A tale of two airplanes

An Air Force officer wonders why, if cost and performance are today's watchwords, the C-27J must go and the F-35 must stay.

Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Ward has asked a rhetorical question that deserves some thought: Why is the Air Force aching to get rid of its C-27J Spartan fun-size airlifters, yet willing to risk penury by continuing to push for the F-35 Lightning II?

Writing at Mark Thompson’s Battleland blog, Ward sets up the framework for solving such a quandary:

There are basically three reasons to cancel an acquisition program. In no particular order, the reasons are: We can’t afford it. We don’t need it. It doesn’t work.

He continues:

Stars and Stripes just ran an ironically-placed pair of articles. The top of page 4 featured a piece from the Los Angeles Times about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s ballooning costs, showing how the estimated price tag jumped from $233B in 2001 to $395B in 2011. That’s an increase of $162B for an aircraft that is expected to deliver its first basic combat capability in 2015, assuming all the technical problems can be solved by then. The article quoted Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta as saying, “We absolutely need it for the future.”

Just to jump in real quick here — there is no official date by which the F-35 will “deliver its first basic combat capability;” 2015 is Ward’s charitable guesstimate. As you’ve read here many times, today the jet has no official date for initial operational capability. Back to Ward:

 Immediately below the JSF story was a piece about the USAF’s pending decision to cut the C-27J Spartan, which the U.S. has been using for combat supply missions in Afghanistan for the past eight months. The Air Force has spent approximately $1B on the Spartan so far and recently signed a contract worth $2B, but the article explained that Air Force leaders now see the small cargo hauler as “a luxury it cannot afford in this era of cost-cutting.”

If the Spartan is an unaffordable luxury at $2B, it does beg the question of the JSF’s affordability at $395B. We can afford the expensive one but not the cheap one? I think that’s a fair question to ask, since the C-27 is being called “unaffordable” while the JSF’s cost growth alone is 80 times larger than the new Spartan contract.

As for necessity, if we don’t need the C-27J – which is flying in today’s war – one might perhaps be forgiven for wondering how much we need the still-being-developed JSF, whose most optimistic delivery date occurs after the projected 2014 departure from Afghanistan. Of course, the SECDEF’s commitment to the JSF couldn’t be clearer, so the necessity question for that particular aircraft is settled in the affirmative – at least for now. A final question remains – does it work? Since the C-27J is flying missions this very minute, it clearly earns a yes. Based on the latest test results, I’m sorry to say the JSF doesn’t get a yes quite yet.

It’s an incisive analysis. Ward’s problem, however, is that he is thinking like a rational human being, and that’s not how we play the game  inside the military-industrial-congressional complex. One of the upsides of the “gap” between the civil and military worlds, from the Iron Triangle’s perspective, is that more Americans don’t know enough about these issues to reach this kind of conclusion and then raise questions about it. There are answers to his questions, just not simple answers.

Then again, maybe it shouldn’t be so complicated: What do you think?