When a mobility airman drops a cup of coffee aboard an aircraft, the Air Force can be out $1,220.

Since 2016, the replacement cost for some of the service’s coffee mugs, which can reheat coffee and tea on air refueling tankers, has gone up more than $500 per cup, forcing the service to dish out $32,000 this year for just 25 cups, military.com recently reported.

The 60th Aerial Port Squadron at Travis Air Force Base recently revealed that it has spent nearly $56,000 to replace broken hot cups over the past three years. The culprit, they say, is a faulty plastic handle known to break on impact. Each time a handle breaks, the Air Force is forced to order a whole new cup, as replacement parts are no longer made.

“It’s just one more example of the military overspending on really simple items,” said Dan Grazier, the Jack Shanahan Military Fellow at the Project On Government Oversight and a former Marine Corps tank officer.

A pricey hot cup sits on a counter inside a KC-10 Extender at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. The base is working on developing a new handle for the cup, which could save the Air Force thousands. (Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman/Air Force)
A pricey hot cup sits on a counter inside a KC-10 Extender at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. The base is working on developing a new handle for the cup, which could save the Air Force thousands. (Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman/Air Force)

“I’d really be interested to actually try one of these coffee cups just to see how well they work because I kind of have my doubts about that,” Grazier said. “I’m pretty sure that a cup from Wawa would probably accomplish the same mission and is probably a whole lot less delicate.”

To resolve the issue, a team of airmen at Travis’ Phoenix Spark innovation program is producing a 3-D-designed handle that would make the cups more durable and save the service thousands of dollars. The team’s new curved handle is made to be much stronger than the current model.

“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,” Nicholas Wright, a volunteer 3D designer and printer with the Phoenix Spark office, said in a Travis AFB release. “Our new rounded handle reduces that weak point. The handle we designed is stronger and capable of being printed at most Air Force bases.”

Grazier said the Air Force’s exorbitant spending on coffee cups is just the latest example of a DoD-wide contracting problem.

“There’s just this accumulation that happens,” he said. “Right now we’re talking about $1,200 on a coffee mug and two weeks ago we were talking about $10,000 toilet seat covers, and it just adds up.”

According to Grazier, the root of the problem is intellectual property rights. When the Pentagon makes deals with defense contractors, it rarely demands data rights, allowing contractors to charge heavily for repair and replacement on the systems down the road.

The curved handle prototype has been shared with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. If adopted, the new handle could save the service thousands of dollars. Instead of having to purchase a new $1,220 cup each time a handle breaks, airmen could simply 3-D print a replacement handle at a cost of about 50 cents.