US Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Ward has an interesting take on just when the F-35 light strike bomber went off the rails - right from the outset.
In February of 2014, Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, the Air Force’s top uniformed acquisition official, said big, audacious programs like the Joint Strike Fighter were “doomed the day the contract was signed.” As the former Program Executive Officer for the JSF, he brings a pretty credible perspective to the situation. Given his first-hand experience and the F-35’s track record of delays, cost overruns, technical problems, operational limitations, and the recent grounding of the entire fleet due to an engine fire, I am very much inclined to agree with him.
The phrasing of Lt. Gen. Davis’ assessment is important: He is not saying the F-35 was recently doomed, or is troubled because of late-breaking developments like sequestration, the Afghan drawdown, recent technical challenges, or the latest Chinese stealth fighter. Not at all. He is saying that America’s most expensive weapon system began its very existence behind the eight ball. It was doomed from the start.
The JSF malpractitioners chose to follow what we might call “the path of D.O.O.M.” – Delayed, Over-budget, Over-engineered, Marginally-effective — by establishing a massive bureaucracy, a distant delivery date, an enormous budget, and a highly complex technical architecture. This fostered an expansive culture where rising price tags and receding milestones were seen as inevitable and where the primary problem-solving strategy was to add time, money, and complexity to the project. Data from the GAO and other reliable analysts agree this is a demonstrably ineffective approach. Because it was on the Path of D.O.O.M., the JSF’s Nunn-McCurdy breaches in 2004 and 2010 were simply a matter of time.
...It didn’t have to be that way. There is an alternative path they could have followed which would have increased the likelihood of delivering an affordable system that is available when needed and effective when used. This better approach goes by many names, but I like to call it the FIRE method.
FIRE stands for Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained, and Elegant. Unlike the expansive D.O.O.M. culture, FIRE fosters a restrained approach to problem solving. Those who follow this path eschew large price tags and long timelines, instead placing a premium on speed and thrift as the Navy did with those Virginia-class submarines. Rear Admiral William Hilarides, the program executive officer for submarines, put it this way, “The Virginia-class program… was originally designed with cost effectiveness in mind. In order to reduce costs on this program, we have to change the way we build submarines, and that’s what we’re doing.”
...Restraint leads to an entirely different approach to solving problems than that followed by the D.O.O.M. method, and thus leads to different solutions. People who use approaches like FIRE leverage intellectual capital more than financial capital, and apply “reductive thinking methods” to prevent over-engineered solutions and requirements creep. Even before the contract is signed, they set up constraints and implement procedures designed to prevent the types of problems experienced on the JSF.
Is it too late to cancel the Joint Strike Fighter? Maybe, although an article by Col Michael Pietrucha in the May-June 2014 issue of Air & Space Power Journal made a strong case that it is not. But regardless of the future viability of that particular aircraft, it is certainly not too late to set other programs on a better path. Indeed, the Air Force seems interested in doing precisely that. In the same interview where Lt. Gen. Davis called the JSF doomed, he went on to point out that “we are not starting all the new audacious big programs that we were…” Instead, the Air Force is pursuing smaller, more restrained systems. Less D.O.O.M., more FIRE. Time will tell whether the shift towards less audacity and more restraint is permanent or effective, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.