ComNavOps happened to read an article the other day describing how Air Force leaders were bemoaning the state of the aircraft in their fleet. Apparently, the F-16 and B-1, among others, are suffering from age induced physical failures such as cracking. AF officials were voicing the need for modern, replacement aircraft. Oddly, though, the official’s list of top six programs did not include F-16 or B-1 replacement aircraft although I suppose it depends on whether you consider the F-35 to be a direct replacement for the F-16.
The article prompted some thinking about replacements in a generalized sense. The typical replacement program attempts to replace the current platform with a vastly improved, almost leap ahead technology, replacement. We all know the inevitable result. The program encounters huge cost overruns, long schedule delays, and failed technology. Again, inevitably, the program numbers are cut and the capabilities are scaled back.
Two specific thoughts occur:
- Have we reached a point where leap ahead technology is simply not possible?
- Is there a place for simple, one for one replacements?
Let’s look at the leap ahead technology question first. It’s one thing to attempt a leap ahead design of a better nut and bolt. You can probably achieve it. While the nut and bolt may be a radical design, all the underlying technologies (manufacturing, metallurgy, design services) are known and already exist.
It’s another thing to attempt leap ahead stealth or 360 degree integrated sensor awareness. Not only do the target technologies not exist but neither do the manufacturing techniques, material sciences, physics theories, supporting software, or software modeling, among other required foundation technologies. So, not only are you attempting to create a new target technology but you have to simultaneously create all the foundation technologies from scratch. No wonder such programs “fail”!
It’s obvious then, and history overwhelmingly supports this, that leap ahead programs are very difficult to achieve. However, given enough time and money they can succeed, at least, to a degree. Examples, include Aegis and the F-22. Unfortunately, there is a second order problem with leap ahead programs. Even after they achieve a degree of success they must be capable of maintaining that degree of success operationally and that has, so far, proven even more difficult than achieving the initial production success.
Consider Aegis. It was a technological breakthrough and achieved initial success. However, that success was predicated on intense contractor support and the highest level of Navy attention and support in the form of the very best technicians and material support. Over time, the contractor support was decreased and the Navy support returned to more normal levels. The result was an Aegis system that experienced fleet wide degradation which persists to this day. Aegis is simply too complex for “normal” maintenance and support. Simply, the R&D and initial production succeeded but the daily operations failed.
Consider the F-22. We’ve produced the most advanced aircraft in the world and yet we struggle to keep it operational. I’ve previously cited the readiness statistics and they’re terrible. Even the readiness goal is deplorable.
The point is that creating a leap ahead “thing” is only half the battle. If it requires a Ph.D technician to keep it operating then it’s probably not a realistic program from a daily operational perspective. Especially in today’s tight budget and lean manning climate, the required level of expertise is just not available. There’s no point to having the most advanced “thing” in the world if you can’t keep it fully operational. It would be better to have a less advanced “thing” that operates at full capability than a more advanced “thing” that’s continually degraded or unavailable.
Now, let’s look at the second question which derives, in large measure, from the first. Is there a place for less advanced replacement programs whose goal is to simply replace the legacy “thing” on a one for one basis with, perhaps, a few modest improvements thrown in? Rather than replace the F-16 with the F-35 would it have been better to replace the F-16 with a Super F-16: same body, same basic performance, same capabilities – just newer and with, perhaps, a better sensor or somewhat improved engine? Most importantly, the cost (adjusted for inflation, of course) would be about the same which would allow for a one for one replacement. This approach keeps production lines operating (for those of you who believe we must maintain the industrial bases as a strategic resource), refreshes the inventory with new platforms, offers modest, incremental improvements, and, most importantly, gets functional platforms into service while they can still be useful.
A very important aspect of this approach is the one for one replacement concept. A hallmark of modern programs is that the replacement ratio is never one for one; it’s always less and usually significantly so. We (and RAND) have already demonstrated that numbers are the single most important factor in winning a war. The consistent trend towards ever fewer numbers is counter productive and increasing the likelihood of defeat. Attrition is a fact of war that we’ve forgotten but which will rear its head the next time we get into a serious war. The ability to replace on a one for one basis is vital and can only be achieved through this type of approach. Leap ahead programs simply will not produce the required numbers of “things”.
Some good examples of this approach are the P-8 replacement for the P-3 and the Super Hornet replacement for the Hornet. Neither represented leap ahead improvements but both were able to be implemented at a reasonable cost and in a timely manner while incorporating some modest improvements.
Specifically, in the case of the Hornet, the implication is that the Advanced Super Hornet would be the preferred approach over the F-35B/C until such time as the F-35 is fully developed.
Of course, ComNavOps is not suggesting that we never attempt leap ahead technologies. Quite the opposite! We must develop such technologies but not as part of production programs. That approach has proven to be the path to failure. Leap ahead technology is what R&D is for. LCS and F-35, for example, should have been kept as R&D efforts until they were ready for production. In the meantime, one for one, modest replacement programs should fill the gaps. We should have bought new, somewhat upgraded Perrys instead of leaping into the LCS rabbit hole. We should be pursuing the Advanced Super Hornet until the F-35 is fully ready. And so on.
The paradox is that we can have a military that has more capability and is more ready by accepting a somewhat lower level of complexity in our acquisitions. It’s common sense and it’s backed by a wealth of history. Learn the lesson, Navy!