As we discuss various aircraft and ship construction options, we often fling around opinions about the supposed ease, or difficulty, of the associated technology. Most of us are of the opinion that adding existing, understood technology to a ship or plane should be relatively easy and relatively inexpensive. Let’s consider a few specific examples and see if that assumption holds up.
First, let’s consider the higher end of the technology spectrum. The F-35’s magic helmet is, arguably, the key component which enables the power of the F-35 (to the extent that one believes the F-35 has combat power – but that’s not the point of this post). Stunningly, F-35 production began before the helmet even existed. Today, after a couple decades of development, a functional helmet still does not exist. Well, OK, that’s to be expected. Non-existent technology doesn’t spring into being overnight. Everyone except the military seems to understand that.
We can cite innumerable additional examples of cutting edge technology that proved too difficult to apply. Remember, NLOS, for example? Or, the entire original LCS ASW module? Enough said.
Let’s look at the other end of the technology spectrum because, surely, basic, almost primitive technology should be easy to incorporate, right?
The technology, such as it is, of the tailhook has been well understood for decades. Adding a tailhook to an aircraft design should be child’s play. And yet, the F-35 managed to botch it, totally.
Hey, stop picking on the F-35. OK, let’s look at galvanic corrosion on ships. Galvanic corrosion (oxidation due to dissimilar metals) has been understood since the time of Nelson’s sailing ships. Every ship built since the age of sail has had galvanic corrosion protection measures. Nothing new about this. And yet, the LCS managed to botch it, totally.
Again, we can cite many examples of basic technology that failed to be successfully incorporated into new designs. Remember the missing LCS bridge wings?
So, what’s the point, here? There are two, related points, actually.
The first, and incredibly obvious point, is that non-existent technology belongs in the realm of reseach, not production. The military insists on repeatedly attempting to apply non-existent technology to production programs with utterly predictable results.
The second, and equally obvious point, is that existing, well understood, basic technology is only understood and basic if you have engineers who know it. The Navy has abdicated their in-house design expertise to manufacturers. When less than knowledgeable people, whether Navy or manufacturer, begin making design decisions, problems and costs will follow regardless of how simple the technology is. Unfortunately, for those of us who argue for the construction of aircraft and ships using proven, basic technologies, this means that even such a design may well turn out to be costly beyond any reasonable estimate. Thus, the assumption that we can produce good, solid designs based on existing, understood technology is suspect. It shouldn’t be but given the Navy’s demonstrated incompetence even with basic technology, it often is.
This leads to the question, how can the Navy so consistently fail to recognize the need for basic technology and then fail so completely to properly implement it? I’ve answered this one before – it’s the loss of in-house expertise. Unfortunately, that means that even solid, basic designs may be beyond the Navy’s ability to produce. That, in turn, means that every developmental/acquisition program may be doomed to massive cost overruns and performance failures. The Navy really needs to take a long, hard look at its internal design expertise and try to honestly recognize why almost every program is deemed a failure by any rational criteria. Or, if that intellectual exercise is beyond them, and it certainly seems to be, then they can simply cheat and read this blog to find out what’s wrong. The answers are free!