In the early 1980s, the Pentagon was in the midst of several new generations of tanks, aircraft and missiles, especially during the Reagan defense budget buildup. It was in one of the hottest times of the cold war and I had many sources tell me that, because of nuclear weapons, there probably wasn't going to be a land war with the Soviet Union in Europe, so these weapons were just bluff and window dressing. Much of the attitude was that it didn't matter much if these weapons failed their test and cost too much because they were designed to look tough, but not to actually be used in war.
In many ways, the cold war was perfect for DoD managers of major weapons systems: they could project that their new technically laden weapon could do all types of terrifying things, but they were reasonably sure that they would not be used in a major war. It was the equivalent of saying you had a poker hand of four aces, really only having a couple of queens, but knowing that you wouldn't have to lay down your hand to verify it. The problem of expensive weapons that didn't work as advertised led me to edit a book in 1982 entitled “More Bucks, Less Bang: How the Pentagon Buys Ineffective Weapons.” The book reproduced over 30 news articles on various weapon failures with an introduction and final chapter on how the system failed and what to do about it.
Now, it is almost 30 years later and we are seeing signs of the same dilemma facing our next generation of weapons where they are costing more, but doing less than promised. The difference now is that we are currently in several hot wars and struggling through a serious recession. Many of these failing weapons are being introduced into the battlefield even as they are being developed, overrunning their costs and flunking their tests.
I could write numerous columns outlining all the current overpriced and low functioning weapons, but there is a new group of weapons that the DoD has promised to revolutionize warfare for these various wars we are involved. According to Wired.com's Danger Room, the Pentagon plans to double its unmanned air force. This is in the face of budget cuts and concerns about the overruns and technical problems of the next generation of aircraft, especially the F-35. Unmanned aircraft, better known as drones to the public, have suddenly been elevated to new heights with the spying on Bin Laden's compound to drone missile strikes in Pakistan. The military's manned aircraft program is not growing, but the unmanned aircraft is slated to grow from “approximately 340 in FY [fiscal year] 2012 to approximately 650 in FY 2021,” according to the DoD's Aircraft Procurement Plan 2012-2041.
There are already heated discussions on whether drone warfare works or not from a strategic point of view, but I will refrain from that argument today in order to just look at whether the drones are working as advertised and whether their price is becoming as prohibitive as the manned DoD aircraft.
On June 6, 2011, Bloomberg News reported that Michael Gilmore, the director of the DoD's Operational Test and Evaluation office, declared that the newest version of Northrop's Global Hawk “is not operationally suitable.” According to a May 27 report from the testing office, “mission-critical components fail at high rates, resulting in poor takeoff reliability, high air about rates, low mission capable rates, an excessive demand for critical spare parts and a high demand for maintenance support.”
According to Aviation Week, the Global Hawk's poor performance had a “poor sortie turnaround performance. And, “Effective time on station (ETOS) or the amount of time the aircraft can loiter over a target gathering intelligence, was expected to be 55% but the system achieved only 27%.” There are quality problems with something as simple as nut plates that were breaking, requiring 24-hour cure time to fix the problem, thereby grounding the planes for a day each time these nut plates failed.
This “Block 30” of Global Hawk drones have already been used to fly over the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan to take thermal images of the damaged plant, and have been used in surveillance missions over Libya. The Global Hawk is a “remotely piloted spy plane that can fly at high altitudes – up to 60,000 feet – to evade easy detection. Its primary role is to take pictures, while also picking up enemy communications signals and electronic signals like those from a nuclear detonation,” according to an article from The Hill.It has been cited as the replacement for the cold war manned U2 airplane. The report that Gilmore released on the testing is highly critical and blunt for that office and has 16 recommendations to improve the Global Hawk, including upgrading the communications systems and boosting its all-weather capabilities.
The problem with looking at the recommended fixes is that the Global Hawk production costs have already overrun by at least 25 percent. The unit cost has been pegged at $113.9 to $161 million each. When you count the cost of research and development and the construction of the facilities to build it, each Global Hawk has risen to an astounding $173.3 million, rivaling many of the DoD current manned aircraft. To give it perspective, the estimate of the much-maligned F-35 is now put at $133 million each (with an equally astounding life-cycle cost of one trillion dollars.) There are threats to cut down the amount of F-35s and replace a percentage of them with current fighters.
However, even though this testing report was issued on May 27, 2011, there are assurances that the Global Hawk's problems can be fixed and that the program will survive and the weapon will work. While Gilmore has revealed serious problems in the testing, the head of Air Force testing, Maj. Gen. David Eichorn puts a softer spin on the bad news. According to Aerospace Daily, Eichorn said that he found the system to be “effective with significant limitations … not suitable and partly mission capable.” He went on to explain his softer version of the operational tests: “I was much more comfortable with the shade of gray in this case rather than the black and white of is it effective or not.”
The pressure will be on to put in some fixes, retest the drone and quickly declare a victory to get it out in the field. Several corporate watchers say that the Global Hawk will survive this because the original Predator drone had major operational test problems, but there were enough fixes to make it effective in the field. Philip Finnegan of the Teal Group, an industry consulting group, told The Hill, “The Predator/Reaper suffered from serious criticism from testers early on, but it came back and is now very effective and I would anticipate that the Global Hawk would solve its problems.” There are still questions whether the Predator or Reaper have truly solved their testing problems because of the circle-the-wagons mentality by the Air Force and the DoD when a weapon is questioned. I am glad that Mr. Finnegan was willing to talk for free to The Hill, because the Teal Group's white paper on unmanned aircraft costs a whopping $1,895.00 for a copy – sort of in line with the Pentagonal costs of weapons.
To help ensure that the Global Hawk survives any DoD cuts, the June 7 email issue of Politico's Morning Defense had several Northrop ads sprinkled through the text including:
A message from Northrop Grumman: The newest and most capable Global Hawks, Block 40, have started arriving at Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota. Block 40 provides affordable, state-of-the-art wide area surveillance sensor for the future.
The employees of Northrop Grumman salute the men and women of the U.S. Air Force and citizens of North Dakota on arrival of the first RQ-4 Global Hawk to Grand Forks Air Force Base. This milestone marks the activation of the second Global Hawk main operating base, bringing expanded intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to our troops. Global Hawk is the world's preeminent high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system, capable of flying above 60,000 feet for more than 32 hours and having already flown more than 43,000 hours in combat.
There was no mention of the severe test results that were in the press only the day before. Northrop has been running positive ads on Global Hawk in Politico's Morning Defense since April, including extolling its virtues in combat. Since the DoD would have briefed Northrop on its results, I have no doubt that Northrop knew that the bad news was coming and wanted to soothe the problem with ads that predicted great successes for their drone.
Despite all the problems, the Global Hawk most likely will be approved for full production, despite the poor operational tests.
Inside Defense gave several reasons the Global Hawk will succeed in a June 6, 2011, story:
Tom Christie, who headed the Pentagon's weapons testing shop from July 2001 to 2005, when the Global Hawk Block 10 variant was being operationally assessed, doubts that the new report will impede Pentagon plans to proceed with full-rate production of the Block 30 variant.
“Once again, we have a system that has failed to meet effectiveness and suitability requirements – but one that no doubt will probably proceed post-haste into full production and deployment,” Christie said. “In fact, the Global Hawk has been deployed for years prior to any semblance of realistic OT&E [Operational Test and Evaluation].”
Last year, the Pentagon flagged the Global Hawk program for running afoul of statutory cost-growth thresholds for a third time. The Pentagon has spent $7.7 billion of a projected $13.9 billion to develop and acquire Global Hawk systems. The program has already breached “significant” cost growth thresholds, and on two occasions – including last June – exceeded “critical” cost growth levels, prompting the Pentagon to restructure the program and certify it as essential to national security.
Later this month, Ashton Carter, the Pentagon's acquisition executive, is scheduled to convene the high-level Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) to consider whether to proceed with full-rate production of the Block 30 variant. As part of that review, the Pentagon plans to restructure the program, breaking out elements of the Global Hawk program into subprograms.
This DAB meeting is expected to be a culminating moment for a program that has been under close scrutiny for more than a year, including an internal Pentagon review last summer and an Air Force-directed blue-ribbon panel set up in December.
On April 6, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley revealed that the Pentagon was cutting the Global Hawk procurement objective from 77 to 66, a 14 percent decrease (DefenseAlert, April 21).
Here, based on my experience, is how the Air Force and Northrop will save face on this failing program and get it through, even during these tough budget times.
Many of the problems listed above are failures by Northrop to have Global Hawk do its mission and to be maintainable (remember the nut plates that broke and needed 24 hours to fix). In a realistic world, not the world of military procurement, Northrop would be expected, under their fixed-price contract, to fix these serious problems on their own dime and lose any incentives built into the contract. However, since this would be at a high cost to Northrop, the Air Force will probably declare that the fixes of these problems are actually changes requested by the government and will put in Engineering Change Orders and other government “requests” for changes (not to be called fixes anymore). This will allow the defects of this drone to be fixed at government cost, not Northrop's cost because the government initiated the fixes. This will raise the baseline of Northrop's fixed-price contract (called rubber baseline in the trade), nourish the contract and lessen the specter of having overruns, all because the government will now pour more money into the drone. With these fixes, the Air Force, once embarrassed, will make sure that the drone passes the next set of operational tests by tricks in the scoring of what is a failure and is not a failure. It has been a common practice for over 40 years for services to manipulate test data to make sure that a troubled weapon passes the operational tests and goes into full production.
I helped pass the law in the 1980s to set up an independent test office in the DoD, the office that Gilmore now heads. Sen. David Pryor of Arkansas read an article that I wrote about cheating on weapons testing and urging for an independent testing office, and sponsored a bill to create an independent testing office. We were successful in getting the office established, but there was much resistance in the DoD to give it enough funding and to find tough leaders of the office to insist on hard-nosed testing. One of the directors, Thomas Christie did try to fight the bureaucracy while he was head of that office, but the institutional DoD and the military services fight any bad news coming out of the office.
The Global Hawk test report was stronger than usual, but it probably won't help fix all the problems, keep the government from paying for Northrop's mistakes or make sure that this weapon is truly effective in the battlefield, even during an active war. Even having an independent testing office in the DoD won't guarantee that; even when problems are made public, things will change.
Northrop will marshal its supporters in Congress and in the DoD to help them look good so that the DoD program managers will also look good and everyone will be happy. The drone programs are headquartered at Wright Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, and the Dayton Daily News helped tout that base's future in a May 19, 2011, story headlined “Pentagon plan for drones may secure WPAFB future,” outlining how this base is “Ohio's largest single-site employer with more than 27,000 workers …” The district that has the bedroom communities for Wright Pat and has the base literally on the border of the district is Speaker of the House John Boehner's district, which means that there will be a heavy hitter to make sure that the drone programs make full production and are well funded despite any bad testing news or critical cost overruns.
In the eyes of most involved in this program, everyone will win except the taxpayers who will have to pay more for a flawed weapon and the troops that will be relying on the data or lack of data that the drone is supposed to capture.
So, what is the solution here? I worked for years to make sure that there was independent review of weapons testing, but the bureaucracy has dulled its impact. The DoD just released two studies that showed that testing of a weapon does not cause delay or overrun, but that fixing the problems found in testing caused by bad management is a main reason for delay and overrun. So, the testing isn't the problem; fixing the mistakes is a big problem.
Once again, this is such a huge problem that any small-slice solution will be quickly deformed by the crushing power of the forces that want to keep the weapons' money flowing. I believe that this system won't change until we successfully get rid of the overwhelming problem of self-dealing: where people in this system have personal monetary stakes in these weapon systems proceeding through the system. One of the biggest problems is the revolving door among the military, Congress and the industry. In my past column, “The Buying and Selling of the Pentagon (Part II),” I take each group, the Congress, the military and the defense contractors, and put in very strict restrictions that forces a decision: if they want to be a part of the system that buys weapons for our troops, which puts them in a very special category, then they have to sacrifice for their country, as our troops have had to sacrifice.
These solutions are not easy, but I don't believe that we can solve problems like the Global Hawk without drastic action.