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Air festivals, the costs of flight and budget flak

by Hiroaki Sato

A friend in Misawa wrote to say that the Air Festival this year was no fun. Hit by a typhoon downpour, the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force’s Blue Impulse canceled its demonstration flight. The U.S. Air Force did not send its acrobatic team because of the budget cuts. She gave up by noon and went to a yakitori bar.

My friend’s missive reminded me of two Time articles earlier this year, “Costly Flight Hours” and “Top 10 Most Expensive Military Planes.”

From these you learn that, among U.S. Air Force planes, the B-2A Spirit Stealth Bomber costs the most to fly, at $169,313 an hour. It’s followed by the E-4B Flying Headquarters at $163,485 and the VC-25A Air Force One at $161,591.

Here, the cost is the somewhat nebulous one of the “ownership cost-per-flight-hour.” The fuel cost, which we associate with flying, itself is much lower, though it’s shockingly high by the standards of our daily life.

Air Force One is of course the Boeing 747 specifically modified for the use of the U.S. President. An unpopular president or a president’s unwise move is sometimes criticized for the high cost of flying the aircraft, as Barack Obama was in April 2011 when he flew about with the pretext of celebrating Earth Day and used up 53,300 gallons of fuel for the price of $180,000.

The average American household earns $51,000 a year.

The Flying Headquarters, another modified Boeing 747, is also known as the “Flying Pentagon.” Defense Secretaries Donald (“Stuff Happens”) Rumsfeld and Robert Gates are known to have loved using it as their office.

Even without the Flying Pentagon, defense secretaries can be costly. During his 20-month tenure that ended in February this year, Leon Panetta is estimated to have used $3 million for going back to his home in California almost every weekend. He used the Pentagon’s Gulfstream jet, every horribly overcompensated corporate CEO’s favorite toy.

Military flying machines can be exorbitantly expensive. The topmost example is the Batman-like Stealth Bomber. It’s not just the most expensive aircraft to fly, but also the most expensive airplane to produce (though saying this is, in a way, tautological): $2.4 billion each.

The average home price in the United States today is $200,000, so $2.4 billion would buy 12,000 such homes.

A week of torrential rains that hit Colorado in mid-September wrecked or damaged 18,000 homes and washed away at least 50 bridges. The damage is estimated to be $2 billion. It falls short of the price of a single Stealth Bomber because most of the homes destroyed or damaged were trailers for Mexican immigrant workers.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has just announced that if the government raises the consumption tax from 5 to 8 percent next spring, as it plans to do, it will partially make up for its negative effect with a one-time payment of ¥10,000 for each low income-earner, for the total cost of ¥240 billion. That is $2.4 billion at the current exchange rates.

The Japanese definition of “low-income earner” appears to be someone who earns less than ¥3 million or $30,000 a year.

To go back to the Air Festival in Misawa, the JASDF’s demonstration team Blue Impulse uses the domestic T-2, but the 35th Flight Wing of the U.S. Air Force, which is “the host” at Misawa Air Base, uses F-16s. The version of the aircraft known as the F-16C Viper Fighter costs $22,514 to fly for an hour.

The F-16C is relatively cheap to build, too. It cost $18.8 million to build in 1998. (The fighter plane is now built only for export.) In contrast, the F-22A Raptor Fighter, the most expensive fighter aircraft on Time’s list, costs $350 million to build and $68,362 to fly for an hour.

The U.S. poverty threshold set by the Department of Health and Human Services for this year is $23,550 for a family of four. The poverty rate for 2012 was 15.0 percent for the U.S. It was 21.2 percent for New York City where income inequality is among the worst.

Rand Corporation’s recent report for the Department of Defense, “Overseas Basing of U.S. Military Forces: An Assessment of Relative Costs and Strategic Benefits,” says that the cost of Misawa Air Base for the U.S. is a total of $228 million a year. That’s just two-thirds of the cost of building a single Raptor Fighter.

The annual cost of Misawa is closer to but less than the cost of building an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, which is $232 million. The E-2D is a flying surveillance and reconnaissance machine, and its radar system is supposed to be so powerful that “It can probably watch the pistachios pop in Iran,” says an admiring “defense analyst,” according to Time.

One is bemused to ask: What’s the point of creating such sophistication and precision?

If reducing cost is the overriding U.S. priority, the “Army, Air Force, and, to a lesser degree, Marine Corps presence in Japan” may be reduced, the Rand analysis says. But the cost savings could be small.

“A single F-16 squadron from Misawa, Japan, has about 550 personnel,” the report says in a footnote. “Given an incremental cost difference between Japan and the United States for the Air Force of about $35,000 per person, the total recurring savings from relocating the entire squadron to the United States would be about $19 million.” That was the price of building a single F-16 back in 1998.

Japan’s contribution to the U.S. military presence in its own land for “deterrence, assurance and cooperation,” as Rand puts it, was $2 billion in 2012.

That doesn’t sound like much in light of the figures we’ve seen above, but Japan, among the countries that accept U.S. military presence, is the most generous.

Also, $2 billion is an official figure. An unofficial figure is more like $7 billion. After all, in “The Grand Chessboard” (1997), Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski called Japan “essentially an American protectorate.”

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and writer in New York. His most recent book is “Snow in a Silver Bowl: A Quest for the World of Yugen.”