As we discuss terminating the F-35 and why it’s a good/bad idea, I continue to hear the notion that we have no choice but to continue because stopping and designing a new aircraft would take too long and cost even more than the F-35. Given today’s badly broken military development and acquisition practices, that is undoubtedly true. However, it doesn’t have to be. In previous posts and comments, I’ve described how to design a new aircraft, put it into production in five years, and do it for less than we’re paying now. I’d like to pull all those comments and posts together into one post.
Here’s how to build a better aircraft.
To begin, we have to define what we even need in broad terms.
The first key recognition is that there are two main “theaters” of operation for aircraft: Europe/land masses and the Pacific/oceanic region. All other likely regions of conflict (
, Iran , North Korea Africa) are subsets.
This recognition immediately leads us to the second recognition.
The second recognition is that a new aircraft must not be a multi-service aircraft. The F-35 has proven the folly of this approach. The requirements for a European/land mass aircraft will be radically different than for a Pacific/oceanic aircraft.
See? We’ve already saved money by not trying to build a gargantuan, one-size fits all aircraft!
Being a naval matters blog, this post will now discuss only the Pacific/oceanic aircraft. The Air Force can design their own European/land mass aircraft.
The third recognition is that the aircraft will perform one main role and only one. Focus is the key. Secondary functions are fine as long as they don’t impact the primary function or contribute more than 2% to the cost. Thus, a fighter that has a mechanism to carry and release a bomb is fine as long as the capability in no way negatively impacts the main role of being a fighter.
See? We’ve saved money by not trying to make our aircraft a combination strike, fighter, AEW, ISR, EW, tanker, drone controller, arsenal aircraft all rolled into one.
The fourth recognition, closely tied to the third, is that focus comes from a coherent, well thought out concept of operations (CONOPS). This will tell us exactly what our aircraft requirements are. Note that I’m not going to offer what I think the aircraft should be/do. That would just bog us down in technical specifics that are irrelevant to this discussion. Besides, if you’ve followed the blog, you already know what kind of role I think Navy air should play.
So, we’ve now got a clearly defined aircraft with a very specific and narrow functional role. At this point, our aircraft program breaks down into two major sections: technical and program management.
Airframe. Choose an existing airframe. There are many to choose from. There are all different wing shapes and sizes, there are stealthy and semi-stealthy airframes. There are single engine and multi-engine. And so on. The point is to pick an existing, proven, debugged airframe, if at all possible. I suspect the F-22 airframe is a pretty good choice. Maybe not perfect but perfect is the enemy of affordable.
See? We’ve saved a gazillion dollars in basic airframe developmental costs by simply using an existing airframe!
Technology. Choose the most advanced existing, proven technologies for sensors, engines, and weapons. If it isn’t already in operation somewhere in the world, then it belongs in Research & Development and not on our aircraft. With only existing technology, we eliminate development altogether and only have to deal with packaging of the items into the airframe and integration through the software.
See? We just saved a boat load of money by completely eliminating technology developmental costs.
Complexity. Don’t make it unnecessarily complicated. The F-35 “do everything” ALIS maintenance, inventory, logistics, and mission planning software is needless complication and is racking up huge costs. We don’t need sensor fusion unless there’s an existing, debugged, proven software package already out there. We just need a basic “sense and shoot” level of complexity.
See? We’ve just saved a bundle of money by keeping everything simple. KISS is alive and well.
Design. Production cannot start until the entire design is 100% complete.
See? We just saved a ton of money by completely eliminating concurrency costs.
Change Orders. Design modifications are the enemy of affordable – affordable has a lot of enemies, doesn’t it? We’ll establish our requirements from the CONOPS, embed them in concrete, embed the concrete in titanium, and not change a single, tiny item. The inevitable changes can come down the road in the form of upgrades, after the aircraft is in service.
See? We’ve just saved a ton of money by completely eliminating change orders, alterations, and concurrency costs.
Managers. Program managers must be appointed for the duration of the program until the aircraft is in full production. To do less is to lose accountability. Managers must be held accountable. If the program misses schedules, runs over budget, or otherwise fails, the managers must pay the price in the form of loss of pay, loss of benefits, possible court martial, and automatic discharge from the service. This may seem severe but it’s exactly what private industry does with their managers. Besides, would we really want to retain in service a manager who demonstrates that they can’t successfully manage a program? Now, the flip side of accountability must also be applied. If the program comes in on time or early, on or under budget, and meets all technical specifications then the managers should be given significant bonuses, raises, benefits, and promotions. Together, the threat of punishment and the promise of reward are as powerful a motivational tool as we can provide.
Authority. Hand in hand with this degree of accountability goes authority. If we’re going to hold managers accountable to this degree, they need the power and authority to execute their program as they see fit. Once we commit to a program, no one but the program manager can make decisions about the schedules, funding uses, technical issues, etc. Yes, there are statutory requirements and milestones that must be met and which are decided by other people but all the program specifics must be under the control of the manager. No more can some outside Admiral insert his pet feature into a program. No more can outside forces impose schedule adjustments. And so on.
Decision Point. A death point is necessary. A death point is a go or no go decision point and comes at the 2 year point in a program. At that point, any competent program manager will know whether the project is viable. If it isn’t, then we terminate with no further expenditures and no penalty for the manager. If it is viable, we proceed as described. Only the program manager can make the go decision. Thus, he can’t be forced into moving ahead with a project that isn’t viable. Conversely, the program manager or any outside person or agency with sufficient authority can make the no go decision. This allows outside agents to terminate the program due to budget, changes in strategic or operational need, or any other reason.
Conflict of Interest. Employment restrictions will forbid the project manager from ever working for a company that had anything to do with the project. This eliminates any conflict of interest, delayed bribery/kickbacks, etc.
Contract. A fixed price contract with cost reduction incentives will be the only type of contract allowed. With the iron-clad, unchangeable specifications we’ll use, there will be absolutely no unknowns for industry and, therefore, no reason to need any kind of squishy, cost-plus contract. There will be no separate contracts for multiple lots of aircraft. There will be only one aircraft and one lot. The last aircraft built will be absolutely identical to the first.
A side effect of this policy might be that instead of committing to production quantities of thousands, which inevitably get cut to hundreds, perhaps we’ll scale down our production programs to more reasonable quantities that can actually be built.
The entire quantity of aircraft will be specified in the contract. The contract will specify that the manufacturer gets paid the full contract amount whether the government terminates or reduces the aircraft quantity or not. Thus, there is no risk for the manufacturer and, therefore, no reason not to accept a fixed price contract.
So, let’s sum up, shall we?
Timing. We’ve completely eliminated development, leaving only packaging and integration. Requirements will be unchangeable. All technology will already exist. With all that in mind, there is no reason we can’t begin production within 5 years, quite likely less.
Cost. I’ve noted many instances of huge cost savings. With no development, existing technology, an existing airframe, and no modifications, there is no reason we can’t build the cheapest aircraft in modern history and cheaper by a huge amount, too!
The interesting thing about this concept is that the vast majority of it could be implemented by the Navy with nothing more than internal policy changes. Yes, there would be a few aspects that might require legislative involvement but those are relatively minor, actually.
Note: I don’t want a single comment telling me why this can’t be done under the current reality. I know it can’t be done under the current reality. This blog is partly about describing current conditions but also, partly, about describing the way things should be. This post is one of the “should be” ones. Let’s treat it as such.
And there you have it. If we dropped the F-35 today, we could have a fully developed, fully combat capable, state of the art aircraft in production within five years and for a fraction of the cost of the F-35.
That’s how you build a better aircraft.