Trillion Dollar Trainwreck

Trillion Dollar Trainwreck is published worldwide by Valkyrie Strategic Solutions LLC via Kindle Direct Publishing.

This project snuck up on me. It emerged from some notes I had put together a few years ago, plus some research I started last fall. In part, the catalyst was the general gloom around the condition and future of the U.S. Air Force that I sensed when I was working on a project last summer, looking at the future of the service’s tactical force.

Because the situation is not good. It’s not defense critics like POGO calling the Air Force fighter force “geriatric” or suggesting that it is in adeath spiral. It’s the insiders, the in-the-loop experts. It’s people with service experience, hearing from today’s operators about the real news from bases in the U.S. and overseas, unplanned events such as F-15s being struck from active service because of aging issues, resulting in a drawdown of deployed forces.

There are not enough new aircraft to replace them, and not because of a lack of money. The USAF has been spending healthily on new fighters for all of the 30 years since it sunk in that the Cold War was over. But almost all the money has gone to two programs, the F-22 and F-35. Production of the F-22 was halted in 2009, 150 aircraft short of the USAF’s goal, to support the F-35. Lockheed Martin’s leading paid advocate hailed the decision.

The F-35 was already known to be behind the schedule that had been set at contract signature, which called for initial operational capability in 2012 and (for the USAF alone) a quick production ramp to 110 deliveries a year. (That rate had already been cut to 80 per year.) Secretary of Defense Bob Gates didn’t know that the real picture was far worse, until the program director was fired and a new team installed to clean the stables, a job that took three years. Since then, R&D overruns have drawn money away from production: the USAF reduced its production goal from 80 to 60 a year, but never reached that. The latest estimate for the year that the last F-35s will be ordered is 2052.

That is 25 years behind the 2001 plan, and that’s what’s wrong with the USAF. Many F-16s will be serving until the late 2030s and possibly beyond. In the process, the service tried to replace tankers on the cheap and ignored the signs of critical aging in its E-3 AWACS force.

What had happened? About six years ago I saw a pattern in the program’s history, going back to before 2000 and the last stages of the competition between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. First, an unforeseen problem would emerge. Then, the program’s leaders would announce a “get well” plan with a fixed, optimistic schedule, that would be missed. Sometimes, the fix itself would cause the next problem. (For example, mitigating the F-35’s early weight gain made the three variants much less similar, and that caused development aircraft to be delivered late.) At other times it was a distraction that prevented the next problem from being identified and resolved in a timely fashion.

It was, I realized, the plot arc of the Burl Ives song, The Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly. Apparently they don’t teach that at Harvard Business School.

At the time I thought it was of mostly historic interest. Surely, I thought, after all this money, they would get it stabilized.

Oh, snap.

Cthulhu knows, I haven’t been a fan of the F-35, but I never imagined it would be this bad of a mess in 2024. In Burl Ives terms, they’re somewhere between the goat and the cow.

As I was writing, the story merged with another theme I’ve explored lately: the fact that for today’s defense mega-contractors, it is, more often than not, more rewarding and less risky to protect the program you’ve got than to compete for new business. This is particularly important for the F-35, which exists in large part because it was both the stick and carrot to force consolidation of the defense industry after the Cold War. Now, not only does it represent a massive – perhaps existentially important – piece of Lockheed Martin, but it’s big business for Northrop Grumman and Raytheon. The last-named has increased its JSF share markedly in the past five years by acquiring United Technologies – F-35 engine and electronics – and by wresting the EO-DAS all-round vision system from Northrop Grumman. For all three, F-35 exports are a route to sell weapons as well.

An obvious question then arises: if the program’s such a mess, how come it’s rolled over its competition? I’d been considering that in the context of some other work I was doing, and had a whack-on-side-of-head moment: you have to be very naive to think that the U.S. Government has no influence over other nations’ strategic defense decisions, or that it is going to sit back and allow a (completely fictional) free market in defense supplies to take its course. Moreover, these are not times when any ally wants to ignore a nudge or a hint from Washington, and for many reasons the F-35 may be the most important defense export product the U.S. has ever had.

Finally: We don’t have many good choices yet around F-35 – the time for those was a long time ago – but we can do better, and short of subcontracting Pentagon management to Sweden’s FMV, I do have some suggestions.

It would have been better if this book never had to be written. Better decisions 30, 20 or even ten years ago would have resulted in a more effective conventional deterrent force today and a better prospect for 2030 and beyond.

Many people contributed to today’s situation. Some had little power to influence matters, and some went along to get along. Some were entirely conscious of what they were doing and found it made them a good living. They know who they are.  

The airplane is flying and in service. But as Pyrrhus of Epirus said: “One more victory like that, and I would return to Epirus without a single soldier.” We’re out of chances to mess it up again.

One thought on “Trillion Dollar Trainwreck

  1. Bill, as you may have guessed by now, I am compelled to write about aircraft that have been wrongly or unfairly vilified: the Bell HSL, Bell FL-1, F7U-1/3, F3H-2, and F-111B among others. Contrarily, I also take the trouble from time to time to counter overly enthusiastic praise for airplanes that don’t deserve it, e.g. the F4D Skyray. The F-35 would be one of the latter so I can take that off my list since I trust you have the knowledge, intelligence, and independence to do a proper job of it. I look forward to reading it. However, I do hope that you have recognized the brilliant (and very high risk) decision by Paul Bevilaqua to use an lift fan to augment the engine thrust for the vertical-lift requirement. Demanding that the F-16, F-18, and AV-8B be replaced by one airplane may have been a dumb idea but he squared the circle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *