When you’ve served in uniform, have been a political operative, and now don the mantle of a columnist, you keep your ears open at the inevitable plethora of summer DC social occasions. Many of those tend to be held by military types, and if they know you’ll be discrete about sources you can get an earful from disgruntled soldiers, sailors, air force personnel, and Marines.
As General Patton said, it’s a soldier’s right to gripe. But some of it goes farther than that. Along with the usual complaints about deployments, pay, benefits, and idiot promotion boards are comments that should give some of us food for thought when it comes to assessing how ready our military is to carry out the mission of defending this country. Some of that chatter, along with my own analysis, is what we bring you today. This week the Army and the Air Force. Next week the Navy and the Corps.
Army: My former service is feeling the effects of almost two decades of combat. Former defense secretary, the Sainted Jim Mattis warned that constant deployments plus a dearth of adequate money has produced a service in “a position where we are losing or eroding our competitive edge.” The force is too small and needs to grow beyond 500,000, we are hurt by delaying modernization, and the goal of about 65 percent of brigade combat teams being ready to immediately deploy is only at around 50 percent (and only half of those are “fully ready”). These are just some of the things I’ve heard on the Big Green grapevine.
As by far the largest of the services, the Army fills 50 percent of the combat forces and 70 percent of the emergent force demand. Thus where the Army goes so goes the U.S. military. Stationed in 140 countries round the globe, it acts as a forward shield and tripwire not just for the U.S. but also for numerous allies. Because of this and other factors, the term I hear over and over from soldiers is “burned out.” Not that they can’t do the job, they can.
However, if the money isn’t there for maintenance and upgrades, not to mention recruitment and retention, then our current luck of a strained force able to fulfill the mission against no extant legitimate global adversary may not hold out. If that happens, as it has before, all the gnashing of teeth and renting of garments won’t make a difference to dead soldiers or their families.
Air Force: As they get drunk on Chardonnay spritzers, zoomies can be a talkative bunch. It’s a technical service so the gabfest revolves around the machines. Usually ones that fly. As such, the current gripe is the F-35. There are pilots out there who don’t trust her.
Seven years ago the plane almost got cancelled and has been on probation ever since. Why? The service life is way below par. The B model was pitched at an 8,000-hour service life. Realistically, try just above 2,000 and that’s being kind. Cyber problems persist and field metrics are nowhere near at standard. It’s also been close to being too heavy, putting restrictions on distance, speed, and agility. With that weight comes hard stress on joints and rivets. Lockheed Martin says program reforms have shed 2,600 lbs. and gained a 700-lb. thrust increase.
Pilots are skeptical and they say the F-35’s limited use in combat is exactly because of the reasons above and others.
Another major reason for restricted deployment is that it takes almost six months to repair a part, which is twice the program objective. More than one flyboy told me they’d rather go up in the modern upgraded F-15 than in the F-35 as it currently stands. Which leaves us with a past deadline aircraft that USAF and other service pilots don’t truly believe in as of yet.
As such, those planes delivered to our forces and the Israelis have been duty constrained, due to design flaws, to action against lightly armed militant groups.
And then there’s the budget snafu.
In 2012 the F-35 program was supposedly going to cost $320 billion. By 2014 the program was $163 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule. In 2015 the Government Accountability Office reported “61 violations of quality management rules and policies.” Retrofitting to cover past mistakes has already cost more than $1.7 billion. The Pentagon itself said in 2015 that “program costs are up 43 percent from initial figures and price per unit is up 68 percent.” It has become the largest and most expensive military program the U.S. has implemented in its history.
And from the Department of Defense as of March of this year, “DoD – The total program costs for DoD have increased $24,126.7 million (+4.0%) from $599,987.4 million to $624,114.1 million. The main driver of that increase, F-35, is detailed: The overall Acquisition Cost of the program increased by $15.3B in base year 2012 dollars and increased by $22.2B in then-year (money which will be spent over time) dollars. The Total Program Costs increased by $25.0B in base year 2012 dollars and by $94.8B in then-year dollars.”
The whole program is currently slated to come in at $1.5 trillion. Yes, trillion. That’s basically what we have spent on the entire Iraq War. You then hear the “too big to fail” argument that has saddled U.S. taxpayers with the bill in past boondoggles.
But if you follow this subject you’ve heard those numbers before. What we can’t tell is what will happen to a flawed cash-bloated aircraft over the skies of Iran, North Korea, or perhaps the Taiwan Strait. If our air capabilities are vital to winning any conflict, and they are, will this albatross strengthen or weaken our defense and war-winning posture?
The jury is definitely still out on that one.
What we can say with certainty for both the Army and the Air Force is that equipment and budget issues will not be remedied by kicking cans down the road, as is a favorite practice on Capitol Hill.
As both Afghanistan and Iraq have wound down, we have been given a window of opportunity to get our act together. It may not last very long. If we don’t then the price paid in blood and treasure by our armed forces will be spent to some degree needlessly, as the political will to forestall that tragedy never came to be.
Our nation and those who defend her deserve better.