The Howling Wilderness of Acquisition Reform
 … or … Why the Super Hornet is a Super Failure

December 16, 1999

Comment: #338

Discussion Thread:  #s 225, 228, 232, 235, 236


[1] JAY A. STOUT, "The Navy's super fighter is a super failure," The Virginian-Pilot, December 15, 1999. Excerpt: "I am a fighter pilot. I love fighter aircraft. But even though my service -- I am a Marine -- doesn't have a dog in the fight, it is difficult to watch the grotesquerie that is the procurement of the Navy's new strike-fighter, the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet."

Lt. Col. Jay Stout is a Marine fighter pilot, combat veteran, and the author of Hornets Over Kuwait. These views are his own and do not represent the views of the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps, or the United States government.

[2] Stan Crock, "The (Not So) Super Hornet," Business Week, December 13, 1999. Excerpt: "Pentagon analyst Franklin C. Spinney remembers the conversation with crystal clarity. Over dinner with a Marine flier in late 1991, talk turned to Navy plans for a new version of the F-18 Hornet. Earlier in the year, the Pentagon had killed the new A-12 bomber. Other Navy planes were decades old. And the service thought existing F/A-18s couldn't fly long-range missions. To fill carrier decks, the Navy decided to rely on an upgrade of the F-18 used by the fabled Blue Angels. ''We've got to have this even if it doesn't work,'' the pilot confided."

The Navy’s F/A-18E/F is rapidly becoming the best-documented case study in what is rotten in the Pentagon’s acquisition process. Notwithstanding the battle cry of "acquisition reform," this program has shown repeatedly that the real game has been to use duplicity and raw political power to protect cold war "business as usual" for the contractors and their wholly owned subsidiaries in Congress and the careerist lackeys in the Pentagon at the expense of real soldiers and taxpayers.

The referenced discussion thread lists earlier comments discussing the marginal performance of the F/A-18E/F [# 236], the self-interested, deceitful shenanigans used to sell this $48 billion program [#s 225, 228, 232], and the corrupt acquisition practices in the Navy’s A-12, the demise of which set the stage for the deception plan that led to the front loading of F/A-18E/F into the defense program in 1992 [#235].

The two references to this message continue and expand on this sorry story.

The first is an amazing op-ed written by Lt Col Jay Stout, an active duty F/A-18C/D pilot in the Marine Corps. Stout’s piece is well written, brief, and comprehensive. According to my acquaintances in the F-18 community, Stout is a highly regarded fighter pilot with a lot of tactical credibility. That he is courageous is self-evident.

The second reference is a report by Stan Crock in Business Week. Crock reinforces much of what Stout says and adds additional background information.

The battle for higher defense budgets is about to begin and the F/A-18E/F is a case study illustrating why adding more money will reinforce the self destructive behavior that gave us a modernization program that can not modernize the force and a rapidly deteriorating readiness posture. The pro-defense spending Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), for example, just fired an early round in the looming budget battle with the release of a report suggesting that the defense budget should be increased by $100 billion per year to prevent a "train wreck." No doubt the real aim of this report is to stampede pandering presidential candidates into a defense bidding war. ["Averting the Defense Train Wreck in the New Millennium," copies can be obtained by calling 202-887-0200].

More will be written about this report at a later date, but suffice to say, it bases its budget requirements on naïve extrapolations of the status quo cost-relations into the future. It does not address the budget shambles, nor do its authors explain how they can calculate a $100 billion requirement when the Pentagon’s own Inspector General has to issue disclaimers of opinion year after year because the accounting books are so screwed up they can not be audited [new readers can find a discussion of the budget shambles in Comment #169].

My research over the last 20 years has shown has shown that increasing the budget inflates the rate of cost growth, as it did in the 1980s. This is partly a consequence of the incentive structure in the cost-plus economy of defense contracting which rewards cost growth and partly a consequence of an obsession with increasing technical complexity [see Comment #81 for Gen. Honore’s comments about the effectiveness of complexity] and partly a consequence of inefficient politically-motivated business practices [e.g., spreading subcontracts around the country to build a support network]. So, even if larger budgets may relieve pressure in the short term, more money makes matters worse over the long term.

The problems CSIS describes are real – I have been writing about them for 25 years – but they are not caused by under funding [see my three reports at the web site beneath my signature block]. These problems are self inflicted wounds inflicted by the elites that benefit from travesties like the F/A-18E/F.

Until we have the courage to tackle the real causes of the problems that are wrecking the military, raising the defense budget over the long term will merely ratchet the self-destructive game to higher level and put the military into an intensifying economic conflict with the growing social security and medical spending requirements of the aging baby boomers in the second half of the next decade.

What gives me hope is that active-duty military professionals, like Stout (and Major Vandergriff – see Comment #337) are beginning to step up to the mike and inject a healthy dose of reality into a system that is hell-bent on destroying itself.

Let us wish them well!

Chuck Spinney

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