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Defense Contractors Gone Wild

The billions we're spending on the worthless F-22 fighter plane is just the latest taxpayer rip-off. When will the military-industrial complex get the smackdown it deserves?
 
 
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There are small news stories, there are really small news stories, and then there is "Defense Institute Head Resigns," a little maggot of a news item that blipped into the "D" section of the Washington Post last Wednesday. 356 words in all, about half the length of an AP NFL game account, and the Post was the only paper in the country that ran the story. So how important could it have been?

Actually, the Post item about the resignation of Dennis C. Blair from the federally-funded Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) spoke volumes about the utter insanity of the modern American media landscape. In a month when Katie Couric redefined the "scoop" as an advance glimpse of celebrity idiot-spawn Suri Cruise, and investigative journalism according to muckraking icon 60 Minutes meant sappy profiles of Howard Stern and Bill Romanowski, it made all the sense in the world that the denouement of a spectacular tale of massive government waste and fraud would go completely unnoticed by virtually the entire journalism community.

The name of Dennis C. Blair became somewhat infamous on the Hill this summer when he became wrapped up in a minor controversy surrounding appropriations for the F-22 Raptor jet fighter. Blair, a former Navy admiral who once headed the U.S. Pacific Command, was until last week the president of the IDA, a federally-funded non-profit research center which provides the government with "independent" analyses of weapons programs and defense legislation.

Earlier this year, the IDA had been asked by the Pentagon to assess the viability and potential cost of a three-year, $60-plus billion Multi-Year Procurement (MYP) of F-22 jets. The details here are complicated, but in essence the MYP proposed as an amendment to the Senate's 2007 Defense Authorization bill by Georgia's Saxby Chambliss would lock the government into a bulk purchase of three years' worth of F-22s, instead of the traditional yearly individual purchases.

Blair's IDA did as ordered, ultimately issuing a report showing that the MYP, by allowing suppliers to sell to the government at reduced bulk rates, would save the government a quarter of a billion dollars. This contradicted the findings of both the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service, which blasted the procurement as an indefensibly stupid waste of money, but the IDA's "congressionally mandated independent study" (as Chambliss called it) was the one legislators chose to listen to.

Chambliss's amendment passed 70-28, with wide bipartisan support. Most all of the Senators who voted for the bill, including Democrats like Joe Lieberman, Chuck Schumer and Daniel Inouye, had received generous campaign contributions from Lockheed-Martin, the maker of the F-22, and from subcontractors like Pratt and Whitney.

Moreover, it subsequently came out that Blair himself sat on the board of EDO, a subcontractor on the F-22 project. EDO makes a missile launching system for the plane. Though such conflicts of interest are not barred by the Pentagon, Blair last week resigned voluntarily -- quietly, with only the Post noticing, at a time when Katie Couric was neatly innovating the network news concept by giving platform-impoverished radio jock Rush Limbaugh a guest slot on her news show. Blair's resignation was a de facto admission that a key study supporting one of the largest defense procurements in history was seriously compromised, even beyond the built-in conflict of interest inherent in a congress heavily funded by defense contractors.

The ongoing bureaucratic drama surrounding procurement for this project is a kind of fairy tale for the system of legalized corruption in this country, in which taxpayer money is basically stolen and shot into space by an open conspiracy of legislators, defense contractors and Pentagon officials, colloquially known as the "Iron Triangle." The F-22 project is particularly offensive since its cost -- $65 billion -- mirrors very closely the $50 billion in "emergency" cuts to social programs congress made last year, ostensibly to help pay for Katrina reconstruction.

Many of those post--Katrina cuts are just beginning to hit communities around the country now. The state of Texas, for instance, recently announced that it may have to lay off as many as 1,700 employees because of federal budget cuts for various social programs. I was in congress last year when both the House and the Senate voted to slash funding for child support collection in response to the Katrina disaster; a year later, a state like Texas will be laying off as many as two--thirds of the employees in its child--support division.

So what programs was congress protecting, when it decided last year to take money away from single mothers, teachers, Medicaid and student loans? Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the Raptor.

The F-22 is a symbol of everything that is wrong and stupid and corrupt about the United States government. Often called "the Maserati of fighter planes," the successor aircraft to the F--15 is a defense contractor's wet dream, a preposterously expensive and extravagantly useless hunk of hi-tech metal rigged with every conceivable luxury bell and whistle, a plane whose brochure comes riddled with the kind of hot and steamy selling points that pitches tents in industrial parks all over the country -- Mach 2 cruising speed, stealth skin, the most advanced avionics and software package ever invented.

But there are three basic problems with the F-22.

One, it was conceived in the mid-eighties, with the aim of combating Warsaw Pact aircraft, which, in case Washington hasn't noticed, are no longer a threat to this country. The chief weapon of our current enemy -- again in case no one in Washington noticed -- is the homemade roadside bomb, triggered by a cell phone or garage-door opener. While no one is saying America doesn't need fighter planes, the F-22's technological selling points are completely irrelevant to the security challenges currently facing the country. The F-16 is just fine for fighting the likes of al-Qaeda.

Two, the plane has the comically horrible performance history common to most hot Pentagon projects, with the jet plagued by cost overruns, crashes and glitches, the most recent occurring this spring, when a pilot in a prototype was trapped inside his canopy for five hours (firefighters eventually did over $180K in damage rescuing him from the plane). Moreover, the plane's chief selling point -- its stealth -- is, hilariously, a mirage. In order to detect enemy aircraft beyond visual range, the plane needs to turn on its radar, immediately rendering it visible to even the most primitive detection system. In fact, at a symposium last year for the Center for Defense Information, well-known aircraft analyst Pierre Sprey graded the F-22 on four criteria -- seeing the enemy first, outnumbering the enemy, outmaneuvering the enemy, and killing the enemy quickly.

"The Raptor is a horrible failure on almost every one of those criteria," Sprey said.

Thirdly, according to an estimate issued by the Government Accountability Office earlier this year, the cost to the taxpayer of the first 183 planes will be -- get this -- over $361 million per plane. Now, that number includes design and development costs; the ultimate "fly-away" cost, meaning how much it costs to simply manufacture the aircraft, will be about $137 million per plane. But even that number is about four times the cost of the plane it's replacing, the F-16, which goes for about $35 million per unit.

Moreover, there is this to consider. One of the original reasons for developing the F-22 was that foreign sales of the F-15 and F-16 had diluted America's technological superiority over other nations. But this summer, Texas congresswoman Kay Granger, whose district contains a Lockheed factory that makes the F-22 midsection, offered legislation to lift a ban on foreign sales of the plane. The measure passed in a June voice vote in the House after only 11 minutes of discussion. Groups like the Project on Congressional Oversight freaked out, noting that potentially antagonistic nations like Pakistan have the F-16 and that the consequences of putting F-22 technology on the open market were potentially severe, but the vote went through anyway. The Senate has yet to take up the issue, but is expected to soon, with the same result.

So to recap: a weapon that was designed to fight an enemy that no longer exists, which may be a spectacular design failure, and which costs as much as ten times as much as the last generation's still-excellent and still-superior weapon, is to be mass-produced by a government steeped in a budget crisis of its own making, at a time when vital social services are being slashed. The funding bill for this plane was endorsed by a research group whose president is a board member of a subcontractor, and was passed by a Congress heavily subsidized by the F--22's chief contractors. In just this one election year of 2006, members of congress received $1,124,646 in contributions from Lockheed-Martin alone ($949,271 to House reps, $175,375 to Senators), and that doesn't even account for the huge contributions from other contractors like Connecticut-based Pratt and Whitney (still wonder why Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman voted for the Chambliss amendment?) and Texas Instruments.

Defense appropriations remain the most hideously undercovered ongoing story in America. Some of this is probably due to the fact that defense companies have a long history of owning major media outlets (Westinghouse and GE being prime examples), but even beyond that there seems to be an instinctive reluctance on the part of reporters to even consider covering military waste stories.

An example: House and Senate conferees this week quietly restored some $109 million in funding for the Pentagon's Joint Cargo Aircraft program, after the Senate had slashed those funds from the budget earlier this year. The only news outlet to cover the conference decision was congress's own The Hill. Such subterranean conference restorations of defense appropriations -- there was a similar restoration of $230 million for the notorious V-22 Osprey program last year, at almost exactly the same time as the better-publicized "emergency" social cuts -- almost never make the news.

Since both parties are heavily subsidized by defense contractors and accustomed to giving them whatever they want, whenever they want (Lockheed-Martin even has the contract for the internet server in congress, for Christ's sake), neither party ever raises the issue with reporters. This allows people like John Boehner to keep a straight face when he sighs and says things like, "Look, we're broke," before slashing $600 million in foster care funding, as he did last year. And while Democrats may object to these same cuts, you'll hardly ever hear any of them mention -- oh, by the way -- that they just voted to buy 183 of the world's most useless airplanes at $361 million a pop. The F-22 -- useless as tits on a bull against al-Qaeda, but it sure will look nice flying over next year's World Series opener! Why not? It's not their money.

What a joke American journalism is. Our entire army is on its knees before a few thousand gun-toting religious fanatics in the Arabian desert, and here's our government, taking food out of the mouths of foster kids and single moms to go binge-shopping with our tax money in the Sharper Image catalog of the industrial world. And what's on TV? Fucking Suri Cruise? Are you kidding me?

Matt Taibbi is a writer for Rolling Stone .