Outside editorial: Air Force brass in lap of luxury

Air Force has reputation for providing superior accommodations to airmen and officers

Posted: Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Generations of military men and women have complained about uncomfortable accommodations when flying on military transport aircraft. But they weren't in a position to do anything about it.

Air Force generals are, and at least four have. They've contributed to the design of a "world class" modular seating pod that features general-worthy leather chairs, a bed, couch and 37-inch flat-screen video monitor with stereo speakers.

Those are some of the amenities built into what the service initially called "comfort capsules" - sealed suites that can be loaded into military aircraft that ferry top brass to distant outposts around the world.

Speaking of brass, get this: The Air Force repeatedly asked Congress for permission to pay for these posh pods from money earmarked for the war on terrorism. If the generals are uncomfortable, the terrorists win.

The Air Force long has had a reputation for providing superior accommodations to airmen and officers, with more perks such as movie theaters, swimming pools and health clubs than any other branch of the service. More recently, it's been under fire from Defense Secretary Robert Gates for not doing enough to support the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

While the Army was scrambling to find sufficient armor for vehicles in Iraq, the Air Force was spending hundreds of billions on sleek "next generation" fighters such as the F-22 Raptor - even though for the foreseeable future no potential adversary is capable of fielding anything that could challenge the older U.S. fighter jets.

The comfort capsule debacle has some distinctly St. Louis roots. It stems from a decision made by Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, now the Air Force vice chief of staff, when he headed the Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base.

Gen. McNabb decided that the seats on transport aircraft were unsuitable for senior military and civilian VIPs. The comfort capsules - two sealed rooms containing a conference table, bed, DVD player, a full-size mirror and the features noted above - would bridge that "deficiency gap."

It's one thing to make upgrades that increase security or improve communications for traveling dignitaries. But the comfort capsules provide nothing that's not already available, according to the Washington watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, which first disclosed the capsule boondoggle. Nothing except luxury, that is.

Originally, the service asked for 10 of them at a cost of $16.2 million. The project since has been scaled down to just three capsules. The Air Force already has more than 100 aircraft designated for VIP transport.

Congress denied repeated Air Force efforts to pay for the pods with money dedicated to counter-terrorism efforts. But the generals did snatch $331,000 in terrorism funding last year to pay for cost overruns caused by design changes. Among them: the executive decision to change the color of the leather seats and seat belts from tan to Air Force blue.

"War is hell," Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman once observed. But as an Army man, what did he know of the hell of mismatched seats and seat belts?

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