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.

The new law must be comprehensive, initiating a different covenant between the legislative and executive branches of government. The unique, present congruence of the executive with both legislative bodies must serve as the basis for a concordance that will encompass politically difficult defense issues, which have historically been minimized and not addressed. A priority, therefore, should be the elimination of congressional micromanagement, inefficient buys, set-asides, or the maintenance of unneeded facilities, systems, or inventories.

A new national security act must remove structural and bureaucratic impediments to efficient, comprehensive procurement reforms, based on service-tested business principles, to ensure that new weapon systems are deployed rapidly and that per-unit costs are kept low. DOD authorizations and appropriations must be streamlined and systematized to entrench a formalized, repeatable process, in order that DOD procurement and operations be shielded from exogenous obstructions such as the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the budget sequestration of 2013. Efficient, multi-year program management and funding, a comprehensive streamlining of the DOD bureaucracy, with a concomitant reduction in the civilian work force, as well as structural changes to the National Security Council (NSC) and DOD, to include their relationships to the intelligence agencies, must be delineated in law.

The operation of a single integrated accounting and inventory system should be pursued, using modern technology and business practices to support seamless, state-of-the-art accounting and inventory control across DOD. This integrated system should be buttressed by a new, multi-service graduate school, which will teach the accounting, management, and inventory control methodologies used by America’s most successful companies. Such a school should be braced by DOD-wide, standardized, business training and seminars, to take place online and through a national network of public and private colleges and universities. The proclamation of career paths for acquisitions officers, equal in status to combatant tracks, should be stipulated.

To eliminate the cycles of new program creation, which do not result in deployed capabilities, the Pentagon should conduct an in-depth autopsy of the USMC Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program. The EFV was cancelled on the cusp of production after a development period that exceeded two decades, at the cost more than $3.3 billion.

A comprehensive exposition of the factors that allowed this program to be developed, but not be fielded operationally, should consider the following issues: causes of the protracted development; political interference from officials from within and outside the Pentagon; changing requirements and reformulations of the program; issues with contractors; wishful thinking concerning the long-term affordability of the system; and interference by appointed officials seeking to claim illusory cost savings via politically expedient, but uneconomic, decisions.

All programmatic mistakes should then be reverse engineered, to permit the creation of a master list of lessons learned, to be incorporated into DOD practice, if not law.

As one additional step, the Pentagon should consider implementing a ten-percent rule. Under this concept, weapon programs would be managed by a single service. Other services may participate in development, but be limited as to their requests for changes so that no more than ten percent (in total) of a weapon’s subsystems are changed, by a second military service, as measured by system costs. Service-specific platforms (which may later be adopted by other services or nations) would, of course, simplify the research and development cycle and improve the DOD’s ability to contain development and production costs.

The systemization of defense procurement within the services, and not OSD, will create space and the opportunity for innovation and creativity to flourish. Key weapons, several generations beyond what are now in use, may be fielded far faster than conventional wisdom suggests. During the Civil War, the technology and the concept for a steam-powered tank were at hand. Such a weapon, mounting an early Gatling gun, would have been decisive for either army. In WWII, Germany could have deployed jet fighters by 1942, but did not: they thus lost air superiority in Europe. In the Second Gulf War, the United States could have fielded substantial quantities of nonlethal weapon systems such as microwave guns that could have reduced armed engagements.

Throughout history, in battles where weapons (or tactics) were employed, which were a generation or more ahead of the enemy, immense advantages were conveyed to the side that innovated. The hoplite phalanx, Greek fire, the submarine, the tank, the proximity fuse, and the atomic bomb are obvious examples that must be emulated conceptually. Too often, entrenched forces forestall the early adoption of war-winning weapons: for example, in WWII, the advanced M26 Pershing tank, mounting a 90 mm gun, was delayed for more than a year because the U.S. Army did not want to use its tanks to hunt German tanks: official doctrine held speciously that only U.S. tank destroyers, which were lightly armored, should hunt Axis tanks as a primary task.

Therefore, the Secretary of Defense should convene panels of experts to define weapon systems, which may appear to be generations in advance, but can, in fact, be deployed rapidly by eliminating bureaucratic and doctrinal entrenchment. Rapid prototyping, field testing, and deployment of new developmental or experimental systems in applicable engagements should be emphasized, including weapons designed to combat extraordinary geopolitical risks, such as rogue states.

The exigent development of war-winning weapons, several generations beyond what America now fields, should take its inspiration from Project Silverplate, which rapidly redesigned B-29s, to be able to carry the bombs of the Manhattan Project. A system of defense priorities was employed; this must be replicated today, for new, decisive weapons to be fielded. One example could be the rapid production of an area-denial weapon in which a delivered, canister bomb would dispatch a hive of smart, miniature, weapon-laden drones that could discriminate combatants from noncombatants, to bring fire to bear on legitimate targets.

The F-35 program is a turning point in defense research, development, and procurement. The path ahead in this realm is not clear, though past events can provide illumination. The recitation of historical chapters, concerning defense procurement, may be derided as a series of bromides, but such episodes reflect the collective learning of many generations, and, thus, may only be neglected at our peril.

Richard B. Levine was Director of Policy Development on the NSC Staff; after six years at the White House, he became the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Technology Transfer and Security Assistance, serving under three Secretaries of the Navy. He is the recipient of two Presidential letters of commendation, and the Department of the Navy’s highest civilian decoration, the Distinguished Civilian Service Award. Mr. Levine received his baccalaureate, with honors, from the Johns Hopkins University. He holds an MBA from Harvard.

Image: A U.S. Air Force pilot navigates an F-35A Lightning II aircraft assigned to the 58th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Fighter Wing into position to refuel with a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 336th Air Refueling. / Wikimedia Commons


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