:: October 2010 Letter ::


Dear Fellow Alternative History Fans,

The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be. That’s a common aphorism, but I never felt it so keenly as when I look back at the A-12 attack aircraft program. The most expensive aircraft that never was is back in the news, after 20+ years of prolonged non-existence. The two contractors, General Dynamics and Boeing, are in a lawsuit with the government over who’s to blame (contractors or government) for this debacle. In September, after many years, this case reached the US Supreme Court. The A-12’s reappearance makes me strangely nostalgic for an age that might have been. It’s also a reminder of how not to run a program.

First, some background. The Navy wanted a carrier-based stealth attack plane. McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics won the competition with a triangular design, known as the “Flying Dorito.” After blowing through about $5 billion, the companies admitted they weren’t even near finishing a prototype. The Navy cancelled the contract in 1991 and said the companies owed it $1.35 billion. The Supreme Court will decide who was to blame. If you want more, and for the bigger implications of the Supreme Court ruling, see Vago Muradian and John Bennett’s October 1st Defense News story. For more still, see Jim Stevenson’s The $5 Billion Misunderstanding (Naval Institute Press, 2001). Nineteen years after this unfortunate but richly deserved cancellation, looking at the A-12 provides a fascinating alternative history of the last 20 years.

Imagine the air power force that the US might have today. In addition to the 858 Navy/USMC A-12s, the Air Force was considering several hundred land-based A-12s. It also wanted 750 Advanced Tactical Fighters (later the F-22). The Navy wanted 618 Naval ATFs. The Air Force was also planning on 132 B-2s. Meanwhile, there’d be continued procurement of the F-14D, F-15E, A-6F and Hornet 2000, as well as impressive upgrades to legacy assets like B-1s, EA-6Bs, A-7Fs and F-111/EF-111s. With a force like this, the US wouldn’t need to worry about near-peer adversaries until the Romulans arrived.

Instead of all this, the US got 21 B-2s, 187 F-22s, and nothing more except the F-35, intended to do the job of all the other planes. It also got 20,000 MRAPs and an endless debate over how to properly do nation building and counterinsurgency (COIN). Teddy Roosevelt advised the country to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Since the first Gulf War (and the A-12 cancellation) we’ve shouted loudly and carried a police baton. To put it another way, as a space marine in the movie Aliens asked, “Is this going to be a stand-up fight, sir, or another bug hunt?” In the A-12’s time the US planned a military equipped for a stand up fight. Twenty years later, it’s equipped for a bug hunt.

Looking at this alternative history also leads to three comments on the state of aircraft today:

1. Airplanes today look like they did before the A-12. Looking at the baroque aeronautical menagerie that might have been reveals a profusion of exotic shapes. The A-12, F-117, and B-2, along with contemporaneous civil planes like Beech’s Starship and Piaggio’s Avanti, promised a new age of high-tech wonders that finally delivered on the wondrous futurism of aviation. By 2015 we were supposed to be travelling in large bat-winged jetliners. Yet planes today look basically like they did before those revolutionary jets arrived. Before it was unveiled, we thought the ATF would look completely new. The losing YF-23 contender was mildly exotic, but the F-22 (and F-35) are quite recognizable as conventional fighters. After the A-12 cancellation, Navair was saved by the F/A-18E/F, a derivative of a very conventional 1970s design. On the rotorcraft front, the all-new V-22 survived (with one big customer), but the only pathbreaking helicopter of the 1990s, the RAH-66 Comanche, was killed. The big US helo programs today are updates of the AH-1, AH-64, CH-47, UH-1, and UH-60, all of which have been in production for 30-40 years. The only well-funded rotorcraft for the future: another version of the 1960s-era CH-53. As for UAVs, there are some neat new concepts, like the X-47, but most procurement cash has gone towards rather traditional designs.

2. Stealth was a revolution that went nowhere. After the F-117’s performance in Panama, it was assumed that stealth was a killer app, the future of any serious air service. A force of 132 B-2s would give the service the power to strike anywhere unseen. The A-12 would extend the stealth gospel to another air arm outside the USAF, and make stealth compatible with maritime operations. Twenty years later, the Air Force remains the only air service in the world with stealth, and it’s planning to operate non-stealthy F-15s and F-16s for decades to come. It may even buy more non-stealthy legacy jets. The biggest European defense program, Eurofighter, was designed as if stealth never happened. The F-35 is a respectably low-observable design, but stealth isn’t its primary selling point or design parameter. Congress did its part to stop stealth, by forbidding F-22 exports. And the F-22 line is closing next year.

3. Composites were a revolution delayed, and we don’t know when they’ll arrive. All of these dead planes were going to teach us how to build large composite structures in large quantities. They didn’t. The aerospace advanced materials industry almost imploded as these programs got whacked. When and if the composite revolution happens, it will be led by civil jets like the 787 and A350XWB, not military programs. Given Airbus and Boeing’s uncertainty over composite single-aisles, and Mitsubishi’s shift on the MRJ from composites to metal, it’s possible that composites stay restricted to twin-aisle jets. The most ambitious new business jet in the next five years is the Gulfstream 650, and it’s largely metal.

What a long, strange road it hasn’t been. Our industry today is healthier and more profitable than in the A-12 days. It’s also much less ambitious and revolutionary. And the same is true for US air power. Would we be in better shape with stealth, composites, and an invincible air power force? They don’t matter today, but in ten years they might. Great powers go through phases in which COIN is the main challenge, only to be surprised by the arrival of a peer threat (see my May 2009 letter for more about this). If China stays on its present path, having a bug hunt force in 2020 might be disastrous for the US.

Mitigating against these technological leaps, of course, is the sheer cost of R&D. Developing new technology is incredibly expensive. Just ask Airbus and Boeing. But for many military “reformers,” the answer is fixed-price contracts. Sure, cost-plus contracts can get expensive, but nothing invites catastrophe like a fixed-price development contract. And that’s where my favorite dead plane continues to do yeoman work. Looking back at the A-12 program makes it shockingly clear that fixed-price development contracts are for dummies. The A-12 case clearly showed that services and/or contractors can grossly underestimate actual development requirements, and then worry about the consequences after the contract is awarded. The persistence of the A-12 lawsuit shows just how miserable these cases can get.

Thankfully, the US hasn’t used one of these awful contracts since the A-12 and C-17 programs began 20+ years ago. For a reminder of the bad old days, see Europe’s A400M single-phase fixed-price contract as a modern example of contracting malfeasance. Also, this month, the Nimrod MRA4 got killed by the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review. I believe that this is the third time a Nimrod variant has been cancelled (shades of South Park: “Oh my god, they killed Nimrod!” “You bastards!”). But more to the point, even though the MRA4 was a derivative that should have been a relatively straightforward project, a horrible fixed-price contract hobbled this program from the start.

Teal had an A-12 report once. I did it myself in 1990, when I was 27 and awestruck by our glorious future. By contrast, Teal Aircraft report updates this month include the somewhat pedestrian 757, C-5, OH-1, CRJ, Legacy/Phenom, Premier/Hawker 200, and CL-415. There’s a new report on Embraer’s KC-390, which may enter service in the next ten years. It’s a good design. But from its outward appearance it could have been designed 30 years ago.

Yours, ‘Til The 787 Gets Its Original Shark Tail Vertical Fin Back,
Richard Aboulafia


© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.
  ~  Last updated on January 08, 2006