The íBuy Before You Flyí Plan

Pentagon Regularly Buys Pricey Weapons Before They Are Fully Tested
by David Ruppe

Source: ABC News l

December 6, 2000

Would you buy a car or fly in a plane before it was fully proven for its capability, reliability or safety? Probably not.

But thatís been standard practice with the U.S. military for decades - costing American taxpayers, critics say, hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars on back-fixes of equipment that wasnít quite right and unanticipated cost increases for weapons that didnít work as expected.

And thatís how the Pentagon could soon buy two of its most technologically sophisticated - and most expensive - military aircraft, the F-22 stealth fighter (an estimated $105 million-$124 million each) and V-22 "Osprey" tilt-rotor aircraft (estimated $83 million each).

Moving to Production

Later this month, the Pentagon is expected to decide whether to begin buying its first 10 F-22s, and officials say chances are good that it will.

Yet by the time the decision is made, the Air Force will have completed little, if any, of its planned 1,970 hours of flight-testing of the F-22ís unique avionics system - the vital electronic and computer systems that enable the pilot to control the sophisticated plane and are important for giving the aircraft its edge.

The F-22ís airframe, in addition, will only be flight-tested for an estimated 1,000 hours, as opposed to the 1,400 originally planned, Air Force officials have said.

Similarly, the Navy plans this month to decide whether to initiate full production of up to 30 V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft per year for the Marine Corps.

Yet when it makes the decision, the Navy will not have fixed and tested some 22 "major" problems identified with the aircraft, according to a report released by the Pentagonís inspector general in August. Those "deficiencies" include problems with the Ospreyís ground-collision avoidance and warning system, its ability to operate in icing conditions, and its ability to maneuver as intended in combat, said the report.

The inspector general called the deficiencies "major" and judged at least one to be safety related. The Navy says all are not major and they "are in no way safety related."

The Navy in July 1999 waived Pentagon rules requiring those deficiencies be fixed before full production begins - so that theyíd be addressed afterward.

A Pentagon report late last month warned the aircraft in its current form is unsuitable for operations because of lingering problems with reliability, maintainability, interoperability, and possibly safety.

The íBuy Before You Flyí

Itís been called the "buy before you fly," apparently after the practice of buying military aircraft before they are fully flight-tested, and itís been routine with the U.S. military for decades.

Commonly, an armed service will make the important decision to begin building a new weapon or to buy it in great numbers before key aspects of the weapon have been fully developed and proven to work as hoped.

Defenders of the practice say concurrently buying equipment while itís being developed and tested is a necessary way for the military to obtain highly sophisticated weaponry that requires extensive testing, and constant upgrading over the equipmentís service life.

"If you test it forever and you never build anything it will end up costing you a lot of money," says Gerry Freisthler, deputy director for the Air Forceís F-22 program.

But critics say the practice, intentionally or not, can camouflage serious, sometimes costly problems that might only come out in the later testing after the weapons are built. Keeping potentially serious problems hidden, they say, can reduce the possibility the Pentagon or Congress will scale back, delay, or even cancel a program.

Facing the possibility of reduced support for their weapons program, service "managers thus have incentives to postpone difficult tests and to limit open communication about test results," explained Congressís watchdog agency, the General Accounting Office, in a recent report on the subject.

Efforts to Sustain Support

Preventing a loss of support was what the Pentagon inspector generalís report said was behind the V-22 Osprey deficiency waivers.

Program officials, it said, "accepted a higher level of risk [presumably of increased costs in the future] to get the work program into production, despite uncertainties that the system would work as intended, rather than delaying the program and risk losing funding."

Weapons programs are rarely killed after production begins, defense analysts say, and dollars and new jobs begin flowing to key congressional districts where the weapons are manufactured. And that creates an incentive for service managers to get the systems into production before they might be ready, they say.

"The name of the game is to get the program funded," says Chuck Spinney, an aviation analyst at the Department of Defense who is often critical of the departmentís policies. "The production decision is the golden cornucopia, and so they want to get it into production, and if there are delays for whatever reason in the test program, theyíll try to waive some of the testing to put it in production."

The Osprey program has had its share of opponents since it was begun in 1982. Three test Ospreys have crashed since the first prototype flew in 1989, with the most recent crash in April. That has raised questions by some about whether the program should continue to receive extremely limited Pentagon procurement dollars.

From 1989 to 1992, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney tried to kill the Osprey program, arguing it was too expensive and other helicopter types could do the job. But Congress, urged by industry, was determined to appropriate money to buy the aircraft, initially in low numbers, and so it kept the program going. Congressional budgeting committees said the aircraft represents "revolutionary technology" and may prove affordable.

Additional Concerns Raised About V-22

Late last month, the Pentagonís top testing official said in a report the V-22 probably wonít be able to conduct military missions without significant maintenance problems and that it has had a worse reliability record than the 36-year-old helicopter it is intended to replace.

Furthermore, the official, Philip Coyle, the Pentagonís director of operational test and evaluation, warned all V-22s may be susceptible to a problem found with a test aircraft that crashed earlier this year, killing 19 Marines. Coyle recommended that further research be conducted on the phenomenon, known as "vortex ring state."

"Unless corrected," he wrote, "these issues will impose an unacceptable burden - cost, manpower, mission reliability and operational availability - on the fleet."

To gather more information on the matter, the Navy reportedly delayed its decision on whether to approve V-22 full-production from Tuesday until Dec. 19.

Osprey Case Not Unusual

Osprey program officials say the numerous deficiency waivers associated with the Osprey are not uncommon for U.S. weapons programs. In fact, says Capt. Landon Hutchens, a spokesman for the Marine Corps, with 22 waived deficiencies, the Osprey is actually ahead of the curve.

The Navy has "done that with every aircraft theyíd procured in the last 40 years. And guess what: the V-22 had about a third of what was normally done. So the V-22 actually has . less of those areas where they have to waiver a discrepancy," he says.

That may be the case. "Waivers and deviations are just routine, itís an ingrained practice," says Ernie Fitzgerald, another outspoken civilian analyst whoís been with the Air Force for decades.

v"The first C-17 [delivered to the Air Force], if I recall correctly, was accepted with a 98-page list of deficiencies and the thing sat [on the ground] for about a year after it was delivered," he says.

A July report by Congressís General Accounting Office offered a list of Pentagon programs that have dealt with problems late in the program schedule. It included such high-profile, big-budget items as the Navyís F/A-18E/F fighter, the Armyís THAAD missile defense system, and the Air Forceís C-17 aircraft, B-2 stealth bomber and F-22 stealth fighter.

Lost Opportunity Costs

Officials associated with the V-22 and the F-22 say there are good reasons to press ahead with production before all deficiencies are remedied or all systems are flight-tested.

"Thereís no such thing as a perfect platform," says Navy spokeswoman Gidge Daby. "If you waited to get everything fixed, you probably would delay production a lot longer than would be beneficial to the program."

They also contend it costs less to back-fix aircraft already out in the field than to delay production and have to rehire and retrain the production line workers hired to build the test aircraft but laid off during the delay.

Military systems generally take longer to develop than, say, automobiles, and require special knowledge and skills on an assembly line, says V-22 program manager Marine Corps Col. Nolan Schmidt, so itís important that the lines keep producing aircraft after the prototypes and test aircraft are built.

"What you need to do in that analysis is tradeoff the cost of retrofit to the cost of lost opportunity costs of the learning on the production line. And if you would do a good analysis of those two things together, itís my conviction that you are better off to do the concurrent model."

The F-22 programís Freisthler says the Air Force canít afford to wait for testing to be completed to begin production because readying the aircraft for combat takes a long time as it is.

Right now, the Air Force plans on delivering its first combat-ready F-22s in December 2005, he notes. Prior to that, 10 F-22s will go to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada for tactics development beginning in early 2002, and 20 or so more will go to Tindle Air Force Base in Florida for training.

If the Air Force delays beginning production until August 2002, when the avionics testing is scheduled to be done, it could be that much longer before the F-22s entered combat, he says.

"We may be making a decision to go to production today, but itís December í05 before weíre ready to go to war," says Freisthler.

Back-Fixing Has Its Costs

Critics counter that conducting development and testing requirements after production can greatly increase the cost and difficulty of fixing a weapon in the long run, as itís usually more expensive to fix a weapon after itís built.

"[S]ubstantial schedule and cost increases" were ultimately incurred to redesign the C-17, according to a report in July by Congressí GAO.

In the case of the B1-B bomber, key tests were completed after production of all of the aircraft was completed, necessitating very costly retrofits, said the report.

The report warned against producing F-22s for the field before the avionics are fully proven.

"The potential for performance problems in the future is significant, given that the flight testing done to date has not included all of the F- 22 ís sophisticated subsystems [e.g., its advanced avionics]," it said.

Delaying development and testing requirements, the critics say, also can conceal fundamental problems with a weapon, which if caught early, might have resulted in cancelation of a program.

In perhaps the most notorious instance, the Army bought for $50.6 million 6,700 pull-trailers, and began producing and fielding them without first testing the design to see if they it met requirements. The service later found the trailers could not pass testing, posed safety risks, and would need extensive modifications. After numerous problems, the Army issued a safety message requiring they not be used and sent them into storage.

New Navy Fighter Deficiencies

Dec. 6 - Some say the Navyís reluctance to admit and address fundamental, potentially costly problems with the F/A-18E/F fighter, its most expensive aircraft (an estimated $70 million-$86 million each), has left it with a mediocre weapon thatís little improvement over the aircraft itís intended to replace.

Roughly 62 have been purchased so far, in a low-rate production phase, and it was approved by Congress in June for full production of 222 aircraft over five years, a decision worth $8.9 billion for the contractors.

Yet, "a lot of people think it needs a new wing. And it will need a new engine if they want to get its performance up to snuff," says Chuck Spinney, who tracks the fighter program for the Office of Secretary of Defense. "Youíve got this F/A-18E/F where basically by modern standards itís a mediocre performer."

Prior to its June decision to begin full production of the F/A-18E/F, the Navy resisted corrections of some "serious" deficiencies on the aircraft that may have to be addressed later in the program, Congressí General Accounting Office charged in a series of reports.

The most serious deficiency, GAO reported in May, was a "weak aerodynamic performance, which reduces the aircraftís ability to accelerate, climb and turn, and causes it to have a low top speed." Such a deficiency, aviation experts have said, could make the aircraft vulnerable in close air-to-air combat.

Another deficiency the GAO identified was the occurrence of noise and vibration that damages air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons carried by the aircraft in flight.

In the short term, not correcting those problems has enabled the Navy stay within its congressionally mandated developmental cost cap, the GAO noted. But correcting the deficiencies after full production has begun - which could involve design changes to the aircraft - could be costly, according to the agency.

Navy officials have said that isnít a concern. They said the F/A-18E/F would not need to remedy those supposed deficiencies because new types of equipment are being developed, such as a helmet that will aim missiles at targets and a new type of missile, which will mitigate the aircraftís maneuvering deficiencies in combat, GAO Director Louis Rodrigues told a congressional committee last March.

Rodrigues unsuccessfully recommended that Congress have the Navy delay full production until corrections are made, tested and funded.

Rodrigues noted there were numerous other deficiencies - Navy managers identified overall 27 major deficiencies and 88 minor deficiencies - that will probably need to be addressed at some point and back-fixed on the aircraft already delivered to the service.

"Correcting these deficiencies will be costly," said Rodrigues.

The Navy, for its part, says the aircraft is "a winner . itís affordable . and itís flying today, exceeding every operational goal."

A Navy Web page dedicated to the aircraft predicts it "will outperform any top-line fighter aircraft of today and tomorrow."

- David Ruppe,

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