Turning Point: The F-35 May Not Deliver

November 2, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWarWeaponsWorld WarF-35Jets

Turning Point: The F-35 May Not Deliver

The F-35 program is a turning point in defense research, development and procurement.

A lesson in terms of the exfiltration of critical personnel is provided by the story of Hsue-Shen Tsien. Educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology, Hsue-Shen Tsien became a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), but was later stripped of his security clearances due to concerns that he was a communist and a spy. In 1955, Hsue-Shen Tsien was traded for American pilots, captured in Korea. After his arrival in China, Hsue-Shen Tsien became the architect of China’s atomic bomb program. Later, he became known as the “Father of Chinese Rocketry” for his work in the development of the Dongfeng ballistic missile and the Chinese space program. Noting that the fruits of Hsue-Shen Tsien’s work undergird North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic programs, the issue of the unique structure of the DIUx initiative should be assessed, with due concern for the potential for espionage and the compromise of DOD systems.

The SCO is a Pentagon office that seeks to repurpose existing assets or components to fulfill missions not originally contemplated. One SCO-sponsored proposal is termed the arsenal plane, which, as presented by prior Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, appeared to be a chimera, merging a B-52-type wing with a body that resembled that of a C-130. As the name suggests, the aircraft is intended to launch a barrage of weapons, such as networked Raytheon GBU-53/B bombs. The arsenal plane was presented as a new concept. It is not. Proposed as a subsonic carrier of missiles, the Douglas F6D Missileer, which promised long-range defense for our carriers, was cancelled in 1960; such ability was finally realized in the supersonic F-14, deployed fourteen years later.

Proposed by Boeing in 2004, the B-1R is a superior concept to that of the arsenal plane. Even the arsenal plane’s name is not original: the arsenal ship, proposed by the USN in 1996, to permit the remote-controlled release of a fusillade of conventional missiles, was defunded, with its proposed mission transferred to cruise-missile carrying Ohio-class submarines. The Missileer and the ill-fated 747-based YAL-1 Airborne Laser (cancelled in 2011 after the expenditure of five billion dollars) were terminated due, in large part, to their slow speeds when proximate to contemplated targets. That the arsenal plane was presented as an important SCO concept is perplexing, given the availability of the B-1R proposal, which should have been funded.

The repurposing of existing military equipment is not new and should not require another OSD office. Examples of repurposing are manifest. The M3 90 millimeter gun, incorporated into the M36 tank destroyer and the M26 Pershing tank, was a version of Army’s main antiaircraft gun of WWII. The Navy’s Phalanx gun system has been repackaged for Army use. The creation of any additional DOD bureaucracy, duplicative of development and procurement offices within each of the services, should be forsworn.

The present procurement process is pocked by the cancellation of new weapons on the cusp of production. This has resulted, since the beginning of this century, in dead-weight losses approaching $60 billion, which equates to hundreds of billions of dollars of planned and expected programs that the U.S. military never fielded.

Examples of cancelled programs include the XM2001 Crusader howitzer: $2 billion was spent before cancellation in 2002; the Crusader was to be superseded by the proposed XM1203 non-line-of-sight cannon; it, too, was cancelled, in 2009, after expenditures of at least $18 billion in development and termination costs, including the cancellation of its sister, FCS vehicles. In all these new programs, not one operational unit was fielded.

The RAH-66 Comanche, begun in 1982, was terminated in 2004 after no operational helicopters were produced; program costs exceeded $6.9 billion, plus a half-billion dollars in termination fees that the government was obligated to pay the prime contractors. The Comanche was superseded by the development of the ARH-70 Arapaho, which, too, was not produced, despite the expenditure of millions.

Other important programs such as the F-22 were terminated after very small, inefficient buys. 750 Raptors were originally planned to cost $26.2 billion; the program was cancelled after 187 operational aircraft were built at a cost of over $67 billion. The Zumwalt-class was to have been a 32-ship program; this was reduced to a procurement of three vessels in 2009, thus requiring that the development costs of $9.6 billion be spread over just three ships. Total program costs, for the three ships, stand at $22.5 billion, though per-ship costs were estimated originally to be approximately $2.5 billion, given a full program buy.

The C-130 transport, the CH-47 helicopter, the M109 howitzer, the KC-135 tanker, and the Minuteman missile all began their initial development in the 1950’s; the designs for the B-52 bomber date to 1948. Each of these systems is expected to be in service for many more years, with some weapons expected to have service lives that approach ninety years. Each system thus represents great programmatic success, for the initial designs have been upgraded or rebuilt extensively over the course of many years. Infinitely less successful are the programs that attempted to create replacements or supplements for these Methuselah-like systems. Of the replacements, many were cancelled outright without a single combat unit produced, after the expenditure of billions. That each, noted, legacy system will serve far longer than initially envisioned is demonstrative of the considerable failure of the overarching process of defense development and procurement, which in pursuit of a superior force structure, has deformed, in spite of individual instances of excellence.

In consideration of these facts, emphasis must be placed on the development of weapons whose designs are robust, long-lived, and capable of being easily upgraded, repurposed, or rebuilt. Consideration should also be given to resuscitating recently cancelled programs, in lieu of completely new development initiatives.

Groundbreaking technology is of military value only if it is deployed at some ordained, future time. The only exception to this is the use of technological development as a force in being, which is a derivative of the concept of a fleet in being (warships that coerce, though they remain in port). A force in this sense may be defined as that which exerts a conspicuous influence, through its conception, its promulgation, or its existence, but not its use. An example of this is President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, which caused the Soviet Union to doubt the continued utility of its massive ICBM and SLBM forces as measures of national power. This doubt, instigated by the Strategic Defense Initiative, helped speed the demise of the Soviet empire. More recently, if it had not been scraped by the previous Administration, the Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser might have been useful as a force in being against the North Korean ballistic missile threat, despite the laser’s limitations.

What then should be done?

The F-35 program must be continued due to the pressing requirements, its capabilities, its international agreements, and the high, sunk, research and development costs, but its governing research/development/business model should be discarded.


Some years ago, I recommended to a senior decision maker in the defense community that a path to reducing the duplication and inefficiency endemic in the Department of Defense is to eliminate the Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense, thereby eradicating the immense bureaucracy that orbits this office. Under this plan, the three service secretaries (Army, Navy, Air Force) would rotate as principal deputy to the Secretary of Defense. This would expand the responsibilities of the services for program management and oversight, thus building upon the directions promulgated by Congress in recent National Defense Authorization Acts, to imbue the services with more control of weapon-system development.

This proposal would refocus any future Secretary of Defense on the business of defense. Such an initiative would bring weapon-system development closer to the operators, an essential business practice.

Major bureaucratic reform must be undertaken at the Pentagon to remove entire levels of bureaucracy, which have hampered our nation’s warfighters. Weapon development should be placed under the aegis of the services; proven best practices could then be shared across the commands. Responsibilities and authorities would thus devolve to the services. Such steps constitute a foundation to obtaining congressional support to streamline and better systematize the authorizations and appropriations process.

To do this, a new National Security Act for 2018 should be developed and made law by Congress to institute further, major, structural reform within DOD. As an integral component of the National Security Act of 2018, the new law must reduce dead-weight, defense contracting losses through the adoption of multi-year program obligations, with reduced rights of termination, to stem the hemorrhaging of funds due to the cancellation of new weapons systems after substantial development, but before adoption and procurement. Presently, DOD multiple-year appropriations are generally restricted from two to five years depending on the domain. Such multi-year funding should be increased temporally and in scope, though any such change will need to be crafted carefully to adhere to law, but should be informed by the spirit represented by Alexander Hamilton, who argued for expansive powers to raise armies and to build fleets.