Alex Massie

Adventures in Defence Procurement. Plus, Do We Need the RAF?

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Defence procurement is difficult. It's hard to design and build new weapons systems and predicting what kinds of equipment and force structure will be needed in 20 years time is a necessarily tricky business. Mistakes and blunders don't just happen; they're inevitable. Still, despite the Eurofighter and the looming problems with the Royal Navy's new carrier class, it's not clear that there's anything on the MoD's books quite so daft as the US Air Force's F-22 fighter*.

It's not merely a matter of cost - though as nearly $200m a pop the F-22 is no bargain - but that, apparently, the average F-22 only flies for 1.7 hours before developing a "critical failure" that jeopardises its mission. Thirty hours of maintenance are required to produce a single hour's flying and at any moment nearly 40% of F-22s are unable to fly. Last year, four years after it entered service, it successfully met seven of 22 key performance requirements.

The Pentagon wants to cap F-22 production at 187 planes; the USAF wants nearly 400. Unsurprisingly, cancelling the F-22 will be unpopular - in part because it was designed to be that way. Consider this splendid illustration of How Washington Works:

Its troubles have been detailed in dozens of Government Accountability Office reports and Pentagon audits. But Pierre Sprey, a key designer in the 1970s and 1980s of the F-16 and A-10 warplanes, said that from the beginning, the Air Force designed it to be "too big to fail, that is, to be cancellation-proof."

Lockheed farmed out more than 1,000 subcontracts to vendors in more than 40 states, and Sprey -- now a prominent critic of the plane -- said that by the time skeptics "could point out the failed tests, the combat flaws, and the exploding costs, most congressmen were already defending their subcontractors' " revenues.

John Hamre, the Pentagon's comptroller from 1993 to 1997, says the department approved the plane with a budget it knew was too low because projecting the real costs would have been politically unpalatable on Capitol Hill.

"We knew that the F-22 was going to cost more than the Air Force thought it was going to cost and we budgeted the lower number, and I was there," Hamre told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April. "I'm not proud of it," Hamre added in a recent interview.

So, sure, defence procurement is hard but you don't have to make it this hard or make it quite so beholden to the grubbier side of politics.

Relatedly: do you actually even need a seperate Air Force these days? Couldn't you quite easily divide the airboys' responsibilities between the army and the navy? Mightn't it actually make some operational sense to do so? I'm sure there are arguments for retaining the USAF or RAF, but there also seem quite good ones for rethinking the role and deployment or air power and at least asking if three services are really better than two?

*UPDATE: Just to be clear, I know the RAF isn't buying the F-22. What I meant - and perhaps should have been clearer in saying - is that the Pentagon's procurement battle over the F-22 makes anything the MoD faces look like small fry. I thought that was obvious, but perhaps it wasn't.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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