- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

A few thoughts on technology-driven defense contracts: About 1981, the Air Force started work on the F-22 Raptor, a fighter from Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin to replace the now-aging F-15. It was to be a technological marvel. The price was huge. The aircraft still hasn't gone into service and probably won't for another three years or so. It has gotten much more expensive. Some say it is a botched program.
I disagree, but to be sure I'd have to be almost the program manager. Years back, on assignment for Air & Space magazine, I went to Marietta, Ga., to look at the beast and talk to those designing it. I thought it was a magnificent aircraft.
The F-22 is a good example of the difficulties inherent in any huge military project involving unknown technology.
Many weapons are just incremental improvements over existing designs. Occasionally, however, a weapon makes a major transition, as from propeller power to jet, and becomes a completely new thing.
The F-22 was one of these. It was to be very stealthy, able to cruise at supersonic speed, highly maneuverable, and have astonishing electronics.
To be stealthy, the F-22 had to carry its weapons inside the fuselage so they wouldn't reflect radar, which makes an airplane bigger. To cruise supersonic, it needed to be sleek and skinny. To be maneuverable, it need big wings to grab the air, which creates drag and make the plane slow.
The avionics were a bear of a challenge.
Lockheed Martin did it. But it might not have. Big projects have failed. When you ask engineers simultaneously to develop several technologies that don't necessarily fit together, sometimes it just doesn't work.
If it works, you have a weapon that nobody else will be able to touch for years. American design has tended to go for the big leap.
Cost overruns? Some are built into the system. If companies A, B, and C bid on a contract worth billions of dollars, each will be tempted to bid artificially low to get the contract.
If company A doesn't lowball, company B will. All are tempted to bid low then discover, once the project is too far along to stop, that it's going to cost rather more than estimated.
The Pentagon knows this, but wants a low bid to sell the project to Congress. Many congressmen may know it also, but if the jobs are in their districts, they too want to sell the project to the rest of Congress. It is a distributed scam.
Congress itself creates overruns. The huge cost of high-tech development is spread over the production run. Buy fewer aircraft and the cost per plane goes up. If it costs $20 billion to develop an aircraft, and you buy only one, that's $20 billion a copy. Buy 1,000, and the price of each drops. The Air Force was going to buy 750 F-22s. The figure is now around 250.
Decrease the rate of production, trying to balance this year's budget, and the price again rises. If you run an assembly plant at half-capacity, you have to run it twice as long to produce the same number of planes. You still have to pay about the same number of employees, tie up capital twice as long, pay two years of maintenance on the facilities, etc.
Further, delay invites technological obsolescence. In 1981, manned fighters were the only choice. Now, unmanned aircraft, cheaper and safer, are doing things that manned fighters used to do.
There is a real chance that a new fighter, no matter how good, will be replaced before the end of its expected life by remotely flown craft.
Judging by the success of American equipment, the industry must be doing things reasonably well.
But it isn't always simple and pretty.

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