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F-35 Fighter Is Latest in Long Line of Wasteful Weapon Failures

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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“First, it is too early to tell, second, it is too late to do anything about it.” -Ernest Fitzgerald

There has been a flurry of articles in the defense press Tuesday about an internal Department of Defense (DoD) report on how the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon's newest attempt to buy a fighter jet, is skating toward potential mechanical and monetary disaster. The DoD top civilian weapons buyer put together a team to do a quick look at how the fighter was doing in its journey to become the next main fighter in the DoD arsenal. The report has the usual DoD hedge wording and qualifiers, but the answer is: not too good. There must be some panic and buzz in the Pentagon hallways since the last attempt of making a fighter, the F-22, was surprisingly canceled by the Obama administration and some brave members of Congress. Now, the newest fighter is falling under its own bloated procurement weight. Is the system, which has given us generation after generation of overpriced and technically dubious fighters, tanks, and other weapons finally succumbing to its own folly? This new report, which was leaked to the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) and some reporters, is now posted at POGO's web site. (Full disclosure: I founded POGO and still serve as treasurer and on the board of directors.)

Bill Sweetman, who writes the Ares blog for Aviation Week was not impressed with the F-35's progress:

When the Joint Strike Fighter team told Guy Norris about the jet's first run to its Mach 1.6 design speed, a couple of minor facts slipped their minds. Nobody remembered that the jet had landed (from either that sortie or another run to Mach 1.6) with “peeling and bubbling” of coatings on the horizontal tails and damage to engine thermal panels. Or that the entire test force was subsequently limited to Mach 1.0.

But selective amnesia is not even one of five “major consequence” problems that have already surfaced with the JSF and are disclosed by a top-level Pentagon review obtained by Ares. Those issues affect flight safety, the basic cockpit design, the carrier suitability of the F-35C and other aspects of the program have been identified and no fixes have been demonstrated yet. Three more “major consequence” problems are “likely” to emerge during tests, including high buffet loads and airframe fatigue.

To understand why this keeps happening to our weapons acquisitions and to try to change it, you have to know some history on how the system works and what has happened in the past. It is a sad tale of déjà vu all over again.

Ernest Fitzgerald, the well-known Pentagon whistleblower who fought the bureaucracy in hand-to-hand combat for better weapons and realistically priced weapons from the 1960s to 2006, came up with a simple law of why this sordid history keeps repeating itself. Fitzgerald's first law of weapons procurement is: “First it is too early to tell, second, it is too late to do anything about it.” I have found that this is the way that the DoD, the military services and the defense contractors squeeze every last dime out of the procurement budget and then even more, while making sure that their weapon doesn't get so obviously gross as to go on the rare weapons' chopping block.

Fitzgerald blew the whistle on the C-5A cargo plane in the late 1960s because of technical problems of the plane and that it had overrun its budget by $2 billion – a huge sum at the time. Lockheed, the manufacturer of the C-5A, had made the plane too heavy to meet its specifications. They, with the tacit blessing of the Air Force, took weight out of the wings of the plane to meet the requirements. Everyone knew that this most likely would affect the service and life of the wings, but it was paramount that the C-5A got into the fleet before someone suggested that the C-5A production run could be lessened or cut. It was important for all sides who were interested in the money flow of this plane, including the Air Force, the DoD, Lockheed and the Congress, to keep it going for jobs, profits and future retirement jobs for the military and civilians who were overseeing this plane.

Besides, even though the laws of physics would tell you that taking weight and strength out of the wings of a big heavy cargo plane would lead to problems, wasn't it really “too early to tell”? Or, as the military called it, the unknown, unknowns or unk-unks. Many a career was made or saved by the mysterious unk-unks where bad things happened, but you couldn't get blamed because the unknowns were unknown.

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I came into this picture in 1979, when the Air Force “discovered” that cracks were developing in the C-5A wings, threatening the safety and life of the planes. Everyone acted surprised even though there were plenty of internal oversight reports warning that this might happen if weight was taken out of the wings in the production process. So, the Air Force told the Congress that there had to be a “wing modification,” a nice word for wing fix, and it was going to cost $1.5 billion to fix the wings of the current fleet. In the non-Pentagon normal world, logic would tell you that Lockheed had the liability to pay for this “mistake” because they took the weight out of the wings and the engineers at Lockheed and in the government said, at the time, that the wings would begin to crack. But when I began to investigate this fix and uncover all the evidence of why the taxpayer should not have to pay for this, especially since the plane had already had the largest overrun at that time, the Air Force said that they were responsible to fix the problem because of all the unk-unks at the time. People in the DoD, the Congress and Lockheed all bobbed their heads in unison and insisted that it needed to be done and the government should pay for this mysterious problem because the planes had been bought, the system was counting on them and “it was too late to do anything about it.”

This law became even more perfected when the DoD began to use “concurrency” as a regular way of procuring a weapon. Logic would tell you that you build a prototype for a weapon; do developmental testing on it to fix the technical bugs; start an initial, low rate of production after the fixes; and test this small production run with operational testing, using real troops in wartime type situations. Once you identified and fixed problems that showed up when you used the weapon as planned in a war and you made sure that the weapon was truly effective for the troops and not just a box of new gee-whiz technology for technology's sake, you would decide to go to full production with a set blueprint for the weapon. Of course, logic would also tell you that, in these stages toward full production, you may find that some of the technology would never work and if the weapon was only good because of these technologies or that the technologies could not realistically work in a war, it was far better for the troops and the taxpayers to cut the losses and cancel the weapon before sinking any more costs into the project.

However, concurrency blows this logic out of the water. The DoD has increasingly, over decades, blurred the logical lines of production that is used by most of the world. Instead, the bureaucracy finds a way to continue to push the weapon into large production while trying to fix the technical bugs and see if the weapon would truly work on the battlefield. This concurrency of development and production helps to make sure there is never a moment, not even a nanosecond, between “too early to tell” and “too late to do anything about it.” This makes sure one is never vulnerable to having the weapon cut back or canceled, threatening one's career in the DoD, the defense company's profit, Congress's access to defense jobs in each district and state and one is more likely to find a nice retirement job because the weapon got through.

As you can imagine, this concurrency has caused weapons failures in the battlefields, technical and expensive nightmares in trying to maintain these weapons and costly fixes for these so-called unknown unknowns leading to astronomical overruns. There have been dozens and dozens of reports and testimony by government oversight agencies on how this is a bad idea and doesn't work, but the beat of the military procurement culture goes on. And as I mentioned in a past column on weapon costs, these overruns and fixes become the historical costs on which all new weapons are priced, so that the waste and disaster of concurrency goes on as high procurement costs and high maintenance costs for each generation of weapons.

In the late 1980s, I was investigating the technical problems of the radar systems on the B-1B bomber. The radar jamming system was jamming the B-1's own radar, rather than the radar on the enemy plane, along with several other problems. I came to a part in the DoD report where the author cheerfully predicted that, even though each radar built and put on production planes was different because of rolling modifications, the radar design would be finally set at the hundredth unit. It took me a minute to realize that we were only buying 100 B-1B bombers, thus, plaguing the fleet with planes where each one would have a unique radar to maintain. What would Henry Ford with his standardization of parts on the Model T think of us now? I wondered at the time.

The Air Force is now scrambling to make sure that it is too late to do anything about the F-35 production in this atmosphere of defense budget cuts. Top DoD officials have been arguing that maybe the costs and the effectiveness of the F-35 should lower the production rate of the plane, and senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee were trying to make sure that the next buy of the F-35 was not cost-plus as in the past, but fixed price where there would be a chance to try to control costs. Reuters reported:

Lawmakers inserted the fixed-price language into the bill after learning about Lot 5 contract [Pentagon had quickly approved it to be cost-plus], angered that the decision had been taken even as the Senate was debating whether or not to require the deal to be a fixed-cost contract.

Senator Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he and the panel's top Republican, Senator John McCain, were upset that the Pentagon had acted even though it knew lawmakers were looking at the contract language.

McCain and Levin have expressed discontent with previous “cost-plus” contracts that paid Lockheed's costs for producing the aircraft plus a profit margin on top of that.

They believe the contracts have enabled the cost of the F-35 program, the Pentagon's most expensive procurement program, to balloon over the years.

“We take umbrage at the idea that they would proceed on Lot 5 while we are negotiating whether or not there should be a prohibition on a cost-plus contract on Lot 5. So what we did is we said no cost-plus starting on Lot 6,” Levin said.

Maybe the F-35 has finally come to that magical moment between “too early to tell” and “too late to do anything about it.” With the threat of large budget cutting, there has been more scrambling going on than business as usual with all the parties involved. Defense contractors are beginning to squeal that they are getting cut to the bone and Secretary of Defense Panetta, who has only had the job for six months, has been a disappointment for becoming part of the Pentagon's usual hallelujah chorus despite his past cost-cutting career. This most recent report, even though they hate to say it, is committing a lot of truth about the failures on this plane that are just now starting to come out. Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project, has been exposing this game longer than I have. He had some tough comments on the F-35 based on this newest report:

The new revelations are numerous and significant enough to call into question whether F-35 production should be suspended – if not terminated – even in the minds of today's senior managers in the Pentagon. The revelations include, but are not limited to “unsatisfactory progress and the likelihood of severe operational impacts for survivability, lethality, air vehicle performance and employment.” Performance vis-à-vis so called “legacy” aircraft is seriously questioned and the individual deficiencies are sometimes so remarkable as to call into question the competence of the designers at Lockheed-Martin, to say nothing of the cost to repair the deficiencies. For example, the naval variant is now incapable of landing on carriers due to the inability of the arresting hook to capture an arresting cable on the carrier deck. And, there are more hard to conceive deficiencies, including airframe buffeting at different angles of attack. Moreover, as the report points out, these problems are appearing only after the easy phases of the test flights. The more exacting/demanding test flights are yet to even start. What unpleasant surprises do they hold?

The report frequently repeats the assertion that nothing so serious was found to “preclude further production.” Read the report and decide for yourself if the report supports that conclusion, or actually the reverse. In fact, the oft repeated assurance that nothing too serious is uncovered was, in fact, added on by some in a rather pathetic attempt to convert this report into mush.

So, how can we retire Fitzgerald's law? It won't be easy, but the first place to start is to get rid of concurrency for everything other than the simplest of technologies. We have to go back to logic and not try to develop a weapon while also trying to use it at the same time. It would be crazy to do this in the automobile industry and it doubly more dangerous for our troops that rely on these weapons. Don't allow any full production until standards are set for manufacturing or we will be paying billions of dollars later to fix it. One of the best ways to retire Fitzgerald's law is to make the politically hard decision to cancel early weapons that can't realistically be fixed technically or won't work in real combat. There has to be a tolerance for failure and cancellation at the early stages of a weapon without fear of recrimination by the bureaucracy so that the weapons procurers and engineers can move on to a better and more realistic design instead of spending decades defending bad ideas at great cost to the taxpayer and the troops.

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