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Delays are OK for an airline, but hampering Air Force's operations

May. 16, 2013 - 06:02PM   |  
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A decade ago, someone slipped me a United Airlines memo to its employees.

A passenger could be told a flight was being “adjusted” or “rescheduled” — but not delayed.

The forbidden word is noticeably missing from many statements about the triservice F-35 Lightning joint strike fighter, which is now the longest-delayed program in aviation history.

With roots in a study that began in 1988, the F-35 isn’t close to being combat-ready. Training is underway with the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., four years later than once predicted. The first operational Marine Corps F-35B arrived at Yuma, Ariz., in November but isn’t really operational. In a statement, the Marines said it doesn’t yet have air-to-ground strike capability.

Good people in the military are struggling to make the F-35 a success. They’re being obstructed by toxic relationships among industry bigwigs, lobbyists, lawmakers and Pentagon officials.

The F-35 isn’t the only project slowed by the “D” word. Delays are keeping us from getting a new bomber, a T-38 Talon trainer replacement, a next-generation UH-1N Twin Huey helicopter, and other equipment. It’s part of a larger problem that’s mostly the fault of Congress. In a broad sense, governance of our nation has become dysfunctional.

A source told me Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel blew his top when told a routine transfer of a single fighter squadron would take 18 months.

We can only guess the reaction by Hagel, said to have a temper, when told this estimate was a mistake: The move would take more than three years.

The routine transfer of the 7th Fighter Squadron, with 21 F-22 Raptors, seven T-38Cs, about 600 airmen and 100 civilians from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., to Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., was a good idea aimed at consolidating our F-22 force with the planes at one fewer base.

Because of congressional haggling, this simple move will now take longer than the three years, eight months and eight days it took the U.S. to win World War II.

The delay is hindering readiness and disrupting the lives of airmen and their families.

Moving an F-22 squadron is small stuff. What about base closings? We have far too many bases. When will our leaders act?

Whatever name you give it, a delay of an airline flight is often understandable. The recently restructured United Airlines didn’t respond to my request for comment. A current employee told me he remembers the ban on using “delay,” but believes it’s no longer policy.

In any event, the military is different. Ways to avoid delay should be built into long-term projects such as Air Force procurement efforts and force structure changes.

Our leaders, at all levels, must do a better job of making things happen on time.

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