Force will now receive less than 200, largely due to the costs involved.
The second program is the so-called "Joint Strike Fighter", the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II.
This had its genesis in a decision to design a single aircraft that would meet the needs of the US Air Force, US Navy and US Marines, as well as allied nations. By producing many of them to serve all these forces it was hoped that the unit cost would be kept low. Advanced avionics, "stealth" features and other desirable features were specified, and three different versions would be needed. The F-35A would replace F-16 and A-10 aircraft in the US Air Force; the F-35B would replace the AV-8B and early models of the F/A-18 in US Marine service, and offer vertical or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) ability for use aboard Marine assault transports and the smaller aircraft-carriers of other navies; and the F-35C would replace earlier F/A-18 models aboard aircraft-carriers of the US Navy.
Initially intended as a relatively low-cost program compared to the F-22, the F-35 has grown steadily more complex - and more expensive. It's now estimated that each one will cost from one-third to half as much as an F-22. That's not nearly so great a saving as was once envisaged, and already complaints are being made about "cost creep".
Recently the USAF's F-15 fleet was grounded as a result of an accident that revealed cracks in fuselage components. More than a third remain out of service, possibly permanently. Many of the USAF's fighters are more than twenty years old, subject to restrictions on how fast they may be flown and how severely they may be maneuvered. In response to these problems, some Air Force sources are calling for the purchase of more F-22's: but this is unrealistic. To buy enough F-22's, at today's prices, to replace the USAF's older F-15's and F-16's would cost more than the entire annual US defense budget! Furthermore, in the current operational environment not one F-22 has seen service in Iraq or Afghanistan, nor are any likely to do so. They're useless against terrorists.
Another factor is that those calling for more aircraft carefully fail to mention that a brand-new latest-generation F-15 (as in the F-15K currently being sold to South Korea or the F-15SG currently being sold to Singapore) or F-16 (as in the F-16E/F Block 60 variant currently being sold to the United Arab Emirates or the even more advanced F-16IN being offered to India) , with systems fully as modern as those of the F-22 or F-35, can be bought for half to two-thirds of the cost of an F-35 or a fifth to a third of the cost of an F-22. Admittedly the older designs aren't stealthy, but neither are any of the F-15's or F-16's in the USAF's current fleet: and in most other areas they're comparable (or even superior) to the F-35 in overall performance (or can be made so with relatively little additional investment). Additional enhancements such as thrust-vectoring technology, improved wings and other features have already been flight-tested in the F-15S/MTD, F-16XL and F-16 VISTA/MATV/NF-16D programs. They could be incorporated into production aircraft with minimal difficulty.
The question thus becomes: should the USAF spend many billions of dollars to buy a relatively small quantity of the most capable latest-generation fighters, or - for the same or less investment - maintain a smaller fleet of highly advanced F-22 fighters and buy three to four times more aircraft that are almost as capable as the F-35 (except in the area of stealth)?
Fleet size is very important. In wartime one can't afford to lose too many of a limited number of aircraft - these things take a year or more to build. If the USAF starts a war with only a few hundred stealthy aircraft, and loses half of them, it's in trouble. Of course, proponents of the "latest and greatest" argue that they won't be lost, precisely because of their stealth features: but that's no longer certain. Advances in radar technology have already demonstrated the ability to track so-called "stealthy" aircraft, and it's very likely that over the next decade potential adversaries will field some of these systems. If at that point the USAF has only a relatively small fleet of suddenly-vulnerable aircraft, it won't be in a very healthy position at all.
I'm not in charge of Air Force procurement: but if I was, I'd buy several more squadrons of F-22's for the air superiority/defense mission, scrap the F-35 and buy a bunch of F-16XL's built and equipped to the latest standards. The Navy could get by with its latest-generation F/A-18E/F fighter-bombers. I'd save money and have many more aircraft available in case of emergency.
CASE FOUR: TRANSPORTS IN TURMOIL.
The USAF's heavy transport fleet is in dire need of expansion. For long-range heavy cargo it relies on two types of aircraft. The Lockheed C-5 Galaxy was designed in the 1960's and is the largest transport in the USAF, lifting up to 135 tons of freight. It's restricted to long, hard-surfaced runways.
The second is the Boeing C-17. This aircraft entered production in the 1990's, and carries about 80 tons. It requires a considerably shorter take-off and landing distance than the C-5 and can operate out of rough forward airfields if necessary - and it's MUCH quieter!
Smaller cargoes are handled by the C-130 Hercules, which has been in service since the 1950's. The latest C-130J model (shown below) has upgraded avionics and systems, but is still limited in the weight (up to 20 tons) and size of cargo it can carry. A larger and more capable replacement is needed.
The C-5's are old and worn. Some are being upgraded with modern avionics and engines. However, the cost of upgrading a single C-5 is about half the price of a new C-17. Indeed, there are persistent reports (including from the USAF itself) that the upgrade cost has been deliberately understated by Lockheed, and may be significantly higher than budgeted. There's also the problem that the C-5 has been a long-term disappointment in terms of its serviceability and reliability. The upgrade is supposed to resolve these issues, but there's no guarantee of this - only promises.
Adding to the problem, politicians from districts where C-5's are stationed and where they'll be upgraded have been fighting tooth and nail to keep them in service and the proposed upgrade on track, despite the very serious problems and cost overruns that have been encountered and are predicted. In doing so they've fought (so far successfully) to limit new orders for the C-17. However, this has caused Boeing to announce that it will close down its C-17 production line next year in the absence of further orders. Once it's shut down, it'll take years and cost a great deal to restart it. If the C-5 upgrade isn't successful, this will leave a huge gap in USAF transport capabilities.
The USAF's air transport fleet is already overstretched - so much so that it's had to charter Russian transport aircraft to fly heavy cargoes from the USA to Iraq! The budget squabbling over whether to upgrade the ageing C-5 fleet, or buy more C-17's, or do both, has left the service unable to cope with current demands. Furthermore, the immense cost of programs such as the F-22, F-35, V-22 and others has meant that less money is available for the transport fleet, which is at least as important to overall US operations as combat aircraft.
If this were my decision, I'd scrap the C-5 fleet over time as the aircraft wore out, buy another hundred or so C-17's for specialized military cargoes and buy commercial freighters such as the Boeing B-777F to handle routine airfield-to-airfield transport missions. The latter are cheaper than specialized military transports, can carry over a hundred tons of freight and, with only two engines, will be far more economical in operation than either the C-5 or the C-17. I'd also look to replace the venerable C-130 over time with a larger plane like the Airbus A400M or Antonov An-70, which could be produced in the USA under license using American engines and avionics. Either of these aircraft can carry more than twice the weight of cargo of the C-130 - enough to efficiently augment the larger jet transports in strategic airlift missions - and has similar rough-field tactical airlift capability. That aircraft mix would be far more capable than what's fielded at present, and would probably save money into the bargain.
There are many other aircraft programs I could cite as evidence of the problem, but these four should suffice to make the position clear. Adding to the budgetary woes of the Armed Forces is that major expenditures on aircraft must inevitably affect other programs needed by the Army and Navy (vehicles, ships, weapons, etc.). The budget can only be stretched so far.
Political interference is also a significant factor. We've mentioned it in connection with the C-5 upgrade. It extends to any Congressional district or State where aircraft manufacturers provide jobs. Politicians are lobbied incessantly by these companies to obtain contracts for the benefit of their constituents. In the current selection process for a new Air Force tanker, the KC-X program, competing manufacturers are lobbying local, State and Federal politicians, trying to get their votes on the grounds of political expediency rather than ask them to ensure that the Air Force gets the best aircraft for its needs. The same was true of the Presidential helicopter competition - as soon as the victory of the VH-71 was announced, the Congressional representative from the district of the losing contender immediately launched a barrage of criticism and attempted to kill the deal. Aircraft manufacturers make sure that members of Congress and Senators are kept up-to-date on issues affecting employment in their districts and States, and contribute heavily to their election funds. As a result these politicians often try to insert language into defense appropriations favorable to the companies in their constituency, with seriously negative consequences for the armed forces.
The problem of funding for military aircraft programs is as old as the aviation industry, and is likely to be with us forever. However, at present it's of particular importance. The USA spends more on defense than every other country in the world put together. The Pentagon's latest budget request is for well over $600 billion: and according to the 2004 CIA World Fact Book, all other nations spent about $400 billion in total for defense. Given other budgetary demands and priorities, it's highly unlikely that Congress will be prepared to spend much more on defense than present levels - and once the Iraq conflict is over it's likely to cut back on defense spending again. The USAF, like other branches of the US armed forces, will have to "cut its coat according to its cloth" rather than demand more and more money.
That's certain to have a substantial impact on force levels. If "feature bloat", inefficiency, cost inflation and political interference can be controlled, a lot more money will be available for aircraft: but if these factors prove unmanageable, they'll consume much of the budget and the USAF's fleet will be that much smaller - perhaps too small to perform all the tasks required of it.