Thursday, September 18, 2014

One For One

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:

  1. Have we reached a point where leap ahead technology is simply not possible?

  1. 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!


  1. "would it have been better to replace the F-16 with a Super F-16"

    As many people know that super F-16 already exist in the form of the Block 60.
    The wonder here is why did not the airforce by small amounts of this jet every year, say less than 20.

    The question here is the airforce knows at best the structural limitations of the F-16 , so why did not anyone in the early 2000s sugest to replace the older versions at a slow rate.
    BTW the block 60 was the first time the US sold a technological superior version of a type of fighter then they had in inventory.
    Never before did that occur even.. durring the cold war ?!

    1. Mainly because the USAF is all-in on stealth, at the expense of everything else.

    2. Storm, thanks for the info. I don't follow AF matters that closely so I appreciate the explanation.

    3. Funny/strange thing here is UAE already payed for the development. So the most logical thing for the US to do is to jump in and buy some .
      Yes, the UAE expected royalties but c'mon .
      Well, the russians did this kind of thing right, in the mid/late 90ties india and china started buying advanced modifications of SU-30s,
      Of course russia now manifactures this same modifications for they're own AF with slightly modifications ( maybe to avoid royalty fees ;)

      What im saying is that the AF was dumb not to get some block 60s, imgine they could have between 200 or 300 by now.

  2. The problem with "leap-ahead" technology is that the last 20% of the tech is very, very expensive to achieve. Which makes the unit cost of those exquisite aircraft unaffordable in the numbers needed to replace legacy aircraft on a one-for-one basis. The hyperbole expressed by USAF et al about the "game-changing capabilities" of the F-35, and how fewer JSFs can be exponentially more effective than legacy platforms is ludicrous - the SH coming off the line today has its own pretty awesome technology (at 1/3 the price.) There is a quality in quantity that should not be ignored. The biggest danger I see is that we are pricing ourselves out of manned aviation, which is not a good thing. Common sense needs to be rediscovered.

  3. Charley, it is my great fear that we will also price ourselves out of unmanned aviation by ignoring the very significant R&D development work that must go into UCAV Artificial Intelligence software and into UCAV secure data communication links.

    It is the elephant in the room standing in the way of the long term success of UCLASS, but it is something which gets next to no attention in the military press or in the debates over UCLASS mission and operational requirements.

  4. ComNavOps, we should note here that all the necessary historical data, and all the necessary prior historical experience which was needed to accurately predict the F-35 program's cost growth issues was available a decade ago in the form of technical lessons-learned and project management lessons-learned from the USAF's experience with the F-22.

    A realistic and honest review of the sources of these F-22 cost growth issues done in 2004 would have revealed the F-35 program as being one that would inevitably produce a 4-1/4th generation fighter at a 5th generation fighter unit cost.

    The smartest move we could have made in 2004 would have been to do an objective evaluation of the F-35's known developmental issues and its known project risks, and also to do an honest evaluation of the F-22's existing problems to see if that airplane's operational and maintenance costs could be improved, with the idea that follow-on blocks of F-22s might better serve the needs of long-range strike.

    An honest appraisal done in 2004 might have revealed that the best course of action was to cancel F-35 altogether and transfer its assigned strike missions to an evolved version of the F-22, one that incorporated the technical and operational lessons-learned from the initial F-22 production block.

    Suppose such an honest evaluation were be performed today in 2014, what might it reveal? I have to speculate it would reveal that we should cancel F-35 altogether and move smartly forward with a manned USAF/USN joint service F/A-XX which incorporates all the technical and operational lessons-learned from the USAF's experience with the F-22.

  5. There have been programs whereby risky, revolutionary Russian designs (Typhoon class sub, Kirov class cruiser and the Kamov Ka 50 helicopter) have been offset by less radical solutions. Perhaps future US programs that are revolutionary could implement this path with both designs being produced in low numbers to begin with. The less risky program could instad focus on afforability and maintainability.

    Dave P

  6. This points toward high/low. A high end that pushes the technology envelope that we build at least initially in small numbers and a low end based on existing and proved technology that we build in large numbers. There are some threat scenarios like all-out war with Russia or China where we need every bit of technology we can muster, and others like pirate patrol in the IO where a basic frigate or CoastGuard cutter probably has all the capability needed.

    Having a mix of technologies is a strategic and tactical advantage. I think back to the Falklands where the RN top of the line anti-air destroyers were vulnerable to close-in attack because their radars lost incoming Argies in the ground clutter when they were flying over land, so they had to pair them with cheaper frigates with point defense systems to protect them.

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    1. B.Smitty, someone should have listened to you!

      I would strongly disagree with you about the evolutionary aspect of the F-35. The 360 degree sensor integration and magic helmet had never been done and after two decades of development, still hasn't. That pretty much demonstrates the revolutionary nature of that technology.

      One could even make a fair argument that the ALIS maintenance system is revolutionary. Nothing on that scale of software-maintenance had ever been attempted and, again, after two decades still hasn't.

      I'd be inclined to dismiss this discussion as semantics except for the fact that the revolutionary aspect is the heart of the post. Trying to categorize truly revolutionary technologies as evolutionary risks missing the point of the post and risks repeating the problems and ignoring the lessons.

      As a matter of logic gymnastics, one could downgrade anything into evolutionary, I guess. Attempting to incorporate anti-gravity into the next thing we procure is simply an evolutionary advance since we already know about gravity and anti-gravity is nothing more than the reverse. No need to heed the lessons in this post since it's just evolutionary!

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    3. B.Smitty, it was said of the F-22 in 2008 that by 2020, the performance capabilities embodied in its specification would become the minimum required specification for any true 5th generation air superiority fighter in placed in service by any nation.

      As General Hostage has noted, it takes eight F-35s to do what two F-22s can do, meaning that the F-35 doesn't even come close to what is needed for a true 5th-generation air superiority fighter in the decade of the 2020s and beyond.

      When it comes to thinking about a USAF/USN joint version of a manned F/A-XX, it has been rightly pointed out that pursuing such a project has all the potential pitfalls of the F-35 program. How could these pitfalls be avoided?

      My own thinking on that score is to develop a complete Systems Engineering model for the F/A-XX program in which past technical and project management lessons learned from the F-22 and the F-35 are used to build a complete end-to-end lifecycle model for acquisition and deployment of a true 5th generation fighter carrying the proposed F/A-XX specification. This SE model would assess every nook and cranny of the interactions between the F/A-XX acquisition process requirements and the F/A-XX technical and performance specification.

      If this Systems Engineering model indicated that the cost and schedule was achievable, and a decision was made to move forward, the SE model would then be used as the starting point for creating the F/A-XX cost & schedule integrated project baseline.

    4. There is a couple of thing to remember with any system model, you can't always predict what will happen next year, let alone 5the three years require to predict life time cost. Therefore I suggest we forget the concept of a "true" 5th generation fighter, and go with an best available technology fighter. mixed with a best price limits.

      The path to get this will also require some thinking outside the box.

      I going to suggest that the Navy have Boeing design and build F-22N developed from LM current F-22A design, but with improvements not only for carrier operation, but to reduce the production and lifetime costs of this aircraft. This will give us two import

      1) It provides an true competitor to Lockheed-Martin in tactical jet fighters

      2) it givens the Navy Carries need air defense, which it has not had since the last TomCat retired..

    5. Greg, you say "There [are] a couple of things to remember with any system model, you can't always predict what will happen next year, let alone the three years required to predict life time cost. Therefore I suggest we forget the concept of a 'true' 5th generation fighter, and go with an best available technology fighter. mixed with a best price limits."

      Greg, making future predictions about cost and schedule is in fact equivalent to building a Limited Scope System Engineering Model of a kind which focuses on the cost/schedule facets of the project. It is this model which eventually finds its way into the Project Control Baseline.

      One of the current trends in Systems Engineering theory and practice is to better marry SE concepts with Project Management / Project Control concepts in order to produce cost & schedule models in which Project Baseline Total Work Scope is heavily influenced by the technical and administrative complexities and risks of the platform or the product that is being analyzed.

      What I am suggesting here was done to a limited extent by Boeing in the mid-1990s in producing the original 777 airliner, with good results in successfully predicting cost & schedule to initial roll-out. To my knowledge, this kind of analysis was not done with the 787 project in the mid 2000s, with the kinds of results for the accurate prediction of 787 cost and schedule that we have seen to date.

      In creating the advanced SE model I am suggesting for F/A-XX, I am pushing current SE thinking to its maximum possible extent in analyzing how F/A-XX performance requirements might impact future F/A-XX cost & schedule.

    6. Scott: "When it comes to thinking about a USAF/USN joint version of a manned F/A-XX, it has been rightly pointed out that pursuing such a project has all the potential pitfalls of the F-35 program. How could these pitfalls be avoided?"


      Great question Scott.

      My take is you tightly control the requirements from the start.

      It may be that the unique requirements of carrier landings will drive the requirement for two different airframes, but the main components, engines, avionics, sensors, etc can and should be the same.



    7. Scott & GAB, realistically, we can't avoid the pitfalls. If we could, we would have learned lessons from the F-22 and the F-35 would have been a successful program. We seem incapable of learning lessons related to design and acquisition.

      That said, in theory could we learn lessons? Sure. The best way to avoid the pitfalls is to design to the mission (GAB's tight requirements, to an extent) not to a vague, overkill standard that can't be met without huge cost overruns and schedule slippages. As we've discussed, numbers matter and the more advanced the aircraft design, the fewer the numbers you'll be able to buy. Hence, the need to design to just the level required to meet the projected missions and no more. Add the rest of GAB's requirements control to avoid design creep and you've got a shot at an affordable and effective aircraft.

  8. F-35 was supposed to cost the same as an F-16. In essence it was a one-for-one super F-16, well atleast until the bills and delays starting coming in. Now it is a 4X cost to acquire and 2X cost to maintain super science experiment.

  9. Simpler, lower cost, and not chasing technology allows you to have 1,000s of airplanes (195 F-22s?).

    Again, go back to what makes a great fighter (or any thype of airplane). It is small size, high manuverability, long range, thrust to weight, limited mach speed (it is not used in ACM).

    We have chased Stealth as the great answer while there is evidence that the F-117 could not stand alone penetrate AD systems, as shown by the Serbia shoot down, and the large jamming support during Iraq missions.

    Now we see that lower frequency radars are starting to be able (due to processing advances) to provide targeting data. With the lower frequency the currently existing stealth approaches do not work.

    So now we have the F-22 and F-35 basing on a high tech that may not prove viable in the near term future.

    I have to ask how does the F-22 stack up against the F-16 in an ACM environment? Did the AF allow this test?

  10. hmm numbers.. personally i think the US military are infected with the victory disease (like the japanese in WW2) when they easily won the Gulf War 1 by their Stealth Suprise and lightning ground campaign (the preparation took months , the air war also months but the ground war practically over before anything bad happened)..

    It seems this disease also influenced US decision makers into thinking superiority of technology will destroy the enemy in short time.. i guess they forgot the lesson of vietnam defeat , where a non-technological nation with high fighting spirit defeated the great superpower of the day.. The exceses of vietnam war still lingers today (ex : Using B52 saturation bombing on NVA infantry and the total dependent on airpower by US ground forces)..

    i think you are right to raise these issues comnavops, the hubris and arrogance will certainly backfired when US military faced a near-peer or enemy that do not afraid death (like ISIS or fanatics)..


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