Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Tailhooks and Helmets

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!


  1. The navy doesn't really need to understand the how, if it has a solid understanding of the what and a willingness to walk away.

    I want something this big that uses these resources
    I want it to cost this much
    Can you do it?

    If not, what can you do or how much will it cost.

    Instead you get poorly speced platforms. That fail yo meet the specs, and yet are still purchased.

    The problem with going back in house engineers is you won't recruit good ones.
    No good engineer is going to spend ten years or more working under mediocre or worse men who, due to the up or out nature will always outrank him, not when they can jump ship to sunseeker or Bering or princess or a Korean yard and be a senior project manager in a third of the time.

  2. How much of this might be made worse due to the contraction of our own purchases over the years, and also the contraction of our defense industry?

    The F-35 was Lockheed's first carrier jet in how many years? The design phase of the SuperHornet was what, a decade prior to that of the F-35C?

    How much institutional knowledge was lost over that time, compared to older era's in which multiple companies made multiple CATOBAR jets?

    Just a thought.

    It just seems like our industry is evolving from one where many aerospace companies fought it out to one where we are like the old Soviets: 'Sukhoi (Lockheed) will build our next fighter...'

    1. Lockheed Viking which first flew in 1972, so that was 42 years ago.

  3. There seems to be a huge cultural problem in terms of procurement. It doesn't work this way in the civilian sector at all (look up Hyundai or any of the other major shipyard builders).

    The other problem of course is conflict of interest. I would argue anyone above a certain rank should be barred from ever working for the defense industry. There may be some loss in expertise, but the benefits probably outweigh the drawbacks here.

    Interestingly enough the Russian Su-27 has been a much more incremental upgrade.

    Su-27 > Su-35 > PAK FA

    Along the way there have been about a dozen more variants.

    That isn't to say there haven't been flaws (there have been), but they haven't tried to re-invent the wheel every time.

    1. While the Su27 has had many derivatives, the PAK FA is a totally new design.
      Incidentally when MacAir was announced as the winner of the competition that led the the F15, the Soviets were secretly pleased as the US alternative design from North American featured a similar wing profile to the Su27 then in development, and they felt their wing design would give better performance.

    2. True to an extent, but the PAK FA clearly was heavily influenced the previous generation of Russian aircraft. It's more incremental than say, the American approach.

      I agree - the SU-27 was a better design due to the LERX and airframe design.

  4. I think there is a requirement in military equipment to push bounds, particularly on the NATO side if we wish to keep technological superiority and all that implies. So I’m slightly more forgiving of the Helmet example (or I would be if these things didn’t already exist, invented by the Russians and in service for quite some time with the Europeans).
    However your tail hook example and (I hadn’t picked up on this) the bridge wings, oh lord. Awful.
    “When less than knowledgeable people, whether Navy or manufacturer, begin making design decisions”
    This is bang on, when engineers ignore the lessons of the past; they do so at their peril. Lockheed might not have built a Carrier Capable plane for some time, but information is readily available on the early tests of virtually all the 50’s planes from most of the carrier capable nations.
    The “bounce” issue is not new, the tail hook angle and proportions relative to the back wheels and angle of decent is no mystery. And the hook tip.. UG.. just UG.
    An assumption that just because you got a degree recently and are working with carbon fibre, that you can do it better than some of the great engineers of the past, is arrogance of staggering proportions. And this obviously extends to the Admirals too.
    I recently took a tour round FORT RENELLA in Malta, the housing for a 100 tonne naval gun during WW2. I was staggered how much of the fort kept design elements from medieval castles, including moat and drawbridge concepts. Adapted for fire arms the thing could have been held against a mechanised army with a handful of men. And was specifically targeted by the Luftwaffe most of the war, taking only superficial damage from direct hits.


    1. Just to clarify, the F-35's magic helmet does not exist on any other aircraft, as far as I know. There are several helmets in use that present visual targeting information for the pilot but the magic helmet attempts to present real time, 360 degree, vision around the aircraft. That has never been done before (and still hasn't!).

      My point about the helmet was that its troubled development was to be expected by everyone except the military. The military, for unfathomable reasons, continues to believe that they can create non-existent technology out of thin air. The results are sadly predictable.

    2. OK take your point on the finer points of the Helmet.

      I also see what you are saying bout the ASSUMPTION that you can make scifi gadgets if you throw enough money ate them. AND the deadly assumptions when these components make the critical item of the weapons system.

      However to temper that I would like to say that we have had a history of making some pretty crazy ideas actually possible its not been that long since heavier than air flight, Radar, and space flight were simply things of dreams.

      You proberbly just shouldn't bet the farm on then before you chickens hatch, to cross mash a metaphor !

    3. "However to temper that I would like to say that we have had a history of making some pretty crazy ideas actually possible"

      That is the case. But I wonder if in the case of 'gadgets' our consumer electronics industry might be making this model of big government technical projects obsolete.

      When it was Raytheon designing a ground tracking radar back in the 60's; this model worked great because no one else was doing it.

      When its (whomever) designing new visual technology for the F-35.... it might not. Apple, Google, heck, the P*rn industry might be funding very similar technology for their phones/VR glasses/etc. And while whomever working on the F-35 helmet may be somewhat restricted because they are stuck interfacing with cameras and avionics stuck in 2005, the consumer electronics people aren't.

      We may end up with a helmet that finally works for a gazillion dollars that isn't as good as Google Glass 3.0.

      I don't have a solution for this, its just an observation.

    4. I actually think that’s a pretty astute comment, going to wider industry for input might be a valuable asset instead of just giving the contract to the usual suspects. Oculus Rift has addressed many of the issues to do with judder and latency that the F35 Omni Hat has been facing. With some insightful solutions born of some great research into the problems. And this was a couple of years back.

  5. People, PEOple, PEOPLE !

    That is what is wrong with Acquistion today, you have hit the nail on the head!

    From the junior engineers that think they don't have to listen to experience or that lessons learned do not apply to them, to the Program Managers who only want to rush new gee whiz technology into production because it makes them look good for promotion to the Senior folks that go along with these idiotic ideas because it keeps the money flowing to their services, their districts, and their ultimate employers. The people are the problem.

    Each group of people cause different symptoms. Which unfortunately fools people into thinking I only have to deal with the latest symptom to prevent this from happening again. Only when you step back and look at all of the symptoms and have been on a number of large programs do you see that it is the people in general that is the problem.

    This means the Government acquisition workforce system is broken. So how do we fix this? It is a vastly more complex problem, but not insolvable. And it is not just Government that has problems with attracting and keeping a good workforce. Civilian companies are rife with examples of workforce issues causing giant mistakes. The only difference I see is that the Market terminates the civilian goofs much quicker that the Government feedback process.

    So let's start looking at the workforce process and take good ideas from other places and adopt them to the Government environment. I have met many talented engineers and managers in DoD Companies. They love their work, the challenges of doing something new, or in completely hostile environments, etc.

    1. While I generally agree with what you're saying, I don't see the solution as being one of hiring better people or better managing them. Nor do I blame the individuals or even the companies to any great extent. The ultimate responsibility is on the Navy to be able to evaluate a ship design and decide whether that design is good. This is no different than me buying a vacuum cleaner. It is ultimately my responsibility to know what type of cleaner will best suit my needs. Similarly, it is the Navy's responsibility to assess a ship design and know whether it is good. The ability to assess a design can only come from having in-house expertise which, in turn, can only come from having a pool of naval engineers, meaning BuShips.

      The Navy was presented with a crap design for the LCS. At that moment, before any commitment to a 55 ship production run, the Navy should have flatly rejected the design as flawed. Unfortunately, lacking the in-house expertise, they accepted the flawed design and, thus, the responsibility for a flawed ship.

    2. I use People to mean from top to bottom, everyone involved in these disasters.

      I don't want to focus on only the Senior Navy (I think you mean senior Navy as responsible), but the entire acquisition workforce. That is what has to be fixed. Otherwise a few lucky picks at the top (like David Packard), assuming they can withstand the institutional and political pressures, will only be able to say NO to these crappy, not ready yet, systems.

      So if we don't address the workforce as a holistic entity, we will only get sporadic limited successes in the form of denials.

    3. "So if we don't address the workforce as a holistic entity, we will only get sporadic limited successes in the form of denials."

      That's a great observation!

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    5. "The Navy was presented with a crap design for the LCS. "

      I can't believe I'm saying this, but in defense of Austal/LockMart....

      ... wasn't the crap design a product of the incoherent/crap requirements given to the vendors by the Navy?

      To keep on your vacuum analogy, if you want someone to make a vacuum you have to know what you want to use it for and what capabilities it needs.

      We went in saying 'we don't need a Shop Vac! and kept wavering between needing a hand vacuum and a floor vacuum; so we got a floor vacuum with a hand vacuum motor.

    6. If you have an experienced workforce they would know they were giving crap requirements. Also if you had Defense Contractors that cared about their brand (rather than just their bottom line) they would have said no thank you, I am NOT putting my name on that thing. After all almost of the retired Admirals go to work for the DoD Contractors, so they MUST know the quality of crap being thrown over the wall.

    7. Jim, absolutely! I'm not absolving the Navy of responsibility for the design. They alternated between no guidance for the manuf's and completely unrealistic and incoherent requirements. That only reinforces my central premise that the Navy needs in-house expertise to avoid giving bad requirements out and to recognize bad designs coming in.

    8. Anon, to be fair to the manufs, I have heard from some of the engineers that worked for LM that they attempted, as a company, to point out problems to the Navy at the design stage and the Navy ignored them or didn't believe the problems were as bad as stated. Also, recall that the LCS was started with only a very partial and sketchy design. So, as problems were identified during the rest of the design process, the ability to correct already built-in problems became more and more difficult and expensive.

      Let's be clear, there was heaping amounts of fault to be shared all around. Back to my premise, the lack of in-house expertise was the ultimate failed fail-safe. The Navy accepted a badly flawed design because they, literally, didn't know any better. The Navy certainly didn't help the design process and, undoubtedly, hurt it but in the end they didn't have the expertise to recognize a poor design.


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