Saturday, August 2, 2014

What It Is

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.


  1. How do we tell a good program from a bad one?

    Obviously not an easy question.

    My view we should be critical were the evidence supports it and positive when we see good results.

    It appears to me that no mater how successful a program is, it is still criticized.

    We should support those who are trying to get them right. Who need to be given time and the funds to get the job done.

    Obviously oversight is important.

    We should also look at the motives of those who are being critical. To often we see supporters of one company attack another, arguing said program would be fine if only my favorite company was in charge. This is what needs to stop, as it is destroying faith in the industry with the general public. I have no doubt that there are now a lot of people you now believe we cannot design or build anything right as a result.

    Trust is an easy thing to loose, but is much harder to get back.


    1. Part of the problem is hype by various constituencies / consultants to sell a program to Congress and the public (those who are listening.) Hype drives expectations, and when those expectations are not met, the program becomes a target for criticism, fair and unfair. In the case of the F-35, there are some pretty extraordinary capabilities and "affordibilities" being foisted upon the naive. Some of them will be achieved, some not. However, the program will ultimately be judged by the "nots."

    2. Charley,

      Think about sequestration and how it came into being.

      Yes there are those will defend the cause, but they can't do it on their own. If the general public say no to more funding for the Navy, eventually that is what will happen. Remember politicians only care about getting reelected, and if supporting the military costs the votes then they will not support it.

      So yes people attack the F-35 not because it is a bad program, but because they perceive it as a honey pot which could fund their favorite program, it were to be cancelled.


    3. "I have no doubt that there are now a lot of people you now believe we cannot design or build anything right as a result. "

      Can we? Yes. Can we do it well or economically? Not recently.

      Army's GCV
      The Marine Corps recently cancelled connector...

      I believe all are way overdue and over budget.

      F-35 *is* a bad program. Its well over a decade since the RFP!!!! And we have nothing! And over that time they dialed back the performance specs.

      As this is a Navy forum, I think, focusing on the C model, we have huge issues. Its range is... okay. It has one engine (That's bad, but at least the Navy's had experience with the Crusader/Corsair), no one knows how well it will hold up, or if its a maintanance nightmare... and for a cash strapped Navy it looks like its going to cost a godawful amount to buy, and cost alot to keep flying. I don't see it doing all that much for the Navy, especially in an era where the Navy and its CVBG's are facing a new and very lethal AShM threat.

      Worse, it was designed to have the F-22 or something be its big brother for air superiority. The Navy never seemed to have that in the plan. The only way to get one is to develop it. And it looks like the F-35 is going to suck all the air out of any future development for a long long time.

      Cancel it and the Navy's in for a tough time, but maybe, just maybe, you can get a replacement that will do what the Navy needs (long range, high payload, some stealthing measures, and some real performance). Don't cancel it and the Navy is not only in for a tough time with it, its not going to have a viable replacement because its money will be dumped into the money pit.

    4. Jim you missed my point,

      There are a lot of people in the media who do not know if the F-35 is a good or bad program. The point they just do not care! They just want to reallocate the funds to their favorite program. Not even another defense program, but a social security program, or a tax cut.

      My view is that should the F-35 get cancelled, it is far for certain that the navy would get to keep the money for some other urgent priority, far more likely it would just enable the navy to live wit the next round of budget cuts.

      A good example is when the army cancelled the Comanche scout helicopter. They never did get a replacement scout helicopter program.

      While I look you have concerns about the F-35, is is a lot better than nothing at all, and in the current environment, nothing is the most likely result.


  2. Let's remember that the F-35's performance and operational specifications were developed under an integrated airpower strategy wherein the F-22 was to carry primary responsibility for SEAD missions and for air superiority missions, while the F-35 was to carry primary responsibility for strike.

    There would be some limited overlap between the two airframes, but from the airpower strategy perspective, each platform was to be optimized either for air superiority (the F-22), or for strike (the F-35), but not both missions equally.

    Early termination of F-22 production at 187 airframes has invalidated the airpower strategy under which the F-35's design parameters have been specified. And if we want the F-35 to assume the F-22's responsibilities, General Hostage has said that eight F-35s are needed to cover the work that two F-22s handle.

    In a combat engagement where those eight F-35s are performing the job of those two missing F-22s -- the two Raptors that were never constructed -- those eight JSFs will not be doing strike, and they will likely be doing a sub-optimal job of air superiority / air dominance in comparison with two F-22s.

    The US Navy is on the cusp of a critically important decision as to how to manage the future of Navy TACAIR, its primary means of prosecuting offensive warfare from the sea;

    A decision is forthcoming as to what mission assignment priorities will be struck among the legacy F-18 fleet, the oncoming F-35C fleet, one or more versions of the future UCLASS, and the future F/A-XX fifth generation air dominance fighter.

    It is abundantly clear, at least to me, that the USN leadership now understands full well that the Navy cannot use either the F-35C or a near-term implementation of a large UCLASS to successfully cover the responsibilities that would normally be assigned to a true 5th generation air dominance fighter.

    The F/A-XX must necessarily move further up on the priority list if naval aviation is to retain its long-term effectiveness as the Navy's primary means of prosecuting offensive warfare. But what will F/A-XX actually look like, and when when will it actually get here?

    1. Scott, very nice comment and a good reminder of the JSF's intended role, at least for the AF. That still leaves the intended role in naval service and I'm not at all sure that the Navy ever had a viable concept of operations for the F-35C.

      I'm also not sure the Navy sees the relationships between the various aviation platforms quite as clearly as you do. They seem to be meandering rather than moving briskly along a well defined acquisition path!

    2. ComNavOps, I suspect from what I am reading in the military press that the Navy's senior uniformed leadership does in fact have a good handle on the realities of the current situation with TACAIR in general, and with the F-35 in particular, and are navigating as best they can through the political waters to put a rational approach for managing the future of TACAIR into place.

      It is too late to cancel the F-35C, but I suspect that the Navy's senior people are doing what they can to limit the damage the JSF will inevitably inflict on Navy TACAIR.

      One of the things they have to do in that regard is to make the most rational decisions they can possibly make regarding UCLASS and the F/A-XX.

      The tough decision which has to be made is to forgo a full-capability strike UCLASS until the AI-driven autonomous software and the secure data links are ready for prime time operation within a highly contested battlespace.

      That could be as long as two decades from now -- or longer.

      In the meantime, there has to be a guardian angel for the F-35C in the form of a true 5th generation air superiority fighter for it to have any chance all against a peer adversary. As things stand today, the F/A-XX would be the most logical choice for that role -- assuming it could be delivered on cost and on schedule as soon as it needs to be delivered.

      That's a very big assumption, it goes without saying.

    3. "It is too late to cancel the F-35C"

      Why? Politics?

      I don't see the Navy being able to afford any new development after it buys and trys to maintain the F-35 fleet in this budget environment.

      I honestly think we'd be better off with Hornets with some ASH measures (conformal tanks), and then purchase or try to develop a missile like the Meteor. It gives us a stop gap that we can use while we develop the F/A - XX. At the same time we still need something like LRASM or a follow on.

      I strongly believe that today and going forward, the Navy has to think about platforms that are survivable in a fight, can go a long way, and launch long range missiles. Think Tomcat type range and speed.

      I may be way off base, but I think that the stealth is way over-valued, especially when it costs so much.

    4. Jim, acquaintances of mine who have worked F-35 acquisition issues tell me that the last opportunity to cancel the program occurred in 2009 as the decision to terminate F-22 production was being made.

      The truly rational decision in 2009 would have been to cancel the F-35 program and assign its strike missions to an updated and improved F/A-22 multi-role fighter.

      The politics of the F-22 cancellation decision made it impossible to terminate Raptor production without keeping the F-35 program in place, because the F-35 employed way too many people in way too many places. And still does.

      Moreover, knowing full well that the F-22 was politically toast inside the Congress at that point, for a variety of reasons, the contractor's management and the USAF's senior leadership of the time sold the Obama Administration and Robert Gates on the idea that with enough of these much-cheaper-to-purchase-and-operate F-35's in service, the F-22's air superiority missions could be properly covered.

      But we know now, here in the year 2014, that many fewer F-35s will be delivered than is currently being advertised; and those that actually are placed into service will carry truly horrific unit costs -- equal to, or higher than, what an upgraded F/A-22 multi-role fighter might have cost.

      In my opinion, the future of the F-35 when it is being employed against a peer adversary will be to act as a manned low observable ISR platform guiding and directing other kinds of offensive weaponry launched from ships and from other types of combat aircraft.

      In the meantime, the US Navy's leadership will do whatever they can to constrain the impacts of the F-35's massive lifecyle costs while they pursue an alternative Plan B for TACAIR -- F/A-XX.

    5. Scott, I hope you're right about the Navy leadership's view of the F-35C and aviation in general. I have my doubts that leadership has a coherent view and plan. Time will tell.

      I also hope that we've learned some lessons from the F-35 or else the F/A-XX will simply be a repeat of an unaffordable, overhyped, underperforming program. We did not seem to learn any lessons from the F-22 problems so I'm not optimistic that we'll learn any lessons from the F-35. One of the problems is that there is no continuity in leadership and program management. The people who initiated the F-35 and might have learned some lessons will be long gone by the time the F/A-XX starts. Again, time will tell.

    6. What is needed for the F/A-XX management team is the NAVAIR equivalent of Admiral Wayne Meyer to manage the program.

      The F/A-XX team has to be put together from the very beginning with a disciplined and clearly identified management succession plan in place.

      Furthermore, everyone who manages any facet of the F/A-XX effort on each side of Navy's and the contractor's respective organizations must have a detailed understanding of what parts went right and what parts went wrong with both the F-22 program and the F-35 program.

      Warrior technologists such as Admiral Meyer have to run the F/A-XX program using DOD's acquisition procedures and processes as management tools, not as ends in themselves.

      If technocrats in uniform are selected to manage F/A-XX, not warrior technologists such as Admiral Meyer, then the F/A-XX program will just be another repetition of the F-35 program.

    7. Can we stop perpetuating the use of F/A-18 anc correctly call it the F-18. As documented in the book "Pentagon Paradox: The Development of the F-18 Hornet" by James P. Stevenson, the use of the F/A name was a blatant violation of the naming system by an Admiral to make the aircraft sound like it does more than it should.

      ALL F-designatees have the PRIMARY role of a fighter and the SECONDARY role of Attack.

  3. All Program Managers and PEOs are used car salesmen. It is the only way to get a program started.

    Can you get a good car from the slimiest used car sales man, yes if you are lucky or do your homework to check out the fundamentals (as you point out).

    Chuck Spinney, et. al. have pointed this out since the 80s.

    Unfortunately just like slimey used car salesmen, overhyping PMs/PEOs will be around until we start doing our homework on what they are trying to sell us.


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