A website called Honor Country sells more than 50 different ceramic coffee mugs and insulated tumblers with the US Air Force logo printed on the side. The cost of each one ranges from $9.50 for a cup that has been wrapped in a stylish piece of denim to $36.95 for an insulated stainless steel travel tumbler that promises to keep hot beverages hot for a precise-sounding 2.4 hours.
Those are nice and everything, but this morning, some active duty airmen probably drank their morning coffee (or middle-of-the-night coffee) out of a mug that costs $1,280. How do we know this? Because the Air Force has admitted that its service members keep dropping them, and in the past two years, it has spent $326,785 to replace them.
In late September, Fox News reported that the 60th Aerial Port Squadron at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, had spent $56,000 on “dozens” of the metal coffee mugs over the past three years. According to a news release from the squadron’s spokesperson, each cup costs approximately $1,220. Two years ago, the Air Force paid $9,630 for ten of the cups; this year, it cost $32,000 to buy 25 more (which—hello, math—gives each cup a $1,280 price tag).
These things are stupid expensive because they plug into the outlets on cargo planes, and each one contains its own small heater for keeping coffee and tea drinkably warm. But—and this is a $1,280 “but”—they also seem to be less durable than the faded 7-11 travel mug you’ve had in your truck for the past ten years. When one of them slips out of someone’s hands and hits the floor, the plastic handle on the side has a tendency to split. Conveniently, the manufacturer doesn’t offer any kind of replacement handles, so the Air Force shrugs its collective shoulders and places an order for a new one.
The Fox News report caught the eye of 85-year-old Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) who typed a strongly worded letter to Heather Wilson, the Secretary of the Air Force, to ask a lot of questions about those mug purchases. “Every dollar that has is spent on overpriced spare parts or replacement hot cups is a dollar that should’ve been spent on ensuring our national defense,” he wrote. “As Congress looks to authorize future defense spending, it is important to have understand [sic] what the money is being spent on, and why.”
Wilson responded last week, telling Grassley that he was “right to be concerned,” before explaining that the Air Force had actually spent more taxpayer dollars on coffee mugs than he could’ve possibly imagined. “The item in question is a specially manufactured electronic water heater that plugs into aircraft systems,” she wrote. “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.”
On the bright side, that kind of bulk purchase brings the cost of each mug down to a super-reasonable $835.76 each. On the even brighter side, she told Grassley that the Air Force Rapid Sustainment Office is trying to figure out how to use a 3D printer to produce its own replacement handles for each broken mug. She said that each handle that was printed in-house would cost the Air Force—and, by extension, the US taxpayer—around 50 cents each.
“The process took us about a week to develop a solution for the hot cup handle from learning the software to figuring how to physically print it,” Nicholas Wright, a 3D designer at Travis Air Force Base, said. “The handle currently on the hot cup has a square bottom which creates a weak point on the handle so any time it is dropped, the handle splits shortly after impact. Our new rounded handle reduces that weak point. The handle we designed is stronger and capable of being printed at most Air Force bases.”
A prototype for the new handle has been sent to Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base where it can be evaluated and (hopefully) approved to be used on the coffee mugs going forward. Then, replacement handles can start being printed for real at Travis Air Force Base.
That’s great and everything, but wouldn’t it be cheaper if they just accepted that sometimes we all have to drink lukewarm coffee?