Turning Point: The F-35 May Not Deliver
EDITOR'S CHOICE | 04.11.2017

Turning Point: The F-35 May Not Deliver

The F-35 program is a turning point in defense research, development and procurement.

Richard LEVINE

During WWII, our military initially gave preference to the application of more armor to the areas of returning, combat aircraft that showed damage from flak. The mathematician Abraham Wald upturned this paradigm through his postulation that since the damage in downed aircraft could not be observed and the observed damage in returning aircraft was, perforce, tolerated, the areas that should be up-armored were the unmolested and not the damaged sections of returning planes.

Abraham Wald’s insight also pertains to negative space—what surrounds an object, which defines boundaries and illuminates the whole. Important issues in defense procurement should be considered and resolved through the assessment of current and past programs, including those that have been cancelled. Historical contexts must be examined. From this inquiry, a path forward may be suggested.

The story, therefore, of the epochal F-35 fighter program begins with the Edsel, though not in the colloquial meaning of the word. The story of the F-35 begins with the actual car named Edsel.

Before Robert McNamara become Secretary of Defense, he was the first president of the Ford Motor Company who did not bear that company’s name. Before McNamara’s ascension to the presidency of the company, five product divisions existed, Ford, Edsel, Mercury, Lincoln, and Continental.

McNamara, seeking efficiencies, merged the Continental division into Lincoln; he then sought to combine Edsel, Mercury, and Lincoln into one division. Finally, McNamara stripped the faltering Edsel division of its advertising budget, and then cancelled it outright. Ultimately, he sought to remake Ford such that it would have but one product line. This was not to be since McNamara was appointed Secretary of Defense before his reductive plan could be approved and implemented.

Within a month of his confirmation as Secretary of Defense, McNamara ordered the Navy and the Air Force to terminate their separate fighter development programs and to initiate a joint fighter program. With support from the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, McNamara exerted a commanding influence on service acquisition programs. From May 1961 to October 1965, Dr. Harold Brown served as Director of Defense Research and Engineering (Brown would later become Secretary of the Air Force under McNamara and, finally, Secretary of Defense under President Carter).

Thus, by the summer of 1961, the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX), which would become the F-111, was begun. McNamara’s obsession with commonality, caused his choosing the General Dynamics design over the superior Boeing proposal ─ a proposal that had, in fact, been selected by the Source Selection Board. McNamara’s selection was made on the basis of his giving more weight to commonality as the prime decision factor, for it was in this realm, and not in performance, that the General Dynamics design was putatively superior.

McNamara made his decision without consulting directly the Air Force Chief of Staff, Curtis LeMay, or the Chief of Naval Operations, George Anderson, who both favored the Boeing design. McNamara’s decision was tainted, too, by the specter of Texas election politics’ commandeering the prime-contractor decision. Though hearings held by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation of the Committee on Government Operations did not establish undue political pressure as the root of McNamara’s decision, it is inarguable that President Kennedy’s perceived political weaknesses in the South, his debt to Vice President Johnson for the delivery of Texas in the 1960 election, and General Dynamics’ financially ruinous development of the Convair 880 and 990 airliners, created a political environment supportive of McNamara’s decision.

As an unanticipated consequence of the F-111 program’s focus on commonality at the expense of performance, both the Navy and the U.K., once core participants, would drop out, though the Navy undertook extensive efforts to reduce the F-111B’s weight and the U.K. cancelled its own new strike aircraft, the TSR-2, due to U.S. pressure on the Macmillan government to adopt a British version of the F-111, the F-111K. In the case of Britain, the cancelation came hard upon near disastrous U.S.-U.K. bilateral decisions concerning defense, for Britain had cancelled both its Blue Steel II and Blue Streak strategic-missile programs in favor of the U.S. Skybolt missile, which, in turn, was cancelled by McNamara before deployment. Thus, America’s closest ally faced profound voids in its force structure ─ voids that were caused by the pursuit of commonalities at the expense of capabilities.

Indeed, McNamara’s pursuit of commonality was so absolute that he delayed for three years the Air Force’s 1965 production order for 93 F-12Bs (the production version of the YF-12A, an interceptor that was part of the Oxcart/Blackbird family of aircraft). McNamara then cancelled the F-12B and ordered, in 1968, that all Oxcart/Blackbird-associated specialized tooling be destroyed to obliterate any possible Air Force or Congressional gambit to build an aircraft with greater interception or strike ability than that possessed by the F-111. In this act, he mirrored the prior Canadian decision to destroy all CF-105 production tooling, after the termination of that advanced fighter program in favor of the purchase, from the United States, of less-capable F-101 fighters and nuclear-tipped Bomarc missiles that were subsequently stood-down.

It is ironic that the termination of the Oxcart/Blackbird family of aircraft actually struck a blow against the purported advantages of commonality, shared by different aircraft types, for the SR-71A reconnaissance aircraft, the F-12B interceptor, the proposed B-71 strategic bomber, as well as a strike variant, to be armed with inert, penetrating, kinetic-energy weapons, could have shared a high degree of commonality as well as many performance advantages not equaled by any production aircraft onto this day. Of course, the commonality that could have been achieved via a constellation of different aircraft derived from the Oxcart/Blackbird line would be relegated to one service, the Air Force. This was its death knell, for McNamara sought and demanded joint-service commonality and international program participation. These were the two, alleged attributes of the F-111. Nonetheless, despite all attempts to shore up the F-111 program, the projected F-111 buy was cut ultimately by more than two thirds.

Thus, the reductionism and commonality that McNamara only completed episodically at Ford, was more forcefully implemented at DOD, through the aggrandizement of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, with disastrous results. Later, the joint American-German MBT-70 tank program would be cancelled due to its incongruent priorities. Secretary McNamara did succeed, however, in creating the Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System, which required the Air Force rename its F-110 Spectre—the F-4 Phantom, after the Air Force adopted this fighter, developed by the Navy. Therefore, the Navy and Air Force did obtain a joint-service fighter, but one that was developed solely by the U.S. Navy, only to be adopted by the Air Force, the Marines, the British Fleet Air Arm, and the air forces of eleven other countries, including Britain.

Noting the failure of the F-111 as a joint-service aircraft, the success of the F-14 and F-15 fighters, which were both developed independently by their respective services, and the Navy’s refusal to adopt a navalized version of the F-16, preferring instead the twin-engined F/A-18, which was a development of the YF-17, the aircraft that lost the Air Force’s Lightweight Fighter (LWF) competition, it should have been expected that President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, and his deputy, William Perry, would have rejected, out-of-hand, the concept of a tri-service fighter. However, by the early nineties, bureaucracies within the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), including the Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Under Secretary for Policy, and the Under Secretary for Acquisition, had become too powerful and too covetous of the continued accretion of power that would result from their steering and their oversight of such a concatenated program.

Though most observers know that the F-35 program grew out of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) initiative, it is important to recognize that the JSF was formed by the fusion of the Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter (CALF) program with other service-led development programs. CALF was begun in 1993 to support the development and acquisition of a V/STOL (vertical/short takeoff and landing) aircraft to replace the Harrier in both Marine Corps and Royal Navy service. Thus, the F-35B STOVL (short takeoff and vertical landing), and not the conventional-takeoff F-35A, must be considered the hub of the entire F-35 program, for the STOVL capability is by far the most difficult to integrate into the stealth design. (The interest in STOVL was also propelled by Lockheed’s access to Russian Yak-141 lift fan, thrust-vectoring nozzle technology, though this concept was conceived earlier.)

The heart of the F-35 program is and has been the F-35B’s STOVL ability, an ability of virtually no value to a fighter, and of highly debatable value to a ground attack plane, since the STOVL ability compromises range; further, the advantage of landing in forward, unprepared areas is an ability that may be rarely exercised given the F-35B’s $122 million price per plane.

The F-35 program exceeded the wildest nostrums, which propelled commonality in the F-111 program, by forcing as its unique attribute an ability (STOVL) that was not needed nor incorporated in either the Air Force or the Navy versions of the plane. As for F-35’s vaunted commonality, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office, stated that commonality of twenty to twenty-five percent across the three service variants was achieved, which is about one third of the original commonality goal for the program.

The F-35 was a joint development program, with no one service in the lead. While a highly successful Air Force fighter may be developed from a Navy design, as was the case with the F-4, the navalization of an Air Force design is exceedingly challenging given the unique structural and weight requirements inherent in CATOBAR (catapult-assisted takeoff but arrested recovery) operations at sea. Further, there is simply no precedent for conventional or catapult-assisted-takeoff aircraft having as an antecedent, a plane that can land vertically.

That the F-35 program (like the F-111) also required concurrency is further testament to the program’s unreasonableness, for concurrency, that is the overlapping of sequential development phases, or development and production phases, should never be needed in a program that has spanned decades. Concurrency has its place in time of war, the war-winning Russian T-34 tank or the North American P-51D fighter could not have each been fielded in a time-urgent manner without it. Thus, concurrency may be required, but it must be in inverse proportion to the length of a weapon’s design and development cycle; it cannot be justified for any gestation as protracted as the F-35’s.

As alternatives to the F-35 program, common sense and experience should have argued for increased production of the F-22 for the Air Force, and the development of a post-Hornet fighter/attack aircraft for the Navy, with a flyaway cost comparable to that of the F/A-18E. F-35 Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) costs stand currently at more than $55 billion; assuming economies of scale given increased F-22 production, and a notional F-22 flyaway cost of $135 million per plane, the RDT&E costs of the F-35 could have bought more than 400 F-22s for the Air Force, each of substantially greater capability than the F-35A (more F-22s, to match the contemplated full production order of 1,763 F-35As, would amount to an additional $183 billion, though this number could be reduced by various means, to be within the same range as the contemplated, total flyaway cost of an F-35A fleet).

The F-22 is far more able than the F-35A: fewer F-22s would need be built. Further, enhanced economies of scale for the F-22 line could have been achieved if the Air Force built the FB-22 bomber, augmented by a Mach 2.2, F-119-powered B-1 derivative: the B-1R, in lieu of the currently planned Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider (the F-22 is powered by the F-119 engine). Other programmatic savings could have been attained by the substitution of a lower-cost, reduced-capability F-22 for some of the buy. With congressional approval, a modified, export variant could have been sold to allies, including Japan and Australia.

The Marine’s AV-8Bs were once planned to be operational through 2030; now they are being retired early to make way for the F-35B. Instead of such early retirement, under the service-specific acquisition program described herein, the AV-8B should have undergone a Service Life Extension Program to support aircraft operations through 2035-2040. In addition, thought should have been given to merging the AV-8B’s successor program with one to replace the A-10.

Part of the great success of the A-10 is that it was conceived as the best tool for a specific job. Its design was influenced by the study of Stuka pilot Hans Rudel’s tactics and observations; the ace was also consulted during the plane’s development (Rudel was the most decorated member of the German armed forces in WWII: he destroyed over 800 combat vehicles, including 519 tanks).

What would a successor aircraft to the AV-8B and A-10 look like? Given an Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in the mid-to-late 2030s, such an aircraft might incorporate a highly evolved gun system augmented by lasers, in lieu of the A-10’s GAU-8 30mm Gatling gun, some STOL capability, and the ability to summon and direct large numbers of unmanned drones, to press an attack or to serve as decoys or spotters.

Such a plan, in lieu of the accreted F-35, would have yielded an F-22-dominated Air Force, a Navy-specific follow-on fighter/attack plane to replace or augment the Super Hornet, and a joint Air Force/Marine Corps attack aircraft to replace the A-10 and the AV-8B. Additionally, two distinct bombers could have been deployed with little programmatic risk, realizing their IOCs years before the B-21 may be made operational. The research and development costs for these proposed programs could have been afforded, for service-specific designs to replace the A-10, the AV-8B, and the Super Hornet could be tailored to achieve flyaway costs far lower than the Marine’s F-35B or the Navy’s F-35C. The bomber programs, employing proven platforms, would undercut the cost of a new design and its production.

It is quite probable that the actions articulated above could have resulted in substantial DOD-wide savings, while incurring less budgetary and programmatic risk. But is this all just spilled milk? The F-35 is a reality, and all participants, whatever their qualms, will have to learn to live with it.

Would that be so. In fact, following and expanding upon the development and acquisition template of the F-35 program, its usurpatory OSD benefactors and advocates, and its sycophants on the Hill and in industry, now champion a new joint-service program, whose scope, if not cost, far exceeds the breadth of even the enormous F-35 program.

The Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program is intended to develop and to field a panoply of helicopters to replace or to augment the military’s current light, medium, heavy, and ultra-heavy craft. Up to five different classes of helicopters are to be developed, but will share a broad range of common hardware, such as airframe components, engines, avionics, weapons, and sensors.

Thus, the FVL program is intended to provide replacements for the UH-60 Black Hawk, AH-64 Apache, CH-47 Chinook, and OH-58 Kiowa. Amazingly, an ultra-heavy variant, which is part of the FVL program, is intended to replace or augment the C-130J Super Hercules, for this FVL variant is projected to have similar cargo capacities.

The travails of the multi-service F-111 and F-35 programs and the history of helicopter program cancellations on the cusp of production, including the AH-56 Cheyenne and RAH-66 Comanche, do not portend success for the FVL program as presently constituted. Perhaps its advocates believe that it will become a program that is too big to fail. If this be the case, it must be argued that the DOD should do better than cribbing an anti-competitive business model from Wall Street. As bad as this situation is, there is more.

New OSD offices are still proliferating. As examples, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) and the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) are initiatives of the past administration. Both the DIUx and the SCO are part of the insourcing initiative of President Obama’s administration. Insourcing aggregates authorities heretofore granted to defense contractors and transfers such licenses to DOD bureaucrats. The insourcing initiative was introduced by Secretary Robert Gates, who subsequently admitted on August 9, 2010 that, "we weren't seeing the savings we had hoped from insourcing.” Insourcing has been linked to disaggregation as this term applies to development and procurement. Disaggregation in this context is the atomization of a program into parts to be integrated within DOD and not by a prime contractor.

DIUx, headquartered in Silicon Valley, has as its purpose, the acceleration of the flow of technologies from the private sector to DOD. One of its principals has stated his desire to mimic DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) rapid hiring ability, noting that this is a substantial advantage over the normal DOD staffing process and that such a swift procedure could allow DIUx to compete with private industry’s recruitment of technical talent. DIUx offers non-dilutive capital investment to companies of interest (non-dilutive investments do not reduce the stakes of preexisting company owners). Thus, it has amassed a portfolio of investments in technology-related companies. Proffered as a bridge between private-sector innovation and DOD acquisition, DIUx was created as a component of Secretary Ashton Carter’s Third Offset strategy, which envisioned declining U.S. force levels and reductions in U.S. military supremacy, in certain areas, be offset by the fusion of various new technologies and systems.

While the germ of the DIUx initiative may have merits, the initiative should be broken up and distributed amongst the services. A trenchant concern with such an initiative, which reaches beyond customary defense contractors, must be security: the proposed, rapid fusion of DOD objectives and requirements with emergent technology companies, with particular emphasis on data-driven companies in Silicon Valley, may be expected to be repurposed by our adversaries. China, Russia, Iran, and others will, no doubt, deem DIUx’s close and rapid association with startup companies as, perhaps, a prime opportunity to exfiltrate U.S and allied national-security data and critical personnel.

Given the present situation in Korea, it is worth noting that technology transfer from Rolls Royce to the U.S.S.R., including the penetration of Rolls Royce facilities by Soviet operatives, permitted the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 to be powered by the same turbojet that powered the principal U.S. Navy and Marine Corps fighters of the Korean War as well as the Air Force’s Lockheed F-94. (The Grumman F9F, F9F/F-9, and the F-94 were powered by versions of the Pratt & Whitney J48 engine, which was a development of the British Nene engine; a reverse-engineered counterpart, the Klimov VK-1, powered the MiG-15.)

A lesson in terms of the exfiltration of critical personnel is provided by the story of Hsue-Shen Tsien. Educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology, Hsue-Shen Tsien became a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), but was later stripped of his security clearances due to concerns that he was a communist and a spy. In 1955, Hsue-Shen Tsien was traded for American pilots, captured in Korea. After his arrival in China, Hsue-Shen Tsien became the architect of China’s atomic bomb program. Later, he became known as the “Father of Chinese Rocketry” for his work in the development of the Dongfeng ballistic missile and the Chinese space program. Noting that the fruits of Hsue-Shen Tsien’s work undergird North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic programs, the issue of the unique structure of the DIUx initiative should be assessed, with due concern for the potential for espionage and the compromise of DOD systems.

The SCO is a Pentagon office that seeks to repurpose existing assets or components to fulfill missions not originally contemplated. One SCO-sponsored proposal is termed the arsenal plane, which, as presented by prior Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, appeared to be a chimera, merging a B-52-type wing with a body that resembled that of a C-130. As the name suggests, the aircraft is intended to launch a barrage of weapons, such as networked Raytheon GBU-53/B bombs. The arsenal plane was presented as a new concept. It is not. Proposed as a subsonic carrier of missiles, the Douglas F6D Missileer, which promised long-range defense for our carriers, was cancelled in 1960; such ability was finally realized in the supersonic F-14, deployed fourteen years later.

Proposed by Boeing in 2004, the B-1R is a superior concept to that of the arsenal plane. Even the arsenal plane’s name is not original: the arsenal ship, proposed by the USN in 1996, to permit the remote-controlled release of a fusillade of conventional missiles, was defunded, with its proposed mission transferred to cruise-missile carrying Ohio-class submarines. The Missileer and the ill-fated 747-based YAL-1 Airborne Laser (cancelled in 2011 after the expenditure of five billion dollars) were terminated due, in large part, to their slow speeds when proximate to contemplated targets. That the arsenal plane was presented as an important SCO concept is perplexing, given the availability of the B-1R proposal, which should have been funded.

The repurposing of existing military equipment is not new and should not require another OSD office. Examples of repurposing are manifest. The M3 90 millimeter gun, incorporated into the M36 tank destroyer and the M26 Pershing tank, was a version of Army’s main antiaircraft gun of WWII. The Navy’s Phalanx gun system has been repackaged for Army use. The creation of any additional DOD bureaucracy, duplicative of development and procurement offices within each of the services, should be forsworn.

The present procurement process is pocked by the cancellation of new weapons on the cusp of production. This has resulted, since the beginning of this century, in dead-weight losses approaching $60 billion, which equates to hundreds of billions of dollars of planned and expected programs that the U.S. military never fielded.

Examples of cancelled programs include the XM2001 Crusader howitzer: $2 billion was spent before cancellation in 2002; the Crusader was to be superseded by the proposed XM1203 non-line-of-sight cannon; it, too, was cancelled, in 2009, after expenditures of at least $18 billion in development and termination costs, including the cancellation of its sister, FCS vehicles. In all these new programs, not one operational unit was fielded.

The RAH-66 Comanche, begun in 1982, was terminated in 2004 after no operational helicopters were produced; program costs exceeded $6.9 billion, plus a half-billion dollars in termination fees that the government was obligated to pay the prime contractors. The Comanche was superseded by the development of the ARH-70 Arapaho, which, too, was not produced, despite the expenditure of millions.

Other important programs such as the F-22 were terminated after very small, inefficient buys. 750 Raptors were originally planned to cost $26.2 billion; the program was cancelled after 187 operational aircraft were built at a cost of over $67 billion. The Zumwalt-class was to have been a 32-ship program; this was reduced to a procurement of three vessels in 2009, thus requiring that the development costs of $9.6 billion be spread over just three ships. Total program costs, for the three ships, stand at $22.5 billion, though per-ship costs were estimated originally to be approximately $2.5 billion, given a full program buy.

The C-130 transport, the CH-47 helicopter, the M109 howitzer, the KC-135 tanker, and the Minuteman missile all began their initial development in the 1950’s; the designs for the B-52 bomber date to 1948. Each of these systems is expected to be in service for many more years, with some weapons expected to have service lives that approach ninety years. Each system thus represents great programmatic success, for the initial designs have been upgraded or rebuilt extensively over the course of many years. Infinitely less successful are the programs that attempted to create replacements or supplements for these Methuselah-like systems. Of the replacements, many were cancelled outright without a single combat unit produced, after the expenditure of billions. That each, noted, legacy system will serve far longer than initially envisioned is demonstrative of the considerable failure of the overarching process of defense development and procurement, which in pursuit of a superior force structure, has deformed, in spite of individual instances of excellence.

In consideration of these facts, emphasis must be placed on the development of weapons whose designs are robust, long-lived, and capable of being easily upgraded, repurposed, or rebuilt. Consideration should also be given to resuscitating recently cancelled programs, in lieu of completely new development initiatives.

Groundbreaking technology is of military value only if it is deployed at some ordained, future time. The only exception to this is the use of technological development as a force in being, which is a derivative of the concept of a fleet in being (warships that coerce, though they remain in port). A force in this sense may be defined as that which exerts a conspicuous influence, through its conception, its promulgation, or its existence, but not its use. An example of this is President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, which caused the Soviet Union to doubt the continued utility of its massive ICBM and SLBM forces as measures of national power. This doubt, instigated by the Strategic Defense Initiative, helped speed the demise of the Soviet empire. More recently, if it had not been scraped by the previous Administration, the Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser might have been useful as a force in being against the North Korean ballistic missile threat, despite the laser’s limitations.

What then should be done?

The F-35 program must be continued due to the pressing requirements, its capabilities, its international agreements, and the high, sunk, research and development costs, but its governing research/development/business model should be discarded.

Some years ago, I recommended to a senior decision maker in the defense community that a path to reducing the duplication and inefficiency endemic in the Department of Defense is to eliminate the Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense, thereby eradicating the immense bureaucracy that orbits this office. Under this plan, the three service secretaries (Army, Navy, Air Force) would rotate as principal deputy to the Secretary of Defense. This would expand the responsibilities of the services for program management and oversight, thus building upon the directions promulgated by Congress in recent National Defense Authorization Acts, to imbue the services with more control of weapon-system development.

This proposal would refocus any future Secretary of Defense on the business of defense. Such an initiative would bring weapon-system development closer to the operators, an essential business practice.

Major bureaucratic reform must be undertaken at the Pentagon to remove entire levels of bureaucracy, which have hampered our nation’s warfighters. Weapon development should be placed under the aegis of the services; proven best practices could then be shared across the commands. Responsibilities and authorities would thus devolve to the services. Such steps constitute a foundation to obtaining congressional support to streamline and better systematize the authorizations and appropriations process.

To do this, a new National Security Act for 2018 should be developed and made law by Congress to institute further, major, structural reform within DOD. As an integral component of the National Security Act of 2018, the new law must reduce dead-weight, defense contracting losses through the adoption of multi-year program obligations, with reduced rights of termination, to stem the hemorrhaging of funds due to the cancellation of new weapons systems after substantial development, but before adoption and procurement. Presently, DOD multiple-year appropriations are generally restricted from two to five years depending on the domain. Such multi-year funding should be increased temporally and in scope, though any such change will need to be crafted carefully to adhere to law, but should be informed by the spirit represented by Alexander Hamilton, who argued for expansive powers to raise armies and to build fleets.

The new law must be comprehensive, initiating a different covenant between the legislative and executive branches of government. The unique, present congruence of the executive with both legislative bodies must serve as the basis for a concordance that will encompass politically difficult defense issues, which have historically been minimized and not addressed. A priority, therefore, should be the elimination of congressional micromanagement, inefficient buys, set-asides, or the maintenance of unneeded facilities, systems, or inventories.

A new national security act must remove structural and bureaucratic impediments to efficient, comprehensive procurement reforms, based on service-tested business principles, to ensure that new weapon systems are deployed rapidly and that per-unit costs are kept low. DOD authorizations and appropriations must be streamlined and systematized to entrench a formalized, repeatable process, in order that DOD procurement and operations be shielded from exogenous obstructions such as the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the budget sequestration of 2013. Efficient, multi-year program management and funding, a comprehensive streamlining of the DOD bureaucracy, with a concomitant reduction in the civilian work force, as well as structural changes to the National Security Council (NSC) and DOD, to include their relationships to the intelligence agencies, must be delineated in law.

The operation of a single integrated accounting and inventory system should be pursued, using modern technology and business practices to support seamless, state-of-the-art accounting and inventory control across DOD. This integrated system should be buttressed by a new, multi-service graduate school, which will teach the accounting, management, and inventory control methodologies used by America’s most successful companies. Such a school should be braced by DOD-wide, standardized, business training and seminars, to take place online and through a national network of public and private colleges and universities. The proclamation of career paths for acquisitions officers, equal in status to combatant tracks, should be stipulated.

To eliminate the cycles of new program creation, which do not result in deployed capabilities, the Pentagon should conduct an in-depth autopsy of the USMC Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program. The EFV was cancelled on the cusp of production after a development period that exceeded two decades, at the cost more than $3.3 billion.

A comprehensive exposition of the factors that allowed this program to be developed, but not be fielded operationally, should consider the following issues: causes of the protracted development; political interference from officials from within and outside the Pentagon; changing requirements and reformulations of the program; issues with contractors; wishful thinking concerning the long-term affordability of the system; and interference by appointed officials seeking to claim illusory cost savings via politically expedient, but uneconomic, decisions.

All programmatic mistakes should then be reverse engineered, to permit the creation of a master list of lessons learned, to be incorporated into DOD practice, if not law.

As one additional step, the Pentagon should consider implementing a ten-percent rule. Under this concept, weapon programs would be managed by a single service. Other services may participate in development, but be limited as to their requests for changes so that no more than ten percent (in total) of a weapon’s subsystems are changed, by a second military service, as measured by system costs. Service-specific platforms (which may later be adopted by other services or nations) would, of course, simplify the research and development cycle and improve the DOD’s ability to contain development and production costs.

The systemization of defense procurement within the services, and not OSD, will create space and the opportunity for innovation and creativity to flourish. Key weapons, several generations beyond what are now in use, may be fielded far faster than conventional wisdom suggests. During the Civil War, the technology and the concept for a steam-powered tank were at hand. Such a weapon, mounting an early Gatling gun, would have been decisive for either army. In WWII, Germany could have deployed jet fighters by 1942, but did not: they thus lost air superiority in Europe. In the Second Gulf War, the United States could have fielded substantial quantities of nonlethal weapon systems such as microwave guns that could have reduced armed engagements.

Throughout history, in battles where weapons (or tactics) were employed, which were a generation or more ahead of the enemy, immense advantages were conveyed to the side that innovated. The hoplite phalanx, Greek fire, the submarine, the tank, the proximity fuse, and the atomic bomb are obvious examples that must be emulated conceptually. Too often, entrenched forces forestall the early adoption of war-winning weapons: for example, in WWII, the advanced M26 Pershing tank, mounting a 90 mm gun, was delayed for more than a year because the U.S. Army did not want to use its tanks to hunt German tanks: official doctrine held speciously that only U.S. tank destroyers, which were lightly armored, should hunt Axis tanks as a primary task.

Therefore, the Secretary of Defense should convene panels of experts to define weapon systems, which may appear to be generations in advance, but can, in fact, be deployed rapidly by eliminating bureaucratic and doctrinal entrenchment. Rapid prototyping, field testing, and deployment of new developmental or experimental systems in applicable engagements should be emphasized, including weapons designed to combat extraordinary geopolitical risks, such as rogue states.

The exigent development of war-winning weapons, several generations beyond what America now fields, should take its inspiration from Project Silverplate, which rapidly redesigned B-29s, to be able to carry the bombs of the Manhattan Project. A system of defense priorities was employed; this must be replicated today, for new, decisive weapons to be fielded. One example could be the rapid production of an area-denial weapon in which a delivered, canister bomb would dispatch a hive of smart, miniature, weapon-laden drones that could discriminate combatants from noncombatants, to bring fire to bear on legitimate targets.


The F-35 program is a turning point in defense research, development, and procurement. The path ahead in this realm is not clear, though past events can provide illumination. The recitation of historical chapters, concerning defense procurement, may be derided as a series of bromides, but such episodes reflect the collective learning of many generations, and, thus, may only be neglected at our peril.


Tags: US Air Force