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Defense Budget - Feathering fighter bird nests?

The defense budget for 2014 is starting to take shape and we are going to be taking a good look at some of the items in it. Money is obviously tight, so we need to make certain that it is spent wisely and for the right reasons. All too often politics, lobbying and factors that have nothing to do with national security push programs and spending. In an era of austerity we simply can’t afford this.

The Chairman’s mark of the Defense Authorization Act is out and there are many good things in there. Rep. Buck McKeon is a solid advocate for a strong defense and this is his chance to comment on priorities and goals for defense funding. Most of the relatively short document relates to policy and has some requirements for explanations of debacles like Benghazi. But there are also some funding items that don’t make much sense.

One of these is a requirement to buy F-18 aircraft, which is a bit of a head scratcher. We cancelled the F-22 program before we bought anywhere near as many true air superiority fighters as we should have. We have cut back severely the number of F-35s that we plan to buy, but somehow we can find the money to buy a completely different and significantly less capable bird. That smells distressingly like some corporate welfare for Boeing, who makes the F-18.

I am unaware of any purely tactical or strategic military argument for splitting the funding for our fighter aircraft. There was a time back in the day where we had the F-14, 15 & 16 birds with different mission profiles and we let Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed duke it out to see how many of each we were going to buy. But we came to the logical conclusion that too often led to a contest between retired generals to feather their own company’s nest.

Now we have gone to an up front competitive model, where the mission profiles required are determined and then the contractors compete to see who can build the best bird. You can question whether this limits the strength of our defense industrial base with a winner takes almost all approach, but it makes more sense than trying to build, field and support multiple platforms that all require separate design, manufacture and support infrastructures.

We had a competition for the Joint Strike Fighter and Boeing lost. I am sure that was a very sad day in Washington state, but that is the way the game is played. The question then is why we are buying another of their older and nowhere near as survivable aircraft, the F-18. Fielding two birds with essentially the same mission means we have to train two sets of maintenance folks, build two separate supply chains and take resources away from the aircraft we are counting on to keep us in control of the skies. Maybe Sen. Durbin can shed some light on that.

The Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee is bringing in two service chiefs and the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer to testify on the F-35 program next week.
The panel, chaired by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), announced the hearing on Friday.

Running a defense company is complicated and damned hard, but that doesn’t mean tax payers should be on the hook for keeping it afloat. Boeing has tens of billions of dollars in contracts and paid less than zero dollars in taxes. They actually got a $124M refund in 2010. Seriously?

 If someone can articulate an actual case for why we need these birds, I will listen. But corporate welfare for a company that seems to be able to avoid paying any taxes doesn’t seem like one to me. The Russians are sending some pretty advanced surface to air missiles to Syria and have basically told us a no fly zone is a no go for them. We can’t assume that we will have unopposed air superiority anywhere we decide to fly. That means we need to be spending our money on the most effective aircraft to achieve that mission.