So What Makes a Good Weapons Program Anyways?

Discuss the F-35 Lightning II
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1st503rdsgt

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Unread post21 Mar 2012, 06:15

Arkadyrenko has stated on a recent post that the F-35 is in development hell. I agree, but what constitutes a good weapons development program and why? Ideas? Examples?
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megasun

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Unread post21 Mar 2012, 09:26

If it developes as expected, as planned, I presume, then nobody will complain.
But future technologies have uncertainty, and requirements keep changing from time to time. Prediction is difficult.
An approach maybe to keep adjusting expectation as the development drifting from roadmap. Performance, cost, quantity, etc., something needs to compromise.

Adjust plan, buy less if it's expensive, explore other options, move resources to more promising programs. I take Super Hornet is pretty successful, so is UAV, drones can take up much striking tasks.

Lower the requirement, goal is really high to build 3 different warplanes into 1. Usually it's like when A variant is proven to be successful, people starts to build B variant. I think no matter how, USMC will be happy about B vairant as it's much better than Harrier II, but Navy may need more of an air supiority fighter in future, besides striking drone.
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hb_pencil

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Unread post21 Mar 2012, 11:25

Its a very good question, and the answer is difficult to assess, particularly if the development is ongoing. In many ways its something that is somewhat difficult to assess while you're in it. The F/A-18 was characterized as an overpriced lemon during the late 1990s... now its considered an excellent program. Same as the C-17.

The F-35 was one of DoD's most riskiest programs in recent history. It attempts to do so many things at once: stealth, good transonic performance, sensor fusion, networking and affordability. So its not surprising the program is going to see overruns on its RDT&E. Yet that will need to be assessed with the hindsight of how many fighters it eventually produces and their capability.

Certainly the concurrency program was a major error... it went against the GAO's best practices. Its actually had a negative effect on software development. That's going to be a big strike against it no matter what. However from the looks of the GAO report, the fighter's development has been better rationalized and should have a smoother sailing from here on in.
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southernphantom

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Unread post21 Mar 2012, 12:50

megasun wrote:Navy may need more of an air supiority fighter in future, besides striking drone.


This would be the F/A-XX, which is looking to be a two-seat, twin-engine stealth fighter roughly analogous to a VLO F-14.
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Unread post21 Mar 2012, 14:49

southernphantom wrote:
megasun wrote:Navy may need more of an air supiority fighter in future, besides striking drone.


This would be the F/A-XX, which is looking to be a two-seat, twin-engine stealth fighter roughly analogous to a VLO F-14.


And the good news on the F/A-XX (F/A-18E/F replacement) concept is the Navy is requesting FY13 funding for pre-Milestone A activities.
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lamoey

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Unread post21 Mar 2012, 14:57

There are two extreme opposite views on this. One is that no weapons development program is best and the other is any weapons development program is good. We have few, if any, of the first opinion on this forum, but several of the last.
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sufaviper

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Unread post21 Mar 2012, 16:55

I think the LWF and resulting F-16 are about as close as it gets to a "good development program." The program resulted in a large reversals in trends and produced arguable the best fighter for your money in the world, which will soon deliver it's 4,500 copy.

Several key things allowed this to happen:
not overly ambitious (developed a new airframe and little else)
hidden from the Pentagon at large for a long period (avoided the buearocracy)
kept small with a tight knit group (avoided too many cooks in the kitchen)
not developed under a media microscope (which loves to report bad news)
allowed to be simple to begin and develop over time (didn't need to be fully capable from day 1)

I think those are things that have been missing from many developments including, but not limited too A400M, B-2, B-1, C-17, F-14, F-15, F-18, F-18E/F, F-22, F-35, Eurofighter, and Rafale.

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delvo

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Unread post21 Mar 2012, 18:20

Ben Rich dedicated the last sections of his book "Skunk Works" to arguing that new development projects, particularly the ones with the biggest or most important technological advances, work best when your advanced development department gets to keep out not only the government but also the business-as-usual executives in charge of the whole company that that department is in. But his emphasis is on the government vultures, who have kept getting worse with each new project than the one before... and who react to the problem by saying they need to send in even more to do even more vulturing to prevent it next time, thus making it worse next time.

Still, without any government people hanging all over it, something happened to the process for Boeing's 787, too. Maybe Rich's principle applies there anyway, to the relationship between the 787 developers and the company heads. Either way, delays and cost overruns might just be inherent to advanced new technology in airplanes, so perhaps part of the problem is not really bad engineering and cost controls but inaccurate estimating ahead of time, with a tendency to get both numbers too low. How would the people doing the estimating know the difference between a failure of their estimating methods and a failure of something else?

Whatever's going wrong with so many aircraft development projects clearly has something to do with coming up with new technology for them; the only new-plane project I know of that's seriously expected to be completed faster and cheaper than others of the same general type is the long-range strike-bomber, which is apparently going to be a collection of technologies and techniques that were originally developed in other programs and thus isn't new for this plane.
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Unread post21 Mar 2012, 19:10

I wrote a review a few months ago about his book, which discussed the limitations of Rich's and Skunk Work's approach. Short answer: the lean approach works if you're trying to solve relatively straight forward problems. Its relatively poor when you try to solve complex problems. Problem is that most military capabilities must solve the latter, not the former. Furthermore there are counter examples where government interaction led to positive outcomes. This case study of the JDAM program illustrates how the opposite might be true. Its really a case of applying the right systems at the right times.

You're right though, its largely about risk, and the underestimation of it. Basically we have a system that encourages lowest cost bidding, on something that almost can't be assessed. The development costs are going to be extremely high. Then there is gold plating.
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megasun

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Unread post21 Mar 2012, 20:36

Vulturing itself shouldn't hurt, right? Unless they interfere and require changes in the mean time.

Good point that bidding causes the lowest estimation always being picked.

LRS-B is said to stick with mature technologies. Project runners always know the problem, but do they really know how to control it. If this project is actually quick and under budget, it may also complement the striking fighter, and provide some degree of competition to it. I doubt after bidding is finished, nobody to balance the greed of contractors can be another reason.
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Unread post22 Mar 2012, 18:03

megasun wrote:Vulturing itself shouldn't hurt, right? Unless they interfere and require changes in the mean time.


Because they never ever interefere or require changes, right? But actually, the vulturing itself does hurt, and it hurts a lot. Every inspection takes people offline from their actual jobs, so they can instead spend their time preparing pre-review documents, preparing reports, attending briefings, looking over old documents and sanitizing them before the inspection team comes, preparing review documents, showing inspectors around, being interviewed by the inspectors, etc. You wind up with the most important staff down for weeks. And then when they do interfere, it not only makes new expensive work, but undoes prior expensive work which then has to be re-done to the new spec. I have a Federal inspection coming up for my unit in a couple weeks. I've been largely offline from my job for three weeks before now too ("largely" mostly because I was already in the process of fixing what they want to inspect; I caught it and convinced management to let me correct it two weeks before national even thought to check on it -- inspections are not generally necessary when you hire people you can trust). Inspections are not useless. Fresh eyes do catch problems. But excessive inspections and excessive authority for the inspectors to require rather than suggest changes are, in and of themselves, problems.

Not to mention that the inspectors are inspected not on quality outcomes of what they're inspecting, but for finding problems. In one past inspection (different and much less competent group than the upcoming one) we were told that something held together with a friction fit was unacceptable. (The compensator on a lot of guns is a friction fit. The femoral head of most artificial hips is a friction fit. Friction fits are very strong. I could, and did, hang from this little thing with my full weight and bounce up and down, and it would not budge. There was no regulation saying it could not be a friction fit. This friction-fit item was designed to hold exactly what it was holding. And it was not even load-bearing normally.) But one inspector didn't like it, so we got new parts that attached with a bolt. Then the next time they came back, the same inspector didn't like it that there was only one bolt. So we had to add a second identical part next to it. And the next time he came back, he didn't like the clips the bolts held, so we had to get an entirely new pair of parts that could hold a different clip. All told, I'm convinced the original friction fit solution was stronger and tougher than what's holding it now. (This isn't dangerous at least; unless I'm hanging from it to show how strong it is, it doesn't carry any load.) And the main reason we haven't had changes since is mostly, I think, that the inspector responsible retired.

If you don't trust who you're paying to do the work, you should've hired someone else you do trust. Inspections should be a rare thing, should be done by one and only one assigned office, and the costs and work should be borne by the inspectors. The inspections should be limited to one level; if the Pentagon bureaucracy inspects the contractor, then Pentagon brass should inspect their bureacracy, and Congress should inspect no closer than the Pentagon brass. And the principle should be that they have to find evidence of misconduct or error. They should just watch people work over a period of time; unless they see something wrong, the assumption should be that things are fine unless and until they can prove otherwise.

Good point that bidding causes the lowest estimation always being picked.


Yes. It provides tremendous incentive to, if not outright lie, at least accept the rosiest possible cost estimate for everything. An estimate that is thus weighted heavily towards cost overruns, and nearly incapable of coming in under budget, or even on budget. Yet by the time the contract is started, money is spent, and those overruns have to be paid. They can't be stuck entirely on the contractor because driving them out of business only means you've spent the money and have zilch to show for it.

LRS-B is said to stick with mature technologies. Project runners always know the problem, but do they really know how to control it. If this project is actually quick and under budget, it may also complement the striking fighter, and provide some degree of competition to it. I doubt after bidding is finished, nobody to balance the greed of contractors can be another reason.


It's said to stick with mature technologies, but I think they'll find that to be very limiting, and LRS-B will enter the same cycle of mission and capability creep as everything else. Thinking, without any real test of it, that "mature technologies" just happen to exist to solve all the development problems of a new aircraft is just another version of the rosiest possible estimate for everything. Especially with our broken model of development, where R&D is tied to specific projects. We have very few truly generalizable "mature technologies." For example, will the LRS-B use the F-135 engine? It's a great transsonic engine. But remember the F-135 has a very expensive and sophisticated stealthy, variable afterburner. So that means the bomber, which has been said to be high subsonic, will have expensive afterburning engines it doesn't need, won't have rear aspect stealth if they don't keep the afterburner, or will require a new modification to give the engine a new stealthy non-afterburning rear. How much better and/or cheaper over the long run would it be to modify the engine to meet the new plane's actual needs? But will they spend the funds up front to do that?

Should existing technologies make it actually fall short of its KPPs, then what? Do we develop a better version of the inadequate component? Or just accept that it can't do what it was meant to do? Or cut our losses and scrap it after spending lots of the development, and then have nothing whatsoever to show for all the money spent? This does nothing to prevent cost spirals, and death spirals, it just cheerfully assumes existing technologies are adequate, rather than assuming developing new technologies will stay on budget.

Contractor greed is not a major issue. They prosper more by building a cheap product with a high markup, or a cheap product sold in volume, than they do building an expensive product with no room for markup and little market for extra numbers.
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arkadyrenko

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Unread post22 Mar 2012, 22:03

I would say that the ideal program has technological risk inversely proportional to the size / importance of the program. Hence, a small program to build a small number of airframes will take on high technological risk and vise versa.

The problem with the JSF is that it combined a massive important step for the USAF, wholesale replacement of the F-16, with pretty high technological risk.

How to advance forward in technology? I would advocate for the short run construction of 'elite' aircraft, highly specialized and advanced airframes for specific tasks, which then prove the tech that will be rolled into the next major aircraft purchase. The corollary is that the purchase cycle has to be accelerated and the USAF will have to accept a wider range of airframes on the flight line.

Finally, spiral upgrades should be expanded to include substantial airframe modifications.
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Unread post22 Mar 2012, 23:02

arkadyrenko wrote:I would say that the ideal program has technological risk inversely proportional to the size / importance of the program. Hence, a small program to build a small number of airframes will take on high technological risk and vise versa.

The problem with the JSF is that it combined a massive important step for the USAF, wholesale replacement of the F-16, with pretty high technological risk.


The development costs of which are spread across 2400 units, rather than 200.

The issue with fighter development isn't the underlying technologies. Those will really emerge regardless, as firms develop new technologies that can be incorporated into a vast range of fighters. GE and PW are going to be funding engine development research regardless. There is alot of dual use technologies with the civil aviation industry, or ones that can be applied to a number of different military projects.

The real cost of development is taking fundamental technologies and incorporating them into a defined package. Its also the system integration costs; brining all these capabilities into one package.

So your suggestion is to basically continually pay for the most expensive part of R&D and get the least benefit out of it.

arkadyrenko wrote:How to advance forward in technology? I would advocate for the short run construction of 'elite' aircraft, highly specialized and advanced airframes for specific tasks, which then prove the tech that will be rolled into the next major aircraft purchase. The corollary is that the purchase cycle has to be accelerated and the USAF will have to accept a wider range of airframes on the flight line.

Finally, spiral upgrades should be expanded to include substantial airframe modifications.


Impossible. Substantial airframe modifications are very difficult and require significant R&D to accomplish.
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Unread post22 Mar 2012, 23:09

Don't forget that both Skunk Works and the F-16 LWF both used off the shelf hardware where ever possible. So really they are piggy backing off of previous avation programs. Where as with the F-35 it is a whole new airplane from the ground up.
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Unread post23 Mar 2012, 00:30

alloycowboy wrote:Don't forget that both Skunk Works and the F-16 LWF both used off the shelf hardware where ever possible. So really they are piggy backing off of previous avation programs. Where as with the F-35 it is a whole new airplane from the ground up.


But you also have to realize that the context of these aircraft are essential from understanding their success and longevity.

The F-16 was produced at the beginning of the "agile supersonic" era. The decades before was the "Supersonic era" where there was a major technological effort to go faster, both higher and lower. That was a extremely demanding and expensive task. The F-16 was less concerned with pushing the boundaries in these area, and focused more on maneuverability and affordability. Its Avionics package was unreliable until the late 1980s.

Really aerodynamic design has stagnated since the 1980s, the only major changes are the increasing use of composites and Thrust vectoring.. but maneuvering performance of aircraft from the 1980s is roughly equal or even worse in some cases compared to now.

The issue was that in the 1980s we entered the stealth era, which required a completely novel aircraft design to operate successfully. Unfortunately the end of the Cold War pushed the natural replacement cycle into 2000 and also imposed significant cost efficiencies. There was also the revolution in military affairs in the 1990s. Really the USAF and USN had to attempt a highly risky project in order to keep their air superiority due to these two new trends.

I find it kinda funny that people claim the F-35 is a high priced turkey. The reality is that the most effective part of the "American way of war" for the past decade is the synergies developed through advanced networking capabilities. Sure in some areas the F-35's capability isn't as good as one or two of its competitors. However anybody who focuses on that really don't understand the nature of warfare, or how it's changed in the past 30 years. Its about integrating this weapon as a system of systems. In a way I feel some of the performance criticisms similar to the claims about Wehrmacht armor in the late 1930s, compared to the "superiority" of French tanks. Sure german tanks were lightly armed, poorly armored and required more crew than their french counterparts and had that expensive, even superfluous, radio.
Yet we all saw how that worked out in May 1940.
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