No, I’m not talking about the state nor am I talking about the Nationals or Redskins. The overwhelming pastime of choice in this town is the funding game. At the moment, the dust is settling in a bout where one defense multinational, Lockheed Martin, went after another one, Boeing. This is over whether there should be an upgrade to Boeing’s F-15 or instead we should go whole hog on the more expensive and problem-ridden F-35.
The Air Force wants to use the F-15X as an immediate solution, ensuring the air fleet has enough aircraft to meet contingencies. But corporate opponents of the upgrade are having nothing of it. For them it’s money over mission.
The man in the crosshairs? Acting Secretary of Defense and Defense Secretary Designate Patrick Shanahan. He got the official nomination to serve the administration as Secretary of Defense just last week. Thus, his name is likely to be in the news cycle more than a tad coming up. This issue may also raise its head.
My first Army Intel assignment in the early 1980s was with the Pershing Nuclear Brigade, so I know a bit about one of the players. Before Lockheed Martin was its current incarnation, part of it was Martin Marietta. That Martin manufactured the Pershing missile. Now, being an S-2 pog I wasn’t on the maintenance line a lot. But I knew guys who were. And while the birds, properly modified, could have hit the proverbial men’s room of the Kremlin, they were not without issues. Martin also knew how to, shall we say, butter the HR bread, as Pershing guys in uniform would retire one day and be back at work the very next day at their exact same jobs as Martin employees.
So yeah, they knew how to game the system. The apogee of that game is funding. Nothing moves, waddles, or flies in D.C. without cash. As the USAF said about the space program, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
A long time Boeing employee before he came to DOD, he has a reputation around town as a straight shooter. Before he was in this post he was Jim Mattis’ number two. Anybody who understands anything about Mattis knows he would not have tolerated for two minutes anyone not of the highest integrity and professionalism. Shanahan made the grade. His decision to reverse DOD course and go with the F-15 upgrade reflects that.
You’re thinking, Shanahan is still doing Boeing’s bidding. Not quite. Because the upgrade on the F-15 does not take the place, repeat- does not take the place, of going ahead with the F-35 program. It is a needed stopgap measure for the continuity of our air supremacy.
Opines USAF Chief of Staff General David Goldfein, “We absolutely are adamant that the F-35 program, the program of record, absolutely stays on track and we don’t take a dime out of the F-35.” He called the aircraft, “The quarterback of the joint penetrating team.” Enough for you? The F-15X funding just fills in the supply chain issue with 4G F-15X until the 5G, though highly problematic, F-35 is consistently ready for prime time. Plus, the F-15X Eagle can still use the same hangers, equipment, and maintainers as it has for the retiring F-15C Eagle and will remain a superior fighter jet for some time to come.
General Goldfein takes a page from a former USAF brasshat who, in another context, exclaimed, “Mr. President, we must not allow . . . a mine shaft gap!”
On the Hill recently, Defense Department officials took some deserved flak over the F-22 Raptor program. It was the savior of the air fleet—until it wasn’t and was cancelled at the cost of billions of dollars. Not wanting to repeat the debacle, the flyboys did their homework this time and proposed $1.1 billion for the F-15Xs in 2020, including enough cash for 35 F-35s. A nice split and obviously cost-effective.
That wasn’t enough for Lockheed and their pals who no doubt were quite pleased at a recent conflict of interest investigation of Shanahan, even after admitting the Eagle improvement would not affect the F-35 program in the long term. But guess what? Shanahan was completely cleared and it looks likely that the investigation itself was designed to distract from problems with the F-35.
What are those problems? In brief, they have a major problem with reliability and that makes the service life of the airplane well below initial reports. For example, the Marines bought the F-35B variant. It was supposed to have an 8,000-hour service life. It looks like it realistically will be 2,100 hours or lower. These are the Air Force’s own numbers. Maintenance? The goal of hitting 80 percent of field metrics standards is not being met. Cyber issues that are known on the plane are still not fixed.
Knowing this, Shanahan remarked that the F-35 “had a lot of opportunity for more performance.” Emphasis on opportunity, not results. As for the F-15 upgrade and the $1.5 trillion cost of the F-35 program he said, “I am biased towards giving the taxpayer their money’s worth.”
This is a refreshing attitude from a public official. It’s pragmatic decision making that doesn’t bust budgets and keeps long-range goals intact. When he sits in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee soon for confirmation, barring unforeseen developments, he will be a slam dunk given Republican Senate numbers. Let’s hope he’s given credit for his candor.
For in a secretary of defense designate and the F-15X, we could have done a lot worse.
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