Weapons That Will Never Die: We Need to Stop the Expensive Reincarnations (Part II)

In Part I of “Weapons That Will Never Die,” I examined the problem of buying a weapon, then modifying it and renewing it and remanufacturing it year after year, even if it had dubious battlefield effectiveness and massive cost overruns. I used the example of the Maverick missile as a weapon that has been modified over and over even though it caused manufacturing problems and even though 69,000 have been manufactured since the Vietnam era and only 6,000 have been used in war. Many of these weapons live on for generations because the companies that build the weapons and the DoD department that uses the weapons push an eager Congress to mindlessly continue to build these weapons, despite war history and life-cycle costs showing it to be ineffective and expensive. A constituency in Congress pushes for these weapons because of the entrenched jobs in Congressional districts and states all across the country that no member of Congress wants to lose.

In this column, I want to offer a basic and achievable solution that will not be a cure for these perpetually reincarnated weapon systems, but a starting place to see if they are worth remodeling and buying more compared to a new weapon system. But first, to further illustrate the problem of flawed systems and how this problem effects the DoD and the Congress, I would like to take the reader on a history lesson of how not to buy, remodel and remanufacture an airplane from a personal point of view.

I started my investigative journalism career at age 24, and my first big exposé was problems with a proposed wing modification for the C-5A cargo plane. When I came into this new round of the problems of the C-5 in 1979, it already had a notorious history. Seen as a great concept to fly large units of soldiers, equipment and logistics all over the world at a moment's notice in the mid 1960s, Lockheed snagged the first contract to build the C-5A. At the time, Lockheed had been failing in the civilian airline market because its L-1011 airliner was failing to more successful Boeing and McDonnell Douglas airliners, and winning the lucrative C-5A contract was seen as part of a bailout for Lockheed.

Technical and financial problems with the airplane were present from the very start. The manufacturing line had poor quality control and cost escalated rapidly. By the time the first test flight of the plane in 1968, the C-5A already had a giant scandal and Congressional investigation that showed that there was an unprecedented $2 billion overrun. This overrun eventually caused the Air Force to buy 31 fewer airplanes for more money. This myriad of problems had been exposed by one main whistleblower, Ernest Fitzgerald, an Air Force financial deputy who was trying to control costs on the program. His forced but truthful Congressional testimony about the overrun led to more technical and financial problems being exposed by a determined Sen. William Proxmire. A few years later, Henry Durham, a Lockheed production manager for the C-5A production line in Marietta, Georgia, exposed massive quality control problems, while Air Force officials looked the other way, because he feared the plane was in such bad shape that it threatened the lives of the pilots and troops that flew in it.

The Air Force, the DoD, Lockheed and Presidents Johnson and then Nixon, all circled the wagons and went after the truth-tellers instead of acknowledging and fixing the problem. Fitzgerald had all his duties taken away from him and was warehoused in the Air Force with little work to do. Henry Durham had to leave the company and Senator Proxmire sent federal marshals down to Georgia to protect his family because he was receiving threats, including a threat to throw acid in his daughter's face.

Fitzgerald was finally illegally fired from the Air Force under a ridiculous “reduction in force” that consisted of only him. This gave him the freedom to continue to help the Congress investigate the C-5A while his wrongful termination lawsuit wound its way through the courts. In the course of his lawsuit and the release of the Watergate tapes, he discovered that the person that ordered him fired was Richard Nixon, on a taped conversation saying to “get rid of that son of a bitch.” (Fitzgerald successfully got this job back in four years, but not with the same duties and power, so he sued all the way to the Supreme Court for another 11 years. He got his original duties back only to see them eroded by the bureaucracy through several secretaries of defense. He retired from the Air Force in 2006 after saving the government billions of dollars on other overpriced weapon systems.) The initial building of this plane was such a disaster and scandal, that by 1971, an investigative book by journalist Berkeley Rice, “The C-5A Scandal,” was published.

Since the C-5A was the poster child for scandal, the Air Force and the Ford administration in April 1975 decided to use it in a humanitarian airlift of Vietnam War orphans to enhance its image. The plane was made to only have passengers in a top level of the plane and the giant football-field size cargo area was only to be used for cargo. But the DoD lined the cargo space and upstairs troops' compartment with nurses and children, so that when President Ford met the plane in the US, he could declare that the C-5A saved hundreds of orphans. Upon takeoff from a Vietnam airfield, the plane's rear cargo door failed and blew off. The pilot tried to turn the plane around to land, but the decompression caused the plane to collapse and crash. The result was that 144 adults and children (76 of them babies) were killed out of the 305 people aboard. There was an Air Force engineering report that had been done in 1971, before the crash, warning about the flaws in the rear cargo door, calling it a “monster” system and warning that it needed to be fixed.

I was handed the C-5A scandal portfolio in 1979 while working for the National Taxpayers Union when Henry Durham contacted me. He was outraged that the Air Force was going to give Lockheed $1.5 billion to “modify” the wings of the C-5A because they were prematurely cracking. Durham brought me documentation that showed that, during the original competition of the C-5A, Lockheed's proposed plane came in too heavy for the military specifications, so they took weight out of the wings. This caused the wings to crack prematurely, with the first wing crack occurring in 1969 though Lockheed said it had fixed the problem. It hadn't and now Lockheed was financially benefiting from its malfeasance. I investigated the problem and went to Fitzgerald, who was still working for the Air Force. He helped me expand the investigation to show that the price for the wing fix was inflated. I also found an aeronautical engineer whose expertise was aircraft stress cracks. He wrote a report that showed that, even if the wings were fixed, the other areas of the plane were also cracking from stress from poor manufacturing and it would take millions of dollars to keep fixing those flaws. I wrote a column about it in my government waste column and Senator Proxmire contacted me for the information that led to a high-profile Congressional hearing with heavy media coverage.

There were attempts to legislatively stop this wing fix, but the DoD, Lockheed and President Jimmy Carter cranked up the lobbying effort and shoved the wing fix through. It didn't hurt that President Carter was the former governor of Georgia, where the C-5A was manufactured.

By 1981, even the Air Force, the DoD and the Reagan administration had had enough of the C-5A. It had a very low mission-capable rate and was very expensive to maintain. They all agreed to start again and make a new cargo plane, called the C-X at the time. They wanted a cargo plane that was not as big as the C-5A so it could land on smaller airstrips, but still carry wide, known as outsized, cargo. However, Lockheed was not going to lose its cash cow and put in an unsolicited proposal to build a C-5B, new and improved. Lockheed claimed that it would be cheaper because they saved the old C-5A tooling, could be made faster than a new C-X and, with a straight face and incredible chutzpah, said the plane had performed well at a low cost.

At first the Air Force and the DoD fought frantically to keep the new C-X and didn't want any more C-5s of any kind. But the Lockheed lobby machine and its friends in Congress got the Reagan administration to agree to make more C-5s and push the C-X (which became the C-17) off into the future. I had, by this time, founded the Project on Military Procurement (now known as the Project on Government Oversight, POGO, and I still serve on the board of directors). Since I had great background information on the original C-5A's problems, I jumped into the controversy. I had some of my sources who were military aircraft designers do a study showing the incredible costs of using the C-5B and comparing it to two other cargo planes, the cargo 747 made by Boeing and KC-10 made by McDonnell. The 747 cargo plane had been successfully used all over the world for commercial cargo. and we showed that the C-5A was so expensive to maintain and fuel that it cost a dollar a ton mile to ship cargo, while the 747 was only 17 cents per ton mile and the ubiquitous 747 could be serviced and had spare parts at airports all over the world.

Lockheed politically now had the backing of the DoD, the Air Force and the Reagan administration, especially because I was suggesting a new enemy – using a commercial plane for military use – and once again they circled the wagons. I had a lot of frustrated military men in the airlift command who leaked me stacks of documents, including a lobby plan drawn up by Lockheed and the DoD to illegally work together to get the C-5B through. I leaked it to the press and I have written a detailed Solutions column on its impact.

Lockheed once again attacked the messenger and this time I was the target. They told the press that I was “ERA's answer to Ralph Nader” (that was suppose to be an insult) and that I could not possibly understand the C-5A contract because I was only nine years old when it was signed.

They weren't successful at hurting my reputation and they couldn't fire me, but, even after it was widely shown in the media that the DoD and the administration illegally colluded with Lockheed to lobby the Congress, the C-5B proposal was funded by Congress. The C-5B ended up costing $179 million each (fiscal 1998 constant dollars) compared to the C-5A that even with its with its celebrated overruns cost $152.8 million each (fiscal 1998 constant dollars). No economy of savings here.

In 1984, I was contacted by an officer and an enlisted man who were on the flight line of the C-5 at Travis Air Force Base because they were outraged at the cost of the spare parts for the C-5 and how much time the plane remained idle (known as a hanger queen on the flight line). I went to investigate and found hundreds of overpriced spare parts purchased from Lockheed, including the now infamous $7,600 coffee brewer and $670 armrest. I compared these to similar commercial aircraft parts and the C-5 costs were exceptionally high. While I was surreptitiously visiting the flight line at Travis, the crews who fixed the C-5s told me that the plane was called FRED (Fucking Ridiculous Economic Disaster) by the troops who had to maintain it. I thought that said it all about the ongoing disaster of this plane.

The airman and captain who contacted me agreed to testify in a Congressional hearing that had wide media coverage and a frantic response from the Air Force because it was one of many spare parts scandals I was exposing at the time. The Air Force claimed that they “fixed” the spare parts pricing, but really just made sure that the description of the parts didn't sound like common items, such as a coffee brewer.

However, this exposé, while not fixing the overpriced parts of the C-5, did lead to a one-year DoD budget freeze in the mid 1980s after an enraged public buttonholed their member of Congress in town meetings about $435 hammers and other overpriced spare parts.

So now, in this new millennium, the Air Force has decided to modify the C-5 plane one more time to help with the abysmal mission-capable rates (C-5A had a 47.4 percent mission-capable rate and the C-5B had a 57.8 percent mission-capable rate in 2008). This contrasts with the C-17, the newer cargo plane that was the result of the C-X program, which has a mission-capable rate of 86.4 percent as well as other problems. The C-5M would put new engines and avionics, as well as structural reinforcement, on 52 old C-5s by 2016. It also has better fuel mileage to give it more range. This upgrade has passed Congress and the upgraded planes began flying operationally in 2009. The cost is $11.7 billion, which adds up to a $148 million upgrade for each existing C-5, and that is the price before the inevitable overruns. Ironically, the Air Force admits that it has too much airlift capability; it needs 32.7 million ton miles daily and it has the ability to move 36 million ton miles per day. The Air Force and Lockheed promise that this version of the plane will have a much higher mission-capable rate (they estimate it at 75 percent mission capable) and will be far more economical. They also claim that these remodeled C-5Ms will be able to fly until 2040.

I am now 55 years old, about the same age Fitzgerald was when he drew me into trying to stop the money black hole of the C-5, and I will be 84 (which is ironically Ernest Fitzgerald's current age) when this plane leaves the fleet. I fear that sometime in my early 80s, the Air Force and Lockheed will find another fix or remodel of the C-5 and this plane will definitely outlive me.

Lockheed is the largest federal contractor, with $38 billion in contracts in fiscal year 2009, and according to POGO's Federal Contractor Misconduct Database, it is the company with the highest misconduct rate for all government contractors.


This had been a very long article about a never-ending plane that will, most probably, outlive most of the watchdogs who kept after it. The C-5 is an egregious example, but not the only flawed weapon system that has lasted decades beyond its critics. I spent a long time pondering a solution that could start us down the road to preventing these disasters in the future, and contacted sources for wisdom. It is not an easy thing to solve because you don't want to put in some type of legislative solution that allows the DoD and the Congress to politically kill off weapons that have served us well and which need to have upgrades and new models. Examples include the B-52 bomber; while not a perfect plane, it proved much more effective than its successors, the B-1 and B-2 bombers and the A-10 combat plane, which has been shown to be a highly effective weapon while being low in price and low in upkeep.

A reasonable place to start to solve this problem is to find out the real cost of these long-lived weapons. The DoD is required to keep a report on major weapons called Selected Acquisition Review (SAR), with the idea that Congress and the secretary of defense can see when a weapon is starting to seriously overrun its budget. However, the SAR only looks at the research and development (R+D) costs and production costs. Once a weapon is in the fleet, all the life-cycle costs, including logistics, maintenance, fuel, outside contractor support and depot, and other operating costs are not in the SAR and not gathered easily in one place. Putting these costs in the SAR would force the DoD, when it decides to do a Service Life Extension Program on a weapon to fix a problem, add a newer technology or make a whole new generation of the weapon, to consider the true costs and life-cycle problems that also raise the costs. These costs would be factored in the SAR as well as the R+D and production costs and will put all the costs under one roof.

This will make it harder for contractors and their fellow travelers in Congress and the DoD to justify fixing ineffective, low-mission capable, badly manufactured and financially disastrous weapons for generation after generation. Weapons that have been well manufactured, have a high mission-capable rate, proved to be effective on the battlefield and have low life-cycle costs will emerge and will deserve to be renewed.

This is one of those small-slice solutions that will help show the monetary and military consequences of letting companies push the system into renewing their undeserving weapons for generations. This solution won't stop the insidious and corrosive problem of self-dealing in the DoD and the Congress. I addressed that problem in a two-part series called “The Buying and the Selling of the Pentagon” and proposed a much more dramatic solution that would take much more political will to enact.

However, this solution of getting life-cycle costs into the SAR is something that the House of Representatives and Senate could put on any defense bill and could start giving people of good will in the DoD and Congress as well as good government groups a tool to stop the constant reincarnation of lousy weapons. We need to press the decision makers in the Congress to seriously start even small steps like this to stop this weapons folly. There are not enough watchdogs to keep track of these weapons decade after decade.

If this column makes you angry, think about sending a letter to the head of the Armed Services committees in the House and Senate and the head of the subcommittee on defense for the Senate and House Appropriations Committee. These people have the power to change the SAR and start down the right road.