Saturday, December 29, 2012

How Not To Buy An Airplane

David Olive writes that the F-35 fiasco is a case study in how to bungle a military purchase:

If anything’s to be gained from the monumental botch that is the costliest and most multi-functional military aircraft project ever attempted, the Joint Strike Fighter program from which the F-35 is derived should be taught at the Royal Military College and its peers worldwide. It is an epic case history of supplier over-reach on the part of defence contractors, and deficient decision-making by public policy makers.

From the beginning, the F-35 was too much airplane -- and it promised the impossible:

 The folly of the F-35 – an exercise in hubris for which Napoleon’s Russian excursions are roughly analogous – is that it was to be the first fighter plane that would accommodate the varied needs of all four branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. And to make affordable an aircraft program of unprecedented cost, Lockheed would have to peddle as many F-35s to as many countries as possible. 

The government did not exercise the skepticism that anyone buying a used car would apply to such a purchase. To begin with, the manufacturer did not have a good track record:

The checkered history of F-35 sponsor Lockheed Martin should have given pause to Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND). Soon after the Bethesda, Md. company was created in a controversial 1999 merger, the world’s largest defence contractor was mired in managerial chaos and culture clashes. New-product delays and cost overruns became routine with flagship projects including Lockheed’s F-22 Raptor, C-130J cargo plane, and its latest-generation satellites. In 2006, the year Ottawa formally committed to the F-35 purchase, the U.S. Army killed Lockheed’s troubled Aerial Common Sensors spy plane. And the repeated delivery delays with the F-35 have prompted the Pentagon’s chief procurement officer this year to label the F-35 “acquisition malpractice.”

And, having refused to let Parliament see the books, the Harper government simply lied about the costs:

From the time that Ottawa settled on the F-35 in July 2010, it misinformed Canadians through last year’s general election that the purchase price was $9-billion. Today the estimate, properly including decades of maintenance costs, is about $44 billion. Other likely national F-35 buyers have publicly disclosed the plane’s spiralling costs. “What distinguishes Canada has been the denials of the government,” Stephen Saideman of McGill University’s political science department wrote earlier this year. 

The lesson is pretty clear. Don't believe a government which loudly insists that it is competent. It's a variation on Nixon's line, "I am not a crook!"


The Mound of Sound said...

"All four branches of the Armed Forces"? Really? The US Army needs fighter jets? Yet the F-4 Phantom is a perfect example of a fighter jet, acquired in massive numbers, that truly did meet the needs of the USAF, Marines and USN.

I carry no brief for Lockheed but it wasn't the contractor's decision to "build first and test later." That traces to the political madness that set in in the wake of 9/11. Bush boasted that he would field warplanes that were not one generation, but two generations, ahead of anything anyone else had. He promised America would skip a generation entirely.

That is where the "acquisition malpractice" set in. Lockheed was ordered to build airplanes and fix them up later as testing revealed their deficiencies.

Lockheed's PR/marketing branch came up with the notion of the "5th generation" fighter to distinguish the F-35 from the competition, perhaps also to mask why the F-35 was not a fighter at all but merely a light strike bomber.

Yet a trip down Memory Lane will show that the prototypical 4th, 3rd, 2nd generation fighters were all plagued by teething problems that usually led to follow-on designs that fixed the flaws. When you but the "first" of anything you can expect trouble and waiting for later products can be enormously worthwhile.

With the F-35, stealth was an obsession, the Holy Grail, and it led the designers to sacrifice everything else that makes a warplane viable to achieve it. They gave up range, speed, agility, payload, versatility, reliability - everything - for a doubtful dollop of oversold stealth technology. Its capabilities are so narrowed that it falls entirely out of the definition of "fighter."

The role that our air force played in hyping the F-35 has gutted any confidence I once held in their integrity and honesty. They're a bunch of cheap huxters in uniform, much like their Big Brothers south of the line.

Owen Gray said...

Unfortunately, Mound, defense contractors have adopted the Microsoft model of development.

They send product out long before the bugs have been worked out; and they guarantee a supply chain that goes on for years. Thus, they improve profitability.

Couple that with tunnel vision, which is single minded in its dedication to a goal, and you get an economic disaster -- something with which, by now, we should all be familiar.

The Mound of Sound said...

Sorry, Owen, but you have that wrong. Lockheed was ordered to put the F-35 into production years before it would be possible to conclude testing. That was the Pentagon's call and other countries went along with it albeit hedging their bets. That's why the Martin government's involvement was on an industrial participation/development basis.

Harper springboarded that into the next step - aircraft procurement - and his government was fully ready to lay out a thick dollop of lies to cinch the deal.

This "cart before the horse" approach was typically Rumsfeldian in the neo-con motif of the day. These were the same people who believed they would be in and out of Iraq in 60-days.

Lockheed's mortal sin was in going along with the customer's madness. It has paid dearly for that in all the finger-pointing that has followed.

Owen Gray said...

Perhaps I've been unjust in using the Microsoft analogy, Mound.

However, I find it interesting that people like Rumsfeld -- former drug company CEO that he was -- did not see the spiraling development costs.

But, then, Rumsfeld's reputation was based on his expereince as an insider in Washington, not as a smart businessman.