It never hurts to take a pause and remind ourselves of reality as we discuss the merits and flaws of the various platforms and systems we examine. For example, the LCS is either condemned as a colossal failure or hailed as the warship of the future. Likewise for the F-35 and so many other programs. It’s easy to get caught up in one extreme view or the other. The reality, though, is that almost every one of these programs will ultimately achieve a degree of success though far less than promised. Over time we may even come to appreciate some of these platforms for what they will do rather than what they won’t.
Consider the Perry FFG. At its introduction it was heavily criticized for a variety of reasons. Today, however, we look fondly at them as examples of a plentiful, inexpensive, competent ship class.
The F/A-18 Hornet was castigated for its short range, inadequacy as a dogfighter, and lack of payload as an attack aircraft. Today, after a series of improvements, we hold it up as an example of an effective, affordable strike fighter and even a possible alternative to the F-35.
The Spruance class was criticized for a lack of weaponry among other perceived flaws. Now, we look fondly back at the Spruance as one of the most capable ship classes ever built and wish we still had them around.
And so on …
These programs were initially criticized for what they weren’t rather than recognized for what they were. Over time, however, these programs matured and eventually delivered some useful capabilities that we came to appreciate. Did they deliver all of their promised capabilities? Not by a long shot! Most of them, not even close. And not necessarily right away. Many required time and subsequent development to maximize their potential.
The problem is that, today, the typical program is so oversold and overhyped that discussions become focused on what it isn’t and what overhyped capabilities it can’t deliver than on what it can do.
Now, that doesn’t mean that every program will eventually be a success. Will the LCS deliver all of its promised capabilities? Not even remotely close! Will it come to be appreciated for what it can do? Unlikely. It is a badly flawed program that has little to build on.
Will the LPD-17 San Antonio class come to be appreciated? Maybe not. It’s a flawed design with an undersized well deck and not much can be done about that. On the other hand, if the Marines move in the direction of small Company sized landing teams (setting aside the wisdom of that) perhaps the LPD-17 will prove useful.
The point is that the vast majority of programs eventually produce useful products once the initial hype is forgotten, realistic expectations settle in, and some further development occurs.
As we discuss and evaluate new programs, there is the very real danger of dismissing all of them for their real or perceived flaws. If we had terminated every program that encountered initial criticism we’d have very few ships, aircraft, and weapons today. On the other hand, we can’t simply grant every new program a free pass which is what so many supporters want to do. There have been, and currently are, some badly flawed programs that deserve to be terminated. The trick is to filter out both the unrealistic hype and the initial criticisms that are nothing more than expected growing pains and see the fundamental characteristics of the program. If the program has a solid core that can be built on, it will probably deliver some useful capabilities and it will benefit from continued development. On the other hand, if the core is flawed, no amount of patience or development will help.
The LCS is an example of a program that has no solid core of fundamental attributes that can be built on.
Conversely, the P-8 has a solid foundation and will become a useful and effective platform.
The F-35 is a somewhat unique case in that it has a technical core that could produce a useful product if the expectations were scaled back. The fatal flaw of this program is the cost or, more accurately, the cost relative to the value. Had the F-35 been sold as a somewhat stealthier Hornet at a cost just a bit more than a Hornet, we’d all be reasonably happy. Unfortunately, it’s a platform with game changer costs and mediocre capabilities. The cost to value ratio is all out of whack. For this reason, it needs to be terminated before it fiscally guts the rest of the military. Alternatively, as I’ve suggested, it can be dropped back to a limited R&D program until such time, if ever, that it produces a useful product.
We need to temper our views and discussions with a constant awareness of historical reality. No program is as good as claimed or as bad as criticized. When we discuss a program we need to see it for what it is rather than what it is not.