In the gracious Tudor-style houses where the generals live, there is a widely shared contempt for the whistle blowers, journalists and congressional aides who created what is recalled here as the spare parts "horror story hysteria."
This is the brass of Log Command, the headquarters staff of Air Force Logistics Command and the front line in the trench warfare against overpriced spare parts. They do not take kindly to the 60 inspection and audit teams looking over their shoulders on any given day; they also doubt whether their critics would do a better job at keeping 19,000 planes around the world flying with 916,000 types of spare parts and 20 million pages of technical manuals.
But in quiet moments of candor, the generals here acknowledge that $400 hammers are the least of their spare parts problems.
Log Command needs more than 100 days to order a part, about 100 times longer than private industry. Its engineering drawings are on 35 million manually filed cards that stand a 33 percent chance of being retrieved. Its inventory and distribution system is so antiquated that it could not, according to industry experts who studied it, support a war beyond 30 days.
"The $7,600 coffee pot to me is just a nice piece of political advertising," Richard E. Carver, assistant Air Force secretary, said during a recent visit here. "But when you have a $30 million airplane parked because you're missing a few thousand dollars worth of parts, that's a hell of a lot more important than some of the things that make good television."
The generals say that they are on the way to solving their problems -- thanks partly to the "hysteria" they have found so rankling. The extraordinary congressional and public attention of the past three years, they say, has brought extraordinary changes; while some reforms have made matters worse, others were overdue.
"We needed the help," vice commander Lt. Gen. Marc C. Reynolds said.
Reynolds, a soft-spoken bomber pilot, recalls his frustration as an officer managing logistics for the A10 bomber a decade ago. He realized then, he said, that competition could lower prices for spare parts.
But he found the system then discouraged competition. The A10's maker had furnished engineering drawings that other producers "couldn't even read." The Pentagon was "overpowered by the industry and lobbyists" seeking to protect spare parts monopolies. Many Air Force officers were more interested in fielding planes quickly than in buying cheaper spare parts.
The generals also remember the "colossal crash" that ended their first effort to rationalize and automate spare parts management. Lt. Gen. Leo Marquez, deputy chief of staff for logistics, recalled that the Air Force tried to do too much too fast; by 1975, he said, three generals had resigned and Congress was furious. The Air Force was stuck with "equipment that Sears would have thrown out in the 1950s," Brig. Gen. Richard D. Smith said.
"It will go down in history as the best single example of how not to do an automation," Marquez said ruefully. "It's now a textbook classic. It's taught in every school."
Today, competition and automation are part of Log Command's religion, along with other goals that have not received much attention lately, such as reliability, warranties and common sense:
* Sergeants and clerks last year alerted their managers to more than 11,000 overpriced or foolishly engineered parts. Eight hundred suggestions merited bonuses -- ranging from two days' leave to $25,000 for an airman first class in Panama.
"It's the best replacement for the customer who would say, 'I won't pay it,' " Carver said.
* Reynolds, one of the Air Force's highest-ranking logisticians, recently discovered that airplane wheel and brake makers were donating their products to the Air Force, confident that they could more than recoup their investment through future repair monopolies. From now on, Smith said, Log Command will force manufacturers to compete for contracts, offer warranties and provide drawings so that spare parts also can be included in the competition.
* The command now spends one-third of its dollars competitively, up from one-quarter two years ago. Last year, Col. Robert A. Cordano said, by allowing competition and buying larger quantities, the Air Force bought outer wing-tip skins for F4 fighters for $194 each; they used to cost $2,066 apiece.
The changes, along with a flood of Reagan administration dollars that the command could not handle, brought problems, too. The backlog of unpriced orders -- which the Air Force, out of embarrassment, renamed "undefinitized contractual actions" -- rose from about $2 billion in 1981 to $7 billion last year, though officials say it is heading down again.
So many requirements for competition and aids to small business were woven into the process that some buying centers now spend more to manage each small acquisition than the purchases themselves cost, according to Marquez.
And the command is only now beginning to attack what its leaders see as the fundamental problems of controlling its $16-billion-a-year parts and repair business.
"In about three years," Marquez said, "we will be in the '80s."
From the beginning, the spare parts debate has been about more than a few ridiculously priced hammers, coffee pots and toilet seat covers.
To the Reagan administration, the controversy was an excuse for critics of arms spending. "The object of those who criticize outrageously priced wrenches is not just to correct mismanagement," former national security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane wrote, "it is an attack on the restoration of our strength."
To A. Ernest Fitzgerald, an inhouse Air Force critic, the $1,100 plastic stool caps bespoke overspending at all levels. An F16 fighter, he said, is thousands of parts flying in close formation; taxpayers simply cannot compare the F16's price with hardware store prices to see how ridiculous it is.
To a group of private industry experts whom Carver recruited, the issue was management -- and the record was appalling. The group concluded bluntly that Log Command "would not be capable of sustaining needed wartime supplies for an extended conflict beyond 30 days ."
Compared with large industrial operations, the Air Force moved with the agility and speed of a glacier. For example, Caterpillar Tractor Co., based in Carver's hometown of Peoria, Ill., stocks 300,000 kinds of spare parts and promises to deliver anywhere in the world within 48 hours of receiving a request, Carver said. But an Air Force pilot who snaps a cable in West Germany has to wait three days just to find out whether the needed part is on the shelf in a U.S. depot.
The Air Force finds itself buying parts it does not need and junking parts it does. Because few repair manuals are computerized, maintenance crews have to lug cumbersome volumes -- 750,000 pages for the F16 fighter alone -- to the flight line. "It's a mess now, and it has been for decades," Reynolds said.
A manager for a single item needs about two months to compile a marginally accurate worldwide inventory count. "During that computation cycle," Smith said, "we'll move seven truckloads of paper a day."
To address those problems, the Air Force has embarked on a $2 billion computer modernization program, part of a $6 billion military-wide effort. LMS, or Logistics Management Systems, are designed to help prevent horror stories by letting an item manager know that Part 3G11829, for example, is a simple screw. The manager will know instantly how many screws are on hand, how much the Air Force paid for them last year, how many vendors can make them. The drawings and manuals will be available, too; it will be a "seamless" system for supporting and repairing complex systems, Carver said.
If it succeeds this time, the system will help logisticians keep up with the increasingly complex weapons that their colleagues at Systems Command buy. An airplane's price tag once accounted for 80 percent of its total cost during the life of the plane, with support costs accounting for the remaining 20 percent, Reynolds said; today, that ratio has been reversed.
In the meantime, the generals at Log Command say they have put the "hysteria" behind them and are now, as Smith said, "on a roll."
"I've swallowed that elephant," he said. "Even the newspapers can't ruin my people's morale anymore.