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 seeds of JSF’s troubles were firmly rooted in 2001, when the system development contract was signed. For that matter, the situation was already pretty clear in 1996, when the Air Force awarded contracts to develop a pair of competing prototypes. The proposed aircrafts’ complexity, cost, and development timeline all pointed to an ill-advisedly large, pricey, and slow effort that was immediately on track to cost more, take longer, and deliver less than promised. The problems that followed (and the accompanying charges of acquisition malpractice) were therefore entirely predictable and, more importantly, avoidable.
Why do weapon programs like the JSF bust their huge budgets and long schedules, while others like the Navy’s Virginia-class submarine program (which won the Packard Excellence in Acquisition Award three times) come in under budget, ahead of schedule, and perform superbly in the field? As Lt. Gen. Davis implied, the answer can often be found at the program’s inception, when the foundation is laid and when program leaders decide which path to follow.
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.