By CHUCK SPINNEY | January 30, 2012
No program better illustrates the pathologies of the weapons acquisition process as it is currently practiced by the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex (MICC) than the entirely predictable, and in this case, predicted, problems dragging the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter into a dead man’s spiral.
The F-35 in on track to be the most expensive program in the history of the Defense Department, and it has repeated just about every mistake we invented since Robert McNamara concocted the multimission, multi-service TFX — a program conceived with the same kind of fanciful one-shoe fits all imaginings as the F-35.
Technical problems, cost overruns, and schedule slippages caused the TFX to implode into one of the most infamous debacles in Pentagon’s history. The result was the super-costly single-mission (deep strike), single service, swing-wing F-111. Planes were delivered without mission essential avionics and sat on the runway for two years awaiting parts. Production rates were slowed and total production quantities were reduced from 1,500 to 500. That cutback would have worked materially to wreck tactical fighter aviation in the Air Force, had it not been for the intervention of a brilliant iconoclastic band of military officers and civilians, who became known in the Pentagon and industry as the Fighter Mafia (their exploits are described here).
The Fighter Mafia began its operation by saving the F-15 from going down the same pathway to swing-wing oblivion as the F-111, and then conceived the lower cost, high-performance F-16 and the lethal A-10 attack aircraft. Together these three airplanes were produced at sufficiently high production rates to modernize and expand the tactical fighter force in the late 1970s through the mid 1980s — something not achieved by any other major category of force structure. Ironically, the bulk of these airplanes were purchased with money appropriated during the Carter Administration. Costs skyrocketed and production rates declined as soon as the Reagan Administration began to flood money into Pentagon, because the contractors loaded these planes with bells and whistles … and raised prices, sometimes quite arbitrarily, according to official data I assembled while working in the Pentagon in the 1980s.
Today there is no Fighter Mafia to rescue tactical aviation form the predators in the MICC. But the boondoggles remain: Like the ill-fated TFX, the F-35 is planned to be produced in high quantities for all three services. Like the TFX, the future of fighter aviation is dependent on the high F-35 production rates. Like the TFX the F-35 has suffered from chronic requirements creep, technical problems (engineering change proposals are now flooding in like water going over Niagara Falls — an official summary of the current technical problems can be found here). Like the TFX, the F-35 is suffering severe cost overruns, and horrendous schedule slippages as production rates are cut back. And like the TFX, the F-35, now entering its sixth year of low rate production, was put into production way before before its technical/cost problems were solved, a process known as concurrent engineering and manufacturing development that guarantees costly backfits and/or specification relaxations (known in the trade as ‘managing to a rubber baseline).
But the F-35 program is not at serious risk, despite all the hysterical hype in the trade press — not by a long shot. The F-35’s political safety net has been front- loaded and politically engineered (the general practices of the power games are explained here) with exquisite malice of forethought. Domestically, the F-35 employs 130,000 people and 1300 domestic suppliers in 47 states and Puerto Rico. The only states missing the gravy train are Hawaii, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Internationally, there are already cooperative development/production plans involving nine countries, and more are in the offing. Given the intensity of the geographic carpet-bombing of contracts around the globe, can there be any question why the Secretary of the Air Force said in September, “”Simply put, there is no alternative to the F-35 program. It must succeed.” If you think that is an accident, dear reader, I have a Brooklyn Bridge to sell you.