Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) finally received a response to questions he asked the Air Force on why it was spending more than a thousand bucks on an in-flight coffee cup, and he’s not all that satisfied with its explanation.
“While I appreciate that the Air Force is working to find innovations that would help save taxpayer dollars, it remains unclear why it cannot find a cheaper alternative to a $1,280 cup,” Grassley said in a statement on Friday.
“Government officials have the responsibility to use taxpayer dollars efficiently. Too often, that’s not the case. I intend to pursue this issue further.”
Earlier this month, Grassley sent a letter to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in which he inquired about what the Air Force calls “hot cups,” metal cups similar in size to a French press that he said cost the service $56,000 over the past three years.
As it turns out, it’s even worse: The Air Force spent more than $300,000 on the cups.
Ironically, the exorbitant price tag caught Grassley’s eye soon after the Air Force published a public-affairs story lauding a 3D-printing innovation one of its squadrons made to develop a cheaper solution to the problem of the cup’s handles breaking off.
In the past, if an airman dropped a cup and the handle broke, it’d cost more than $1,200 to replace it. With 3D printing, a new handle could be made for about 50 cents.
That led Grassley earlier this month to ask: Why the hell were you spending that much on a damn coffee cup in the first place?
In response, Wilson told Grassley in an October 17 letter that he was “right to be concerned about the high costs of spare parts” while explaining that some of the contractors who supply the cups have gone out of business or don’t still manufacture them.
But when you get down to the question-and-answer portion of the letter, it’s a head-scratcher:
Grassley: The 60th Aerial Port Squadron at Travis Air Force Base has reportedly spent $56,000 on replacing hot cups since 2016. How many cups have been purchased by the Air Force during this timeframe, and what is the total cost of these purchases?
Wilson: The item in question is a specially manufactured electronic water-heater that plugs into aircraft systems. Because it connects to the aircraft, replacements require FAA airworthiness certification. The Air Force has purchased 391 of these items since 2016 at a total cost of $326,785 …
Grassley: What cheaper alternatives for providing hot coffee to crew have been explored by the Air Force? Is this particular cup truly necessary, or are there other more cost effective options available?
Wilson: In July 2018, I directed creation of the Air Force Rapid Sustainment Office to further explore agile manufacturing (3D printing, cold spray, digital modeling, etc.) to develop and deliver parts at a fraction of the costs using traditional manufacturing. General Goldfein and I also directed this new office to complete a review of procurement to proactively identify items we may self-produce or other overpriced parts we need to stop buying without impact to the mission. The Air Force has recently demonstrated capability to 3D print replacement handles for this item at a fraction of the cost of complete cup procurement.
In other words, we haven’t explored cheaper alternatives to this cup besides the 3D printing.
Although Air Force officials who spoke with Task & Purpose in the past took pains to point out that technically it’s not a coffee cup but a “hot cup” that heats up all manner of liquids, there may be an alternative to spending $300,000 on these cups that has not yet been considered.
Maybe airmen in the KC-10 can heat up their ramen noodles in the barracks before they take off. And if they need some coffee while in flight, perhaps the Air Force can spring the $17 it costs for a Dunkin’ Donuts “Box O’ Joe,” which comes with cups (which hold hot liquids!), stirrers, sugar, and cream.
Innovation to the rescue, Air Force.