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:: June 2011 Letter ::

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Dear Fellow Aircraft Program Funeral Attendees,

“Wake Up and Die Right.” This priceless advice was offered by a colleague in a recent forecasting session. It concerned an aircraft program that had died a while back, for good reasons, and was undergoing yet another feeble resuscitation, a futile chest-pounding on a corpse that richly deserved its long dirt nap but didn’t know it. Yet current events have me reconsidering my cynical contempt for dead planes. Thinking about my colleague’s recommendation, perhaps there is a right way for planes to die after all.

The current event is the Bin Laden raid. As anyone not living in the same kind of cave we thought Bin Laden was living in knows, the raid used SOCOM helicopters with stealth modifications. These appear to have been H-60s with substantial airframe and dynamic system modifications. While nothing’s certain, these modified Black Hawks almost certainly used technology from the dead RAH-66 Comanche stealth scout helicopter.

This is happy news. When Comanche was cancelled seven years ago, I wrote a snarky letter (March 2004) pointing out the last two phases of any failed program: destruction of all useful documentation and persecution of the innocent. Turns out I was wrong. While $6 billion was a lot to spend, it might have resulted in some very usable design work. If that work enabled the Bin Laden killing, it was $6 billion very well spent. As it turns out, the Comanche story might be a useful illustration of a program dying a smart death.

Coincidentally, my travels in the past few weeks took me to two opposite ends of the spectrum of dumb to less dumb program deaths. First, I went to Ottawa, where the Canada Aviation and Space Museum (a delight, by the way) houses the last part of the Avro Arrow, a legendary jet fighter cancelled in 1958. Not only was the tooling destroyed, but so were five flying prototypes and other completed ones. All that remains is the nose and cockpit of one plane, with the words CUT HERE stenciled on the end of the surviving section (where it was cut off the rest of the destroyed plane). Then, I went to Marietta, Georgia, to visit the F-22 line. The F-22’s death may be premature, but at least the program is dying right. Not only are they preserving the tooling, but they’re making a video library of “smart books,” DVDs that preserve the tribal knowledge associated with manufacturing an F-22. That includes the right way to hold each tool needed to assemble each part.

All this got me thinking about right and wrong ways for a program to die. Current DoD plans call for the US to go from nine fixed-wing military aircraft lines today to just three by the end of the decade. Europe, meanwhile, will likely lose its entire combat aircraft industry. That’s a lot of funerals, and a lot of planes that should be allowed to die right. As these programs die, consider the following guidance:

1. Can any technology be salvaged? In the case of the Comanche, something was. You can argue that the F-22’s death is less awful since some of the technology goes to the F-35. What if Dick Cheney succeeded in killing the V-22 back in 1992? Tiltrotors may or may not be a dead end aeronautical concept, but imagine if all the technology had been destroyed, and we never had the chance to test it out?

2. Should any industrial capabilities be preserved? They’re doing that with the F-22. That’s a great model to use with other programs, but it requires both deep industrial base studies that look at the health of all levels of the supply chain and funding to preserve component supplier capabilities (the F-22 has a relatively easy supply chain to preserve because F-35 technology could be applied to any reborn F-22). Unique, standalone programs like the C-17 or V-22 don’t have this advantage. DoD ain’t great at pursuing these studies or providing this funding.

3. Was the program given a chance to survive with exports? Prohibiting and/or discouraging F-22 export efforts makes this a less than smart death. The C-130J line was kept going with exports. European governments, meanwhile, obviously did a better job than the US in pursuing India’s all-important MMRCA. That means Eurofighter or Rafale might just survive.

4. Have the long-term requirements been studied? Don Rumsfeld’s singlehanded dumbing-down of the Secdef job culminated in PBD 753, a shockingly uneducated effort to kill a multi-year procurement contract (in this case, the C-130J). A few years after that mercifully failed killing, DoD suddenly realized it needed lots of C-130E/H replacements, resulting in a huge C-130J requirement. Disaster averted, by accident.

5. Are there any other ways of creatively preserving the program? Government/private sector partnerships might make sense, particularly when long term requirements are uncertain and exports are a possibility. You can make a strong case against a second F-35 engine. But if GE and Rolls want to continue F136 engine developing on their own dime, why not let them?

Two factors mitigate against these sensible goals. For one, R&D is perpetually in short supply, and it’s getting worse. Corporations, under pressure from shareholders, are reluctant to spend IR&D (Independent, or, non-contract R&D) on technology with little hope of payback. Yet sometimes, preserving dead program technology can pay dividends for contractors. Assuming Lockheed Martin preserved some VH-71 knowledge, that will likely be useful in the reborn VXX competition. Further back in history, even though the Air Force destroyed all the YB-35/YB-49 tooling in 1950, Northrop retained enough flying wing knowledge to lead the B-2 program decades later. While corporate budget cuts also mean fewer Skunk Works types of operations, each failed program also represents an opportunity, a prototype. For an interesting history of how the Spitfire was almost killed and how it was cultivated in a proto-Skunk Works environment, see Tim Harford’s The Airplane That Saved The World (www.slate.com/id/2293662/)

The second factor is that decision makers want their decisions to stick. To make things stick, a scorched earth approach works best. President Carter killed the B-1, but didn’t salt the proverbial earth of the production line, leaving President Reagan to revive the program and build 100 B-1Bs. SecDef Gates will soon leave office with a reputation as a solid leader, but he’ll also be remembered as the guy who killed a bunch of programs, particularly the F-22, C-17, VH-71, and the F136. It’s understandable that he wants to be four for four with these programs, but a scorched earth approach makes for terrible industrial policy. In the case of his vendetta against the F136, it also looks like a very strange use of political capital. (Memo to Secretary Gates: you were a great SecDef. Enjoy your retirement. Step away from the turbine.)

Back in the world of the living, Teal’s jetliner forecast is updated in June’s WMCAB supplement. Other June updates include the Trainer overview, the LCA, Learjet series, ALH, Tornado, Rooivalk, and the MD-80. Have a great month.

Yours, ‘Til Death Takes A Holiday,
Richard Aboulafia
 

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