Let’s start with the F-22, which the Air Force has touted as the only operational fifth-generation, stealthy, air-to-air and air-to-ground fighter-bomber. Last year, the Defense Department put the cost of the current fleet of 187 at $79 billion, yet the plane has not been used in battle since the first one was turned over to the Air Force in 2005.
In 2009, the Air Force said, “The F-22 cannot be matched by any known or projected fighter aircraft,” yet today it is used primarily to fly air defense missions to protect the U.S. homeland while less costly aircraft are at war.
A new report by the Government Accountability Office that assesses selected Pentagon weapon systems discusses the last of four planned incremental modernization programs for the F-22s. The programs will add an additional $12.7 billion to its overall cost — and that is just an estimate.
This is an aircraft that can’t avoid trouble. A crash in 2010 delayed the testing last year of the F-22s’ second modernization increment. Testing was halted again when all F-22s were grounded in 2011. A pilot oxygen problem has been studied as the cause of the 2010 crash, but no final cause has been determined. And some F-22 pilots still report breathing problems.
The third F-22 modernization increment includes new software for electronic protection, combat identification and upgraded communication. It will be fielded in 2014, according to the GAO.
The fourth increment, which is estimated to cost $1.5 billion, will equip the F-22 to carry two new missiles. This upgrade won’t be fielded until 2017.
One of the new missiles is the AIM-9X, the latest version of the Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missile. Ironically, like the F-22, it has been having cost growth problems. The GAO report states that the AIM-9X showed a cost increase in 2011, from $3.1 billion to $3.75 billion.
But the Defense Department’s latest selected acquisition report (SAR), released March 30, states that the AIM-9X has grown in cost to $4.7 billion. The spike is a result of ending production of the first Block I version and approving low-rate initial production of Block II.
Another program to watch is the UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter, whose older versions have been a mainstay of the Army for years. The Defense Department’s SAR has the overall program increasing by $1.5 billion over the past year, with the total buy hitting $28.9 billion. The GAO report also has the Black Hawk costs growing some 20 percent in the last five years, and more than 90 percent beyond its original estimated cost.
Why such increases? The SAR attributes most of the year-to-year increase, some $939 million, to labor costs. An additional $217 million resulted from reduction of the multiyear procurement quantities — the argument that if you buy fewer, the ones you get cost more.