And then there were 20…

The law of averages caught up to the Air Force last weekend as a B-2 bomber crashed after takeoff from Guam, two decades after the military began flying the airframe in test and operational models. The two-person crew survived, but the loss is still irreplaceable since the government shut down production after 21 aircraft. In fact, the small size of the fleet is the main reason for the enormous price tag — $1.2 billion a copy– bandied around in news reports about the mishap.

Originally, there was to have been 100 or more B-2 aircraft. As the Cold War wound down in the 1990s, however, pressure on Congress to reduce military spending resulted in an 80% decrease in B-2 procurement. Only one problem: the research, development, tool & die and beddown costs for any new weapon system are pretty much the same whether you buy 10 or 1,000 of the units. Sure, you can nibble down the total contract cost by reducing the number of units, but you then amortize the fixed costs over a smaller number of frames–driving the final cost per unit through the roof.

America’s doing the same thing with the F-22. The new front-line fighter, meant to replace the F-15s now literally falling out of the sky after 30 years’ service, is being procured in such small numbers to make the program hardly worth the effort. I’d wager most Americans would be shocked to know the Air Force is cutting its fighter fleet by more than half as it procures the F-22 and its intended stablemate, the F-35. Once again, having ponied up the fixed development costs, we look likely to reap minimum benefit in terms of final “tails on the ramp.” It’s as if our military-industrial complex is custom designed to produce inefficient procurement that mainly benefits the defense contractors, regardless of the capability it eventually produces.

No doubt, maintaining a modern, ready military is an expensive proposition–the more so when you’re trying to enforce some kind of Pax Americana. But the conflicting pressures to economize, cut corners, and still run the force ragged as the world’s supercop are adding up to a dangerous situation. The Forever War in which we’re currently engaged is wearing out most of the equipment bought during the buildup of the 1980s, and as we buy fewer replacements our ability to maintain our ever-growing imperial commitments is in question. If we’re not willing as a nation to pay the price of empire, we need to reexamine our foreign priorities.

Because sooner or later, somebody’s going to call our bluff.

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