Wednesday, August 7, 2013

America: your government doesn't know basic math or practicality.

and it screws you over because of it.  Okay so that's not exactly a news flash, but still.   If you hadn't guessed, this is another ridiculous aviation rant, but I tried to make it fun for everybody by mixing it up at about the halfway point.  So, if you don't give a crap about anything I say, at least stick around for the last half.

Now, I don't consider myself particularly good at math, or even at understanding the procurement process of the department of defense in depth, but it doesn't take a genius to do some basic math and find out our light fighter planes (the F-18 and F-16) just suck when compared to the planes they replaced.  Upon doing some homework, I can't help but notice some really f-ed up things about the current state of Naval Aviation.  Particularly in the use of the F/A-18 Hornet and F-18E/F Super Hornet.
At least it's a nice looking aircraft...
Why am I so critical of the Hornet?  Because it's not as capable or efficient as older generation airframes.  The Hornet has excellent technological advances, making it more precise, more maneuverable, and more reliable perhaps, but these are improvements that could have been made to older, and otherwise more capable airframes just as (if not more) easily.  The original Hornet replaced aircraft such as the A-7 Corsair II, A-6 Intruder, A-4 Skyhawk, along with Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms and various other aircraft of other nations.  But today I'm going to focus solely on the American aircraft.

So, why do we have the F-16, F/A-18 and it's "super" successor replacing these aircraft?  Well, some of it is quite straightforward, while most of it isn't.  Some of the practical reasons are that the current airframes of the time were ageing and nearing their flight hour limit, which greatly affects maintenance hours and costs.  Also, the Navy wanted improved systems to deliver dumb ordnance more accurately in all weather conditions, while using a new airframe (for longer flight hours) and increased growth potential.

These are all very legitimate problems, but the question I ask is, "Was it worth developing the Hornet airframe for it?"  Or...

First, I'd like to take a look at the replacement of the F-14 Tomcat by the Hornet/Super Hornet.  The real driving force behind both the Hornet programs (other than greed, lies and politics), was that the DOD/Pentagon decided for the Navy, that they should be forced to buy these smaller, lighter fighters that will be far cheaper to maintain, and will be much cheaper per unit, therefore saving the taxpayer money.  (much like the Air Force's F-16, which suffers from the exact same problems I discuss here).  The only real arguments that had any merit for Hornet supporters, was the fact that the hornet is far cheaper per unit and only required about 20 maintenance hours per flight hour, whereas the F-14A Tomcat needed around 40-60.  However, this is a canard as well, since the F-14's maintenance problems were for two reasons: 1) the airframes were old and 2) the A model was never intended to be a full production model and had numerous reliability issues that Grumman was willing to fix, but no one was willing to pay for, despite being relatively cheap.  The later B/D models and other new-build Tomcat's maintenance hours were far lower than those for the A model, nearly getting as low as the Hornet's.

What they fail to point out to the taxpayer, is that (for the most part) this method of buying cheaper per unit light fighters doesn't work.  Why?  Well, the Navy has constantly been pushing for larger, heavier fighters in the past, because it allows for a far greater range and payload capability than smaller fighters, and will offer more flexibility for the airframe, and the range helps reduce the risk to the carrier, as well as allowing long range missions to be carried out far easier and cheaper.  Also, the development costs for using existing heavy fighter designs and then adapting them to perform SEAD, DEAD, Anti-shipping, CAS, and strike roles (even if producing brand new aircraft) was proven to be far cheaper than developing an entirely new aircraft.  Not only that, but the Super Hornet doesn't have the capability to use the quite effective long range weapons the Tomcat has, nor does it have any equivalent weapon to replace it with.

For example, here's a quick gallery of Tomcat flexibility:

Keep in mind none of these were loadouts operationally used, as funding for these upgrades were cut.  Often in favor of more funding for the Hornet programs.

So, even though these loadouts were not entirely fleet sanctioned or operational, it was successfully tested with them and it did operationally carry other ordnance such as LGBs, CBUs, JDAMs, Mk.82, 83, 84s, along with the LANTIRN targeting pod, which ended up being more precise on the Tomcat than any other US fighter.  Point being that if anyone tells you it's because the Hornet is a more adaptable multi-role aircraft, they're either idiots or lying.

But, since a good portion of people I know either don't know or don't care to know all the technical details, of why I feel this way, I wanted to simplify it for the layman in my own fantastical, ridiculous way, all while being very accurate in my argument.  So, let's compare getting a new fighter to something most of us are a bit more familiar with: buying a car.  So, you've got this old, kit-built hot rod sitting at home, the thing performs exactly as wanted, but it's dang heavy on the maintenance costs and your're spending all your time in the garage fixing it instead of getting other more important things done.

You come to the conclusion you need to part with your old hot rod and get something new so you don't have to spend all your time and money on repairing the car, while hopefully getting something much cheaper instead.  There is the option of getting a newer/rebuilt hot rod kit made by the same guys who built your old one, that is filled with all the latest advances in tech, performs even better, and has none of the maintenance problems of your old one, all while having a much simpler, faster construction time for the kit.  You really want it, but your wife insists that because it's almost twice as expensive than your old one, it aint gonna happen even over her dead body.  So you end up getting a brand new, smaller, more modern car (still a kit car so you gotta pay to put it all together), filled with all the latest technological whiz bangery and features.  All sounds reasonable so far, right?

But here come the caveats:  The new car not only doesn't come close to matching the performance of the old hot rod (let alone surpass it), but it really isn't much more fuel efficient than your last one, and it's gas tank is actually quite smaller, because it's a smaller car.  Why is this a problem?  Well, let's make another comparison to depict the Navy's problem.  Let's say the the distance you have to travel to work isn't getting any shorter, and there are no gas stations along the way, and the only way to fill up when you're away, is to have someone else from your home drive another car you bought, loaded with extra gas to go fill up yours when it's getting low.  So now your're paying for two cars along with their gas and maintenance, instead of one.  But that's not all!

Now, couple that with the fact that you totally live in the world of Mad Max/The Road Warrior, and that high performance equals survival, because everything outside of home is trying to kill you; even the environment!  So losing that performance risks your life, your equipment, and the lives of others that depend on you.  Then realize that your old hot rod had a nice machine gun mount to help you fend off all these hostile, pistol armed ruffians while they are at a good distance away from you.  Letting you engage them at will without them ever coming within range to use their pistols on you.  But, now your new car doesn't have that.  It just lets you tote around a pistol of your own, risking your life further by making you more vulnerable to enemy fire because you can only shoot when they are close enough to shoot you.

Then, add the fact that you used to carpool with three other fellow hot rodders to work, but now your new car only carries two people, so you need two cars to do the same job your old hot rod used to do by itself.  Now, top that off with the Navy's problem that it's a fleet vehicle, and that they can't buy more units to offset it's lack of capabilities, because they spent all that money that was supposedly saved by getting a car that's cheaper per unit, by covering the cost of designing and building this entirely new car.

So that's the bottom line: You never saved any money buying this supposedly cheaper car, because now you now have to buy three cars for every one you used to use, increasing the total dollar amount of assets you risk every time you go out, and pay for three times the gas and maintenance for them as well as having less performance, and after all is said and done, it would have been far cheaper to buy the more expensive hot rod, as it would have saved you far more time money and effort by only requiring one car as opposed to three, and would have kept you safer with more effective, longer ranged weapons to boot.
The only sad bit is that the joke is also on the taxpayer
So, in my next post, I'll move back to the more technical version of the argument.  More specifically, a breakdown of the Super Hornet's development and unit costs, and comparing it to other aircraft it replaced, along with some aircraft proposed as alternatives.  

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that is a very good comparison. So I completely see this relation between the F-14 and F-18. It's like that saying Pay now of pay later. So in the long run it's costing us more with f-18 than the updated f-14's correct? And I loved the f-14 when i was a little boy, still love them.