Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Good That JSF Is Doing

It’s human nature to begin to take things for granted after a period of time.  For example, without the occasional Hitler or Stalin we forget how precious our freedom is and why it’s worth fighting for.  I think we may be seeing this phenomenon play out with the JSF (F-35) program.  Once upon a time, we understood that a successful acquisition program requires clearly defined and reasonably limited design criteria, the demonstration of any new technology prior to committing to construction, and the strictest management attention possible.  As time passed, however, we forgot those lessons.  The LCS, LPD-17, F-35B/C, Ford, etc. acquisition programs have become testaments to how not to run a program and that’s just from the Navy side.  The JSF, itself, is the biggest example of a failed program.  There is nothing about this program that has been executed properly. 

The greatest value of the JSF program may be that it is going to leave an indelible stamp on the military mindset regarding the management of acquisition programs.  The almost unimaginable amounts of money being poured into this program, the almost inconceivable delays, the dozens of other acquisition programs that are being sacrificed to pay for JSF, and the inexcusable mismanagement are hammering home lessons once learned and now forgotten in an exceedingly painful fashion.  Hopefully, this is producing an ingrained cultural reaction that will shape future programs for the better. 

Consider how the Viet Nam war produced a generation of culturally ingrained commanders who took those lessons, hammered into their military souls, and produced Desert Storm as a result.  It took a debacle to produce a stunning success.

If future acquisition designers and managers approach the next major program with a “never again” attitude, the JSF may yet wind up serving a useful purpose.  If the JSF accomplishes no more than that, perhaps it will have been worth the buckets of wasted money.


  1. They could have saved a lot of money by reading about the same lesson from the F-111. One aircraft being used in two very different ways. Instead they built the F-35, one aircraft being used in three very different ways.

    Both were built for the same reasons, by combining aircraft types it was going to save lots of money but in fact because the use was so different the aircraft are actually very different and only superficially look like each other. So you have no savings and are forced to share an overall design that is not optimal for any of the individual types

    1. DJF, your example is a good one. Sadly, very few people are capable of learning from history. It takes a personal and painful lesson to create a lasting impression and even then the institutional memory fades all too quickly.

      You would think WWII would have taught us the folly of isolationism and trying to placate enemies and yet we're doing exactly that with China, today.

  2. “The greatest value of the JSF program may be that it is going to leave an indelible stamp on the military mindset regarding the management of acquisition programs.”


    ComNavOps. I’d say the best way to assess how well the Pentagon THINKS a major acquisition program is doing is to look at how it rewards and/or punishes its leaders.

    The JAST/JSF program office goes back to November 1995. During that timeframe, it has been led by a total of ten flag officers (5 USAF, 3 USN and 2 USMC). So what happened to those ten flag officers?

    1. Maj Gen George K. Muellner, USAF
    - Promoted. Retired at 3-star.

    2. RADM Craig E. Steidle, USN
    - Retired as 2-star. Took position at NASA.

    3. Maj Gen Leslie F. Kenne, USAF
    - Promoted. Retired as 3-star.

    4. MajGen Michael A. Hough, USMC
    - Promoted. Retired as 3-star, Deputy Commandant of USMC for Aviation.

    5. Maj Gen John L. Hudson, USAF
    - Promoted. Retired as 3-star.

    6. RADM Steven L. Enewold, USN
    - Retired as 2-star. Currently working for Northrop Grumman.

    7. Maj Gen Charles R. Davis, USAF
    - Promoted to 3-star. Deputy for USAF’s entire acquisition portfolio.

    8. MajGen David R. Heinz, USMC
    - Fired by SECDEF for enormous cost growth. Allowed to retire as 2-star.

    9. VADM David J. Venlet, USN
    - Retired as 3-star.

    10. Lt Gen Christopher C. Bogdan, USAF
    - Incumbent.

    Nine out of ten (90%) PEO-JSF flag officers served a normal two-year tour, and almost certainly got an end-of-tour award. And five of eight JSF flags (63%) who were 2-stars when they took the job a PEO-JSF managed to get promoted to 3-star.

    None of the flags who have held this job have been demoted or forced to retire at a lower rank. Heinz still retired as 2-star, and from what I have read, he was a 'fall-guy'.

    Don't get me wrong. JSF is a complete disaster across every known measure (cost, schedule, performance, risk, effectiveness, etc.). People should quite literally be going to jail over JSF. It just doesn't appear to me that DOD sees it that way.

    Hardly anyone has been held accountable beyond one general who got a smack on the wrist. I think that sends a very powerful (and very wrong) message to our acquisition folks about the consequences of poor program management.

    Bottom line: I would not bet that DOD has learned anything worthwhile from the JSF debacle.


    1. Matt, you're quite correct that no one will be "punished" for the LCS debacle. For starters, that would be admitting that the LCS is a failure and the Navy party line is that it's the greatest success naval warfare has ever seen.

      To address your bottom line comment, in no way do I think current leadership will learn a lesson or admit a failure. There's not even the remotest chance of that.

      My hope and belief is that the lower ranking officers now serving are seeing the debacle for what it is and when their turn to participate in an acquisition program comes in 10 or 15 years, they will remember and refuse to produce a similar debacle. This is exactly what happened in Viet Nam. The lower rank saw all the ways that upper leadership screwed up and when their turn came in Desert Storm, they applied all those lessons and produced a winner.

      Will it happen that way? Only time will tell but that's my hope and there's precedent for it.

    2. Many of the lessons we are currently ‘learning’ from JSF (minimizing use of risky technology, avoiding concurrency in development and design, understanding lifecycle costs, etc.) were learned during the TFX debacle of the late ‘60s.

      And again during the A-12 fiasco of the early 90s!

      What does that tell you about the ‘indelible stamp’? To me it says that there is little institutional memory or stigma associated with program failure. Programs may falter, but the Program Executive Officers (PEOs) generally keep their jobs. And junior leaders notice that.

      If we want to fix the problems in DOD acquisition, we should really start with how we manage our senior acquisition folks:

      1. ACCOUNTABILITY. I think a good start in addressing this would be for the SECDEF to start holding senior acquisition leaders responsible for failures in their programs. If the Flag or SES isn’t hacking it, the SECDEF needs to have the will and means to fire him. We saw a little of this during Secretary Gate’s tenure, but even then it was too little and too late.

      2. TERM EXTENSIONS. Two years is simply not enough time to get your arms something as complex and with as much ‘baggage’ as JSF or LCS. I think a better approach would be to do a two-year term, at the end of which the PEO is given a progress review by Congress. If they pass, they can remain for an additional term. Repeat for up to a total of say four terms (8 years).

      3. INCENTIVES. A final step could be some sort of reward to PEOs who run their programs well. Let’s face it – in terms of people and dollars managed, DOD PEOs often have more responsibility than many CEO on Wall Street or Silicon Valley. I’m not talking anything exorbitant - just a bit of a ‘carrot’ to offset the ‘stick’. You could even use it to generate competition among the PEOs (e.g. $100,000 bonus to the PEO whose program saved the gov’t the most money).

    3. The indelible stamp is very real but it is also very short lived. It lasts only for a single officer cycle, or generation. The officers who lived through Viet Nam were stamped and produced Desert Storm but the next cycle of officers never learned the lessons and gave us some pretty poor MidEast operations.

      Beyond the indelible stamp, one hopes for a degree of institutional memory but that's a spotty and unreliable mechanism.

      I like the idea of incentives but one has to be very careful to avoid unintended consequences. For example, the LCS program was encouraged to cut costs and wound up removing galvanic protection. That produced a short term cost savings and a long term problem.

      Your point about terms is excellent and ties into accountability.

    4. So who besides me things its absolutely stupid that the DOD rotates the head of a multi-decade project every 2 years? no one in industry would be dumb enough to rotate out the head of a multi-decade project every 2 years, realistically, the head would be in charge for 5-10 years as a minimum goal.

    5. ATS. The comparison to CEO of a major corporation is very appropriate.

      - Supervises an annual budge of $12 billion/year.
      - Runs a headquarters staff of around 500 personnel.
      - Oversees 1,000's of LM and subcontractor personnel.
      - Frequently testifies to Congress and OSD.

      Two years isn't even enough time to learn how everything works, let alone manage it properly. And every time a new PEO arrives, there's tendency to 'shake things up.'

      Does anyone have any insight into how other countries staff similar positions? I've heard (anecdotally) that Japanese Self Defense Force keep its senior guys in similar positions for much longer duration.

    6. I have no idea how other countries staff the position. That would be interesting to know. However, we've already figured out how to staff major program acquisitions. BuShips was the answer and it worked quite well. Engineer types made BuShips their career goal and stayed there for their entire career! There was no rotation out and on to another job. Read the previous post, General Board and BuShips.

    7. The Navy also ran its own aircraft manufacturing facility for prototyping, R&D and limited production (1918-45).

  3. I think first the people involved have to admit that there is a problem. I have yet to see someone involved in the program say 'Concurrency failed' or 'It was a bad idea to try to do one multi-mission design' or 'In reality, we are making 3 different jets for alot more money'.

    Right now, what drives me nuts is that the powers that be are acting like things are just ducky.

    The Admiralty is acting like the LCS is the USS Langley. The people involved in the JSF keep telling me about the light at the end of the tunnel. How its getting cheaper and more wonderful.

    I see a 350B/copy jet that is slow and doesn't handle well. And how old is that stealth tech now? How old will it be when the aircraft really deploys? No mention of that either.

    As far as the powers that be that matter go, we are living in the promised future.

  4. Here is the real truth about the F-35:

    1. Stealth is really hard to do well. I mean seriously hard. The F-35 had to invent all sorts of new stuff because the traditional way of doing stealth, an aluminum skin coated in radar absorbing materials is maintenance heavy and would not work at sea.
    2. STOVL is hard to do. Major Munsen wrote about STOVL in his blog "boats against the current." There are massive sacrifices in aircraft design to accomplish this.

    The F-35 is the product of the system that we have that everyone rails against but everyone defends. Every part of the aquisition system that needs to be changed is someone's sacred cow.

    The end result is a plane that will eventually meet the KPPs at a very high cost.

    The bigger question is do; do we really need a supersonic, carrier capable or STOVL, stealth, 600 nm dog fighter/ground attack aircraft? Or is the Navy/Marine Corps better off with a FA-18EF with 2 JSOWs and A-29s to fly CAS?

    1. To answer you question about do we need it, the answer is, yes, we could have used it on the day it was designed (the development contract was issued in Nov 1996 - 17 years ago!!!) but, no, we don't need it now and will need it even less when it finally reaches squadron service in 2020(?) or thereabouts. It's bordering on obsolete or ineffective currently and the situation is only going to get worse.

    2. I agree that JSF is a complete fiasco. PEO flags should be going to jail for gross mismanagement.

      But looking at the issue today (Oct 2013) is there really a better option then to see this through?

      There's little argument that we're going to need a new strike-fighter. Much off that has to do with the fact that we didn't really design/procure much of anything in the 90s.

      If we cancelled JSF today, and started a new program immediately - we probably couldn't get it to the fleet until the 2030s. So what is Plan B?


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