Howling Wilderness of Acquisition Ė
Why the Super Hornet is a Super Failure (II)

January 17, 2000

Comment: #341

Discussion Thread:   #s 338 (see also #s 225, 228, 232, 235, 236)


[1] Rear Admiral J.B. Nathman, "Look at the Facts: The Navy's New Hornet is Super Indeed," The Virginian-Pilot, Dec. 23, 1999.

[2] James P. Stevenson, "Little Oversight: Admiral's defense of the Super Hornet doesn't hold up; Navy "stealth" hides facts," The Virginian-Pilot January 5, 2000

[3] Franklin C. Spinney, "Could Forgotten A-12 Lessons Haunt the Super Hornet," Letter to the Editor, Proceeding of the Naval Institute, June 1998, pp. 16-18.

[4] JAY A. STOUT, "The Navy's super fighter is a super failure," The Virginian-Pilot, December 15, 1999. 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.

Reference 1 to Comment #338 was a 15 December op-ed published in the Virginian-Pilot by Lt Col Jay Stout, USMC. Stout criticized the performance limitations of the Navyís newest tactical fighter-bomber, the F/A-18E/F. This comment builds on two responses to Stoutís op-ed, one a rebuttal by Rear Admiral J. B. Nathman, and the other, a rebuttal of Nathmanís argument by James P. Stevenson, an aviation writer. For your convenience, I have also included Stoutís op-ed as Reference 4 to this message.


Remember that Stout is an active duty Marine pilot, currently flying the F/A-18C/D, which the E/F is supposed to replace in the first decade of the twenty-first century. He is no lightweight; I checked out his bona fides and was assured by my friends in the Marine Corps that he is a highly regarded fighter pilot whose tactical opinions carry a lot of weight with younger pilots. He is also a bit of a renaissance man, being the author of a well-received book about the F-18ís operations in the war against Iraq as well as articles in the Proceedings of the Naval Institute.

Stoutís op-ed portrayed the F/A-18E/F as a high-cost aerodynamic mediocrity. Moreover, he deplored some of the unethical practices that have accompanied its development since it was approved for Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) in the Spring of 1992.

He is not the first person to suggest that the E/Fís sluggish maneuvering performance makes it, in some respects, a step backward from the plane it is supposed to replace. Nor is he the first to question the deceptive practices surrounding the management of this program [see discussion thread].

The Defense Departmentís Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, for example, reported on 19 January 1998 that the OT-IIB test results showed the E/F to be inferior in aerodynamic performance to existing threat aircraft, like the Russian SU-27 and MIG-29, particularly in the transonic and supersonic regions [Inside the Pentagon, February 18, pg 1].

Earlier, in July 1997, the Navyís own Program Risk Assessment Board [PRAB] concluded that the Operational Test and Evaluation Force might find the E/F to be unsuitable even though it satisfies all its requirements. The PRAB then recommended the best solution may be an "aggressive indoctrination of the operational community to help them match expectation to reality." Stoutís op-ed is one example why such an indoctrination campaign may represent a challenge worthy of the skills exhibited by Joseph Goebbels.

In fact, the Navy was so concerned about the E/Fís performance before it entered its operational tests, that Admiral Nathmanís predecessor, Rear Admiral Dennis McGinn (N88), issued an extraordinary clarification letter that said. ... turning, climbing, and maneuvering are not F/A-18E/F KPPs [Key performance Parameters.]" [see Reference 3]

Nevertheless, Stoutís op-ed triggered a sharp response from the Navy in the form of a letter to editor of the Virginian-Pilot, signed by Rear Admiral J.B. Nathman, published on 23 December [Reference 1].


It would be best for you to read Reference #1 before continuing with my comments, which will be directed more to the structure of Nathmanís counter-argument than its details (which are effectively rebutted by Stevenson in Reference 2).

Note how Admiral Nathman opened his counter-argument by paying lip service to the homily of healthy debate, but then the admiral promptly lambasted the Lt Col by saying that the Stout does not know what he is talking about. Nathman directly accuses Stout of lazy thinking when he says Stout did not check out readily available information, but a careful reading of Nathmanís letter reveals that his assault is not really directed at debunking Stoutís alleged lazy thinking.

Structurally, Nathmanís letter is really a sly two-pronged attack on Stoutís integrity: First he asserts without proof that Stout substituted innuendo, anecdotes, and rumors for readily available facts, then he juxtaposes his implicit allegation of Stoutís low integrity to an implicit claim of the Navyís high integrity by asserting the F-18E/F Super Hornet just completed the "most rigorous and scrutinized process of procurement, acquisition and evaluation in recent Department of Defense and naval history."

What can one conclude from this kind of counter-punch?

Point 1: The Admiral, who is speaking for the Navy [note his reference to his position], made it abundantly clear that character assassination and, by logical extension, intimidation are included in the Navyís vision of how an open healthy debate should take place between Admirals and Lt Cols.

Ironically, however, one could argue that Nathman is working overtime to prove part of Stoutís case.

In fact, Nathmanís "argumentum intimidatum," is a brutally clear reflection of the arrogant leadership attitude decried by Stout in the following quote: "What about the rank-and-file Navy fliers? What are they told when they question the Super Hornet's shortcomings? The standard reply is, ĎClimb aboard, sit down, and shut up. This is our fighter, and you're going to make it work.í Can there be any wondering at the widespread disgust with the Navy's leadership and the hemorrhaging exodus of its fliers?" [see Reference 4]

Nathmanís verbal Ďcat-o-nine-tailsí may be the Navyís way to whipping fleet flyers into shutting up and matching their expectations to reality, but Ďfear in the workplaceí it is not the oxygen of healthy debate, and it causes good people to jump ship.

Point 2: When one resorts to the low road of character assassination, one had better be sure of his facts before he attacks. But as Reference #2 shows, Nathman use of "facts" suggests he committed the very sin he deplores.


Reference #2 is a response to Nathman written by James Stevenson, published as a letter to the editor by the Virginian-Pilot on 5 January.

Stevenson is a well-known aviation writer and author of "The Pentagon Paradox" (Naval Institute Press, 1993), which is a history of the F/A-18 up through the decision to begin development of the E/F model in 1992. The last chapter and Appendix D of that book describe the duplicitous tactics used in 1992 by the Navy (and the contractor) to sell the E/F to approval authorities in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the U.S. Congress. [Be advised, I am not an uninvolved observer, Stevenson is a close friend of mine, and Appendix D is a compendium of un-rebutted internal memoranda that I wrote in 1992.]

It would be best at this point to read Stevensonís letter (Reference #2) before continuing with my comment.

Counter-Point 1: Regarding the narrow question of performance, Stevenson effectively demolishes Nathmanís counter-argument by showing why at least one of Nathmanís claims of performance (range) is so incomplete as to be incomprehensible, if not misleading. Stevenson concludes his critique by raising the tantalizing prospect that Stout may have understated his case on sluggish performance, because, according to Stevenson, the E/F may not even be able to break the sound barrier in accelerating level flight below 20,000 feet altitude when flying in the common Ďpylons-onlyí configuration.

[Readerís Advisory: Donít be taken in by the spectacular picture purporting to be a fully loaded "E/F" going supersonic in level flight that is being distributed widely by E/F advocates on the internet. The photo is a deception that originated from an employee of the E/Fís contractor to rebut Stevensonís point, but it is really a picture of fully loaded F/A-C/D, probably at transonic (but possibly low supersonic) speed at low altitude, -- no doubt, after having gained the requisite energy from a dive.]

Counter-Point 2: More importantly, Stevenson rebuts Nathmanís claim of integrity by describing the pattern of unethical behavior that has plagued this program from its inception. He reminds us that the Navy initially rejected the F/A-E/F in favor of the A-12 and only glommed onto it after Secretary Cheney cancelled the A-12 [itself a horror story of unethical and illegal behavior that will be documented in mind-numbing detail by Stevenson in a forthcoming book, "The $5 Billion Misunderstanding" which will be published by the Naval Institute Press this summer. See also Reference 1 to Comment #235 which is a article describing the A-12 train wreck, published by Herber Fenster in the Proceedings of the Naval Institute ].

Stevenson then describes how the Navy mislead Congress by testifying that the E/F was performing flawlessly, when in fact its flight test director had written damning deficiency reports. All planes exhibit deficiencies during early flight testing, but do not be tempted to dismiss Stevensonís claim, simply because he did not describe the deficiency in question.

He is referring to the infamous "wing drop" deficiency, which occurred on the seventh test flight one year before the initial production decision. This deficiency was so serious (it was assigned the worst rating Ė i.e., Part **1) that the airplane could not even meet its basic flying quality specification, and if left uncorrected, would have precluded the E/F from even entering the final phase of operational testing for fleet suitability.

Moreover, while Stevenson describes how distorted information was given to approval authorities in Congress, he did not say that this information was also effectively withheld from decision makers in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, when they were asked to approve initial low-rate production of the E/F (two years prior to its operational evaluation) even though the Navy and the contractor recognized that they did not yet know how to eliminate the wing drop problem.

The story of the wing drop cover up is summarized in Reference #3, which is an un-rebutted letter that I published in the June 1998 issue of the Proceedings of the Naval Institute. Some readers may be tempted to cite the Inspector Generalís investigation of this matter as a rebuttal to my letter. This would be a mistake also, because, when asked by Senator Feingold to investigate the paper trail to determine who knew about wing drop and when they knew it, the inspectors in the Office of Defense Departmentís Inspector General did not even bother to review the paper trail alluded to in my letter, nor did they interview me, even though Feingold forwarded a copy of my letter with his request to Secretary Cohen, and the documents are readily available in one location.

Furthermore, it is absurd for Nathman to argue that unclassified performance information is readily available. On the contrary, government employees need special authorization to see unclassified flight test data and are required to sign a gag order before they are allowed to see this data, even though the data is paid for and presumably owned by the taxpayers.

While Nathmanís argument hinges crucially on the issue of integrity in the decision making process, that kind of integrity is without a doubt the least defensible part of the F/A-18E/Fís sad but well-documented history. In fact, the recurring absence of integrity is the central reason why the F/A-18E/F may be the best and most documented case study in what is rotten about the Pentagonís acquisition process.

Stevensonís book plots the trail of duplicitous events in 1992, beginning with the attempt to hide the fact that almost half of the E/Fís increased range was predicted to come from the theoretical effects of a redesigned wing.

Why would the Navy want to hide the presence of a new wing?


The effort to hide the new wing during the E/Fís birthing was a quintessential example of the Front Loading power game in action. Front Loading is the art of downplaying the future consequences of a current decision in order to obtain approval for a course of action having spending consequences over the long term. In this case, hiding the fact that the E/F had a new wing in 1992 enabled the proponents of the E/F program (an alliance of Naval officers and contractor officials) to misrepresent the E/F design as a modification of the already existing F/A-18C/D when, in fact it, was new design that depended on the improved aerodynamics of a completely redesigned wing.

By portraying the E/F as only a modification of the C/D to approving officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Congress, the Navy could justify bypassing the Milestone I prototyping phase (a decision point mandated for new designs by then-existing regulations) and obtain approval for proceeding directly to concurrent engineering and manufacturing development (EMD), or Milestone II. My contemporaneous memoranda documenting this particular deception-in-progress can be found in Appendix D of Stevensonís "Pentagon Paradox," including a series of three memoranda describing the attempt to place false and misleading statements in the written testimony of Defense Secretary Richard Cheneyís testimony to Congress, which at that time was potentially a felony under Title 18 U.S.C. 1001 and possibly 1505.

The E/Fís front loading scam was not some trivial piece of defense arcana: insiders understand that the EMD decision is by far the most important decision point in any programís life cycle. It unlocks enough money for contractor to begin spreading long-term subcontracts and political patronage to companies located all around the United States. The spreading operation, known as Political Engineering, insinuates growing economic dependencies (dollars, jobs, and profits) into as many congressional districts as quickly as possible. This builds a political safety net by weaving a nationwide web of individual congressmen and senators who are each dependent on continued cash flows.

In short, the name of the game is turn on the money spigot and lock it open.

Taken together, Defense Power Games (i.e., Front Loading and Political Engineering) amount to nothing less than a conscious assault on the checks and balances of the Constitution. The grand strategy is to DETER Congress from exercising its constitutionally mandated power of the purse by raising the price of a discretionary action (e.g., a vote to eliminate spending) to enough individual politicians that Congress, acting collectively, shrinks from that attempt.

The strategic aim is to build a MAJORITY FACTION in Congress by selectively targeting a minority of well-organized and vocal special interests in a large number of congressional districts located all over the country. This conception of a majority faction is somewhat different from that feared by James Madison in Federalist #10.

Madison was concerned about protecting individual rights or legitimate minority interests when a majority of the people favored a given course of action that threatened those rights or interests. So Madison and others designed the system of checks and balances to pit faction against faction under the theory that this competition would prevent the rise of arbitrary rule by the democratic mob as had happened in Greece and Rome. While not perfect (racial discrimination being the outstanding example of insufficient protections), the evolution of this basic system has served the people of our nation well for two hundred years.

The strategy of the Defense Power games, in effect, exploits the vulnerabilities of the Madisonian design by turning Madisonís idea of majority faction on its head. The "end" is to create a majority faction in Congress by making a majority of legislators dependent on a patronage network that shapes the collective decision of the Congress. The "means" are the dollars, jobs, and profits flowing to a vocal and organized minority of people located in crucial congressional districts throughout the United States.

Obviously the tactical keys to a successful execution this strategy relate to obtaining the money and then spreading it around before anyone realizes a need for a discretionary counter check or counter balance.

In other words, Front Loading and Political Engineering refer to the different categories of tactics that can be used in different combinations to turn on the money spigot and lock it open. Anything that downplays the future consequences of current decisions and makes it easier to start a program and get the money flowing is a front loading tactic. Anything that helps to spread the money all over the country and thereby make it harder to stop the flow is a political engineering tactic.

In military terms, front loading operations can be likened to the infiltration tactics that find or create the gaps used to slip your forces into the enemy position before he realizes what you are up to, and political engineering operations can be liken to the heavy exploitation forces that blitz through these gaps, shore them up, and widen them to create an unstoppable torrent. [A more in-depth discussion can be found in my report, ĎDefense Power Games,í which can be down loaded from the web site beneath my signature block.].

The resulting political effect is not lost on the appointees running the Office of the Secretary of Defense who are charged with overseeing the resource allocation process ("overlooking" would be a more accurate descriptor of their efforts), because, being temporary employees who got their jobs by playing politics, their sense of Ďdecisivenessí is conditioned the ever-present need to find their next job.

So, with rare exceptions, the political engineering activities unleashed by a Milestone II decision have a history of virtually guaranteeing that the politicians and appointees will eventually approve the program for production (Milestone III).

Returning to the case of the F/A-18E/F, we can now put its history of deceptions in a larger perspective. The effort to hide the new wing in 1992 was a front loading operation aimed at unleashing EMD. This provided the political engineers with enough money and commitment to begin building the patronage network needed to support the majority faction in Congress. Hiding the unsolved wing drop problem before the initial production decision in March 1997 was a follow-on front loading operation, but this time it aimed at unleashing the increased money flowing out of low-rate initial production. That decision enabled the political engineers to reinforce their spreading operations with an expanding torrent of money flows.

The F/A-18E/F, therefore, is an excellent case study to illustrate how front loading and political engineering activities have cascading effects that accrete in power over time as their "combined-arms" effects mutually reinforce each other.


Nathmanís response is another example of the all too familiar pattern of bullying and duplicity that has been the defining theme of the F/A-18E/F program since its inception in the early 1990s, but it is equally important in the larger context of the Defense Power Games. Stoutís critique could not have come at a more inopportune time for the Navy. Having just completed its operational evaluation, the Navy is about to ask Secretary of Defense to approve ramping up the production of F/A-18E/Fs to full rate, probably in late March or April.

The Navy will tell Mr. Cohen that the results of OPEVAL Ė the final series of operational tests to determine fleet worthiness Ė prove the airplane is ready for production. My sources in the Navy tell me that the General Accounting Office (GAO) is auditing that test program and is now reviewing the test data. But the GAO will probably not be able to submit its final report until June or July, well after the F/A-18E/F has been approved for production.

Given the controversy surrounding this program, we can expect the Navy to press hard for its approval before the GAO reports its findings to Congress and the people.

But given the Navyís track record of cascading front loading operations in the F/A-18E/F, a more prudent course of action would be for the Secretary of Defense to defer his production decision for two to three months until he has had time to digest the full import of the GAOís independent findings.

Then we might have a product that results from a healthy open debate.

Chuck Spinney

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