Alex Massie Alex Massie

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

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.

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