Time and again, ComNavOps hears the argument that, yes, shipbuilding workmanship may be shoddy and overpriced but we have to keep building substandard products just to protect the industrial base. In fact, on a related note, ComNavOps has proposed that shipbuilding undergo a several year hiatus so that the Navy and industry can “catch their breath”, in a sense, and design a good warship unpressured by artificial time constraints. Many commenters, however, argue that we can’t stop building ships because that will endanger out industrial base and risk losing skilled designers and construction workers. Of course, given the poor designs and poor construction quality we’re getting from industry, one can’t help but wonder just how big a loss of expertise we’re really risking … but, I digress.
The common theme in these arguments is the need to protect the industrial base. In fact, some elevate protection of the industrial base to a national strategic imperative! Indeed, there is an argument to be made along those lines. When war comes, attrition replacement will require a robust industrial base.
Fair enough. So, where is this going? Well, consider the following comment by a reader in response to the recent post, “Diversity In The Air”. (1)
fighters came from 7
different makers. Now you have two
design teams that design 1 or 2 planes in their entire work career you get
mediocrity, practice makes perfect etc.” US
‘scottg’ brings up a great point that deserves further discussion. In fact, the comment raises a couple of issues.
The point about designers who may only design one or two aircraft in their entire career is incredibly profound. In the 1930s -1970s, an aircraft designer was likely involved in dozens of designs over the course of a career. That’s a huge range of design experience. What’s more, the designs covered all manner of aircraft so the designer could, with time, bring to bear experience from all facets of aircraft design to the next design effort. Further, with all the designs, prototypes, and production experience, there was a nearly endless source of real world trials and lessons learned.
Today, as pointed out, a designer may only be involved in one or two designs over a career. In fact, if the designer is unlucky enough to work for the losing design in a mega project, he may actually go an entire career without designing an aircraft that is actually produced. What kind of experience base does that generate? What kind of “lessons learned” can the designer draw on? Not much!
The F-35 began around 20 years ago and serious designing for the next combat aircraft, the so called 6th generation aircraft, won’t seriously begin for another five years or so. That’s a 25 year time span. Twenty five years is the better part of a career and, for the designers, results in one design.
The lack of designs leads us to the next point which is the impact of single, mega programs on the industrial base. The F-35 is, of course, what we’re talking about. Setting aside the merits, or lack thereof, of the aircraft itself, the F-35 program resulted in only a single manufacturer producing a final design and build. How is a winner-take-all, mammoth, mega program benefiting the industrial base? Clearly, it isn’t! Manufacturer’s are dropping out of the business and even those that stay are losing their design and manufacturing expertise.
ComNavOps has previously proposed that instead of mega programs we build limited runs of, say, 200-500 aircraft on short cycles and do so with much greater frequency. I’ve described exactly how to produce a state of the art aircraft in a 5 year period so this is eminently doable. The greater frequency offers many advantages:
- Many more designs in a given period.
- The ability to incorporate known, existing technology without worrying about trying to design a “forever” aircraft with room for any imaginable future technology. If a technology we design into an aircraft becomes suddenly obsolete we simply build a new aircraft with the new technology since we aren’t committed to a forever aircraft.
- Multiple manufacturers can compete on a regular basis and, presumably, multiple manufacturers will actually produce aircraft thus maintaining a diverse stable of design philosophies and production facilities.
- Having a diverse range of alternatives provides greater resilience when combat reveals weaknesses in a particular design.
Clearly, mega programs such as the F-35 are damaging the industrial base. Further, maintaining the F-35 in order to “protect” the industrial base is actually having the opposite effect. We should terminate the F-35 for that reason alone!
The larger point is that we need to stop the practice of mega programs and return to smaller, more frequent programs.
(1) Navy Matters blog comment, Username: scottg, posted