Monday, 2 February 2009

Book review: "The $5 billion dollar misunderstanding", by Stevenson

This book has been on my to-be-read shelf for nearly a year. The reason is not the topic, but rather the fact that one glance shows that the wealth of contractual detail contained within is dense. Despite this, I completed it fairly quickly; in its way, it is a riveting read.

It details one of the most troubled procurements in the history of the US military - the A12 Avenger-II naval stealth plane. The development of this plane started in the mid-eighties, but was cancelled in January 1991 after a spend of nearly $5 billion dollars. After all of that time and money, not even the wooden mock-up had been completed. The cancellation led to a series of court cases that are still being appealed, 18 years after the cancellation!

The A12 was supposed to be everything that the US Navy and Marines wanted in a combat aircraft; it would be stealthy and capable of fulfilling many roles (deep strike, interdiction, fighter escort and others). The stealth aspect was highly important, and resulted in the plane's distinctive design - a tailless isosceles triangle, which looked somewhat like a smaller version of the contemporary B2 bomber. It could also be said to have led to the vast majority of the problems that befell the project.

First, let me say that this book is not an easy read. The acronym count is very high, and the wealth of contractual detail is sometimes overwhelming. However, it is also fascinating. If you want to know the way large projects are poorly run by the US Government and contractors, then this book will give you a good idea.

To say I was well and truly flabbergasted is an understatement. The entire project was illegal from the start, with (so the author contends) the Navy consistently lying to the US Government and the contractors. The Navy wanted this aircraft so badly that they were willing to subvert the procurement process repeatedly. From my reading, it appears that at no time was the project even legally funded! The Navy was spending money it did not have...

As time went on, the unit cost of each aircraft rose considerably. Initially each plane was meant to cost around $45 million; in the end the cost was $91 million, and some say as high as $136, $165 or $200 million dollars (a large part of this difference is whether development costs are included in the per-unit costs). In the end it was estimated that, had it continued, the A-12 would have consumed up 70 percent of the Navy's aircraft budget within three years.

From the very beginning, this project was out of control, yet no-one in the Navy wanted to admit it to the Government. It was a secret 'black' project, and this added its own complexities; it was hard for anyone outside the program to see in, and it also made it easy for people within to hide the truth. There had not even been a proper requirements capture stage, where people sat down and worked out what they wanted the aircraft to be. This is important, as surely a military vehicle (plane, tank and ship) has to be created to fight a specific real or future threat? Instead of finding threats and designing requirements that could beat those threats, it seems that the Navy just came up with a random wish-list, then tried to find threats that would justify the plane.

One of the more fantastical facts is that, at the time, the US Government had three stealthy aircraft under development - the B2 bomber, the YF-22 (later F22) fighter and the A-12. A logical conclusion would have been to allow the teams to understand the technology on each others' planes, allowing 'lessons learned' to be passed on. It is claimed that the team behind the A-12 were told they would get this, but the Navy reneged on the agreement. This meant that the team building the A-12 had to re-learn many issues that had already been solved on the other planes - a massively costly way of doing things. One of the major issues in term of cost, time and weight in the A-12 project, the creation of the long wing-spars out of composites, had already been solved on the B2.

You will not get technical details on the A12 in this book. However, if you want to know how people (perhaps with the best of intentions) can illegally subvert a process, then look no further.

I would give this book 2 out of 5 stars, mainly because I would have preferred more technical than contractual details.


M&S said...

While it is true that technical details on the aircraft are somewhat 'low observable', what must be recalled is that this is an airframe which was _deeply_ classified and so very little commented upon, even in the trade press (Janes, AvLeak etc.) as the ATF (YF-22/23) so avidly were.

Most 'knew' the ATA was likely a flying wing but that was it.

Additionally, the program produced only a wooden mockup and some basic component parts: the notorious wing ribs and some composite friendly bolts as I recall, so actual, evidentiary, proof of what the airframe was intended to do is simply not there.

That this was itself an indication of a major lapse on the part of various DOD, NavAir and eventually Congressional fact finder agencies involved with oversight is a given (one joke was that, while the mockup was on schedule for first flight, the real jet was at least a year behind).

Still, there are interesting technical blurbs interspersed throughout the wall of legaleze; including descriptions by no less a personality than Lockheed Skunkworks' Ben Rich on how the A-12 infrared suppression worked and why the aircraft's LO design was compromised because the GDMDC engineers didn't understand how jets continue to 'cook' (get hotter) after engine shut down and you have to build RAM coated jet pipes thicker or they will lose their ferrous properties.

There is also a decent explanation (getting into multistatics and PCLS as part of 'Cooperative Engagement' or NIFC-CA as it is known today) for why Stealth may not be the bag of chips it was once thought to be in the 1980s while standoff missiles like the FOG-S remain a viable option for more conventional airframes.

Other areas, specific to the A-12 itself, are hinted at intriguingly:

The switch from a thin to a thick wing and it's subsequent effects on SEROC being one. Another, not even mentioned until the endnotes, being the provision of a 'stealth bra' which the USN auditors who formed the basis of the Government Argument for cancellation for default -knew nothing about- until the court arguments (classification level beyond their paygrade). A modification which would have utterly changed the outline of the aircraft's nose to fix a known problematic frontal RCS issue related to the inlets. This latter being particularly interesting because it was discovered by USAF modeling which indicates the secondary service (The Air Force was due to buy as many as 600 ATAs to replace the F-111 and F-15E) was not as distant from the program as the rest of the text's reporting on the refusal to share VLO characteristics suggests.

There is also good tabular data, showing principle loadouts and specification variations between the dedicated attack, multirole and 'fighter optimized' ATA designs.

One of the early alternative developments being for a stealthy F-14 type platform which would later be seen again in the ATA's replacement AFX effort.

Knowing a little bit about how the procurement system really runs and particularly past USN histories of sabotaging programs they didn't really want to be part of (Lehman hated the A-12), I can easily see that 'fighter fixation' took over for common sense as the USAF, which spent several thousand percent more on their ATF program, came closer to service selection of the F-22.

M&S said...

And even more the likely role of community politics (fighter, light attack, heavy all weather attack) which dictated that the A-12 could not become The Jet That Ate The Navy.

As it had already led to the cancellation of the of the A-6F/G and F-14D remanufacture.

This panic becoming all the more the more unreasoned as outyear effects on necessary force structure recap met up with the 'base force' reductions after 1991 which saw a thirty percent reduction in naval hull counts and the abandonment of the 700 ship navy.

Under these conditions, the USN required a much more multirole capable airframe (despite the author's contention, the A-12 was never a fighter, at best it might have served as a missileer with AAAM, supported by the F-14D with it's lighthouse APG-71).

Perhaps most intriguing to a student of stealth are the two related facts that the aircraft, rather than employ explicit planform control (w shaped flying wings are hard to do on a jet stressed for carrier landings) the A-12 was to be 'linoleumed' over almost all it's surface area in thick dielectric RAM. Possibly in a manner more similar to the F-117 than the F-22.

Supposedly, none of the airframe's VLO features or methods have since been reincorporated on followon programs which indicates that the USN may have gone for too conservative rather than too extreme a vision of VLO engineering (applique RAM is infamous for having low resilience and high weight, the A-12 having fought weight issues for most of it's abortive development...).

Given that the A-12's baseline RCS reduction was supposed to be less than that of even the F-22, if the treatments worked it would be unheard of that they were not reused as, even in the hypercompetitive modern aerospace industry, good ideas never die.

Further to this, according to Ben Rich, the A-12, while very weak when brought to him, 'came in a 3 or 4 and left an 11' after the LM Skunk Works worked their magic on the A-12 RCS model at their RATSCAT ranges.

This being was a large part of what won GDMDC the contract.

That there is a dichotomy if not outright paradox here cannot be denied, particularly as Northrop walked away laughing from the fixed price development work, based on CEO Tom Jones' belief that 'A poor man's funding environment makes engineers hire lawyers' argument.

And as a reference to the legal side of things, there is a significant bias against the USG in the writing which, while well deserved on the base of the evidence presented, does leave serious questions unanswered: such as who did Cold Pigeon, was GD as ignorant of VLO as they claim? The recent appearance of A-12 component elements (A canopy and an inlet grill), separate from the mockup, suggests that there may have been a flying qualities demonstrator active.

All in all, a highly interesting book which commands an indecent price for good reason but also one whose technical details need a bit of a defense aerospace prior knowledge to winkle out the significance of from the text and whose written bias leaves unexplored some key elements in the program's history.

I would give it 4 stars simply for the title's restricted availability and the fact that, after the final settlement of the court case, there is likely more of the story which can now be told.

With the looming disaster which is the F-35 program now also confronting us, Mr. Stevenson could do worse than to make a second run of this great title with an expanded addendum and some newer pictures (I understand the mockup has been fully restored and is on display...).

For those looking for a similarly in-depth analysis of the F-111 as another example of hostile USN procurement politics, I can equally recommend Robert Coulam's _Illusions Of Choice_.

David Cotton said...

Thanks for all that M&S; you are evidently far more knowledgeable about this topic than I am!

As you say, it will be interesting to know what will come out now the court case has finished. It seems crazy that it took 23 years for that case to be completed, and the result cannot have left anyone satisfied.