Concurrency isn’t coming. It’s already here. And what was once an incredibly naive high-hopes buzzword and procurement concept has now become a slur in many defense crowds. Now, after nearly downing the F-35, and causing chaos in many other defense programs, it’s trying to sink America’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford.
“Concurrency” is a term in Pentagon parlance that means putting something into production while it’s still in testing, or not even tested really at all. The fruition of this crazy concept is the cumulative result of one of the best sales jobs of all time by defense contractors, an over-eager Department of Defense leadership and a low-information, special-interest obsessed Congress. It has nearly shattered the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and now this cancer has migrated to an even more volatile place, aboard America’s $17B next generation supercarrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford.
The idea that a weapons manufacturer, aided by computer modeling, modern material science and other fragmented improvements in design and construction techniques realized over the last 20 years, can design something so complex yet so perfect on the first try, that testing it is more of a formality than a necessity, is totally strange. This bizarre notion literally goes against every historical trend when it comes to weapons procurement, including many hard learned and expensive lessons of the past. Furthermore, it goes against basic logic. Why purchase something en masse, especially something very expensive, extremely complex, and something that has huge national defense implications, without even verifying its effectiveness first?
Somehow, the DoD, defense contractors and Congress suddenly believed that they could collectively field game changing weapons that were flawless right out of the box, even though they have never really done such a thing before.
It was, and remains, totally absurd.
A concept created out of thin air. A bucket full of half measures that were sold as a panacea for defense procurement woes. In other words, the epitome of “tell them what they want to hear.”
A great business strategy but a horrific defense strategy.
Take the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a weapon system that is so over budget and behind schedule that many who once sung its praises now wish it simply never had happened in the first place. This is especially true now that very reputable studies have concluded that developing individual airframes for each services’ needs would have cost less, offered more flexibility and would have been fielded sooner than going after the one-size-fits-all Joint Strike Fighter concept to begin with.
Instead, in the F-35 program we have a compromised design that is hampered by the USMC’s Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing requirement, and an uncertain air combat future to go along with it. But a flawed original concept has nothing to do with concurrency. Yet in the F-35’s case, concurrency and a flawed original concept have combined, resulting in an almost perfect storm of defense procurement hell.
Not only was the F-35 supposed to replace almost every fighter and attack aircraft in U.S. service, but it was also going to be put into production long before it was fully vetted.
Concurrency is such a miserable failure that a mid 2000s F-35 official calendar of planned development events and milestones speaks for itself. Originally, while the Pentagon was under the ether of the concurrency myth, the F-35B was supposed to reach initial operating capability (IOC) in the middle of 2010 and in a more advanced state than it will be when it supposedly makes its IOC date this summer. This will be some five years behind schedule, with each aircraft costing between about $250M and $150M each depending on who you ask.
The “flyaway price” (just the price of the jet, without its research and development cost rolled) of an F-22 Raptor, which was cancelled based on its high costs of acquisition, was $137M for the last batch of aircraft. Even with just 187 F-22’s ever built, this is roughly the cost of an F-35 when calculated the same way.
What’s worse is that the Navy’s F-35C, which according to the original schedule above was supposed to reach IOC in 2012, is now stated to reach that goal some time towards the end of 2018 or early 2019.
Fast forward to today and the F-35 program’s proposed calendar of major events looks nothing like the one shown above, with basic testing still only about half way done. Not to mention the aircraft’s increased cost and eroding performance goals.
The DoD currently plans to buy 2,443 F-35s. But even that number, like so many things F-35, is most likely a pipe dream that will never happen due to tightening defense budgets, the high cost of operating an almost all gold-plated stealth fighter fleet (estimates range from about 50 percent more per hour than an F-16 or F/A-18 to much higher) and the reality of rapidly changing technologies and capability priorities. Not to mention the emerging game-changing reality of what advanced unmanned combat air vehicles have to offer.
With well over 100 F-35s already built, and years of development and testing still ahead, the saving grace of the program is that some very expensive changes to those F-35s already built are at least partially feasible in order to get them somewhere near the final production configuration.
The serial nature of large-scale fighter aircraft production, and the fact that aircraft are meant to be taken apart and put back to together again for maintenance reasons, lends itself to fixing design problems that still existed during early production runs. Yet that still does not mean it is a smart or fiscally responsible form of procurement. Even with these many after the fact and expensive alternations, earlier substandard aircraft probably won’t last long in actual service, if they even see front line service at all.
Putting an aircraft, especially one of the most complex on the planet, into production before testing is even close to being complete also results in fleet management and sustainability hell.
This is because the myriad of retrofits required to jets of different blocks result in “fleets within fleets within fleets” of the same aircraft type. These post production fixes also represent a very expensive opportunity cost as the customer (the DoD, the American government, and by extension, average Americans) ends up buying literally throngs of incredibly costly, patched-up aircraft that will never fully meet their later production cousins design capabilities or lifespan.
Keep in mind that these retrofits and post-production fixes, many of which happen at a depot level, do not include other upgrades that will be needed to give the F-35 parity in some respects to 4th generation fighters it intends to replace.
So to clarify, because of the large production run of the item, the F-35 in this case, concurrency may be fiscal and organizational insanity, but the problems found during testing are theoretically solvable if you are willing to throw away many very expensive stealth jets and burn through lots of precious flight time on your existing, already overused and aging, fighter fleet in the process.
Now take this same brilliant procurement strategy and all the baggage that goes with it and assign it to a $13 BILLION DOLLAR-plus supercarrier (more like $17 billion with research and development cost rolled in) and you have a huge problem, both physically and economically.
A U.S. Navy supercarrier, a gigantic weapon system, is the world’s largest and most expensive military combat vehicle. The U.S. builds maybe two a decade at best, and it is about the worst place imaginable to apply the concurrency myth.
If you want to insert a “new technology” risk into one of these 100,000-ton displacement welded beasts, then you better be certain that this technology works, as you do not have the luxury of burning through another hundred “production prototypes” to make it right as you do with the F-35, or any other high-production weapon system for that matter.
This is especially true if this new, relatively unproven technology is directly related to one of the aircraft carrier’s critical and large components. The fact is that a nuclear supercarrier is literally the biggest waste of money if it cannot launch and recover fixed wing aircraft.
And if that is the case, then the new USS Gerald R. Ford, the first of a new class of supercarriers, has a major problem.
While this new carrier class sure looks cool, with its smaller “island” superstructure set farther back on its enlarged flight deck, and its big electronically scanned array radar apertures, the USS Gerald R. Ford’s sci-fi looks mask a bevy of major problems.
EMALS, standing for Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System, uses electrical current and a set of magnets to linearly accelerate a “shuttle” that is attached to the aircraft’s nose wheel forward along the catapult’s slot in the deck. The tremendous power needed for this system to work comes from the ship’s nuclear reactors, which is interfaced via a constellation of high-tech machinery called the Energy Storage Subsystem.
When fully active, this system uses enough energy to light 12,000 American homes.
The Ford has 12 of these complex apparatuses to power its four catapults.
EMALS replaces the seemingly archaic (but incredibly well-proven) steam catapult systems that have been in service since the dawn of the Jet Age.
Simply put, an aircraft carrier’s catapult has to be very reliable, as a “cold cat-shot,” one that does not produce enough forward momentum to get the aircraft into a sustained flight profile, can result in the loss of a $50 million-plus jet, or in the F-35C’s case about triple that price, in the water. Add in a potentially a dead aircrew and a full stop to what could be critical combat operations, and you can see how big the problem is.
As it stands, EMALS, which has been in full-scale testing for the better part of a decade, does not appear to be reliable, even though the concept was supposed to be much more reliable and less labor-intensive than its steam predecessor.
Additionally, EMALS is supposed to be smaller, lighter, and less complex than its steam counterpart, while providing greater forward thrust, and a larger launch envelope for significantly different aircraft weights. This will theoretically allow launches of fully laden fighters to relatively light weight unmanned aircraft.
In 2013, EMALS dismal record spoke for itself. 201 out of 1,967 launches had failed.
That is over 10 percent of test launches.
Factoring in the current state of the system, the most generous numbers available show that EMALS has an average “time between failure” rate of 1 in 240. In other words, one out of 240 launches fail.
Considering how many aircraft can fly off of a supercarrier during cyclic operations, especially during a time of war, this number is highly problematic. Keep in mind these numbers do not reflect a deployed system, that is constantly battered by the harsh salt water environment and the punishment of continuous cycles, all being maintained by young sailors at sea.
In March of 2015, the Congressional Research Service compiled an update on the the USS Gerald R. Ford’s progress, and EMALS remains a very uncertain factor in the ship’s design. The report stated:
Based on expected reliability growth, the failure rate for the last reported Mean Cycles Between Critical Failure was five times higher than should have been expected. As of August 2014, the Navy has reported that over 3,017 launches have been conducted at the Lakehurst test site, but have not provided DOT&E with an update of failures. The Navy intends to provide DOT&E an update of failures in December 2014.
Updated EMALS data remains elusive and the CRS report, which was compiled just last March, also did not have any updated numbers.
Why the Navy has not submitted basic updated metrics on EMALS performance is unknown.
The issue of EMALS’ reliability is not the system’s only glaring issue. In EMALS’ current configuration, it cannot launch fighter aircraft with external fuel tanks mounted, which is a show-stopper for modern U.S. fixed-wing carrier operations. Apparently, even though EMALS is supposed to have much more fine control over its acceleration than its steam counterparts, it currently puts extra stress on fighters carrying fuel tanks (and possibly other large and heavy external stores). This anomaly was discovered only last November, and there is said to be a software fix in the works, although it is uncertain if that fix will solve the issue once and for all and it is still a long ways out from being tested.
The Navy is also looking at ways to mitigate the issue on the aircraft themselves, according to Bloomberg, most likely as a handicap to their performance if the software solution does not work.
Two of the Ford’s four EMALS catapults have been installed on the ship, with the other two being installed this Summer, and the installed units are performing ‘strokes’ and limited sled tests, although this is a far cry from heavy duty testing under real-world conditions.
The Navy and the defense industry were pushing this concept hard as far back as the late 1990s, stating that similar ‘linear induction motor’ systems are in use at theme parks across the U.S. (Aerosmith Rockin’ Roller Coaster to name one of the firsts). One of the biggest selling factors at the time was how these types of systems would be far more reliable than the steam systems they replace.
Well, either the Imagineers at Disney should be building aircraft carriers or this analogue is highly misleading. A roller coaster system similar to EMALS does not operate in the harshest conditions in the world for months on end, and a failed stroke from a vaguely similar roller coaster concept does not result in a 20-ton fighter jet being dropped in the ocean with a human or two inside.
This isn’t to say that EMALS technology should not be pursued. Quite the contrary actually.
One day it should be a fantastic alternative to steam catapults, and it should offer some benefits to a carrier and its air wing. While such a ‘bleeding edge’ system should continue to receive all the development dollars it needs, it should not have been a major component for which a whole aircraft carrier – and an entire class of carriers for that matter – was designed around before the technology was vetted and reliable in an operational format.
Once again, concurrency rears its ugly head.
But the EMALS system isn’t the only Achilles’ heel of the Ford program. The USS Gerald R. Ford is having major issues with a key system that is also essential to flight operations, its arresting gear.
Traditionally, a supercarrier’s arresting gear works via a series of hydraulic “engines” that are pressurized to different levels depending on the weight of the incoming aircraft. These are massive apparatuses that live below the deck of the ship, and although they may seem archaic, they work.
The Ford’s new arresting system does away with with this proven technology entirely in the form of the Advanced Arresting Gear system, or the AAG for short.
This system, made by General Atomics (the same folks who also make the Predator and Reaper drones among a ton of other diversified products including EMALS), is having even worse teething problems than its catapult cousin. For instance, during testing the AAG failed nine out of 71 times.
Current available data shows that the mean time between failures for the AAS is projected at 20 cycles.
Yes, you read that right. In a best case scenario, the system fails five percent of the time based on the testing metrics available. This is almost 250 times worse than what was expected.
Portions of the AAG have been redesigned based on deficiencies found during testing, and this updated system is being installed right now in the bowels beneath the Ford’s deck. Keep in mind that this is happening before the changes made to the system were fully vetted via testing at the Navy’s Lakehurst test facility, and that facility models nowhere near the realities of the high-tempo operational environment.
In other words, if these changes didn’t result in a near perfect solution, there is a chance the system would have to be ripped out and replaced.
Concurrency at its finest ladies and gentleman.
Rear Admiral Tom Moore, the guy who’s supposed to be in charge of the aircraft carrier acquisition program, told USNI News just last March that all of this isn’t even really up to him,:
If Lakehurst uncovers something on the system that has to be fixed, the risk I’m taking is I’m installing it and then I have to go back and fix something that’s all ready installed, it’s more challenging. Really at this point, I don’t have a choice.
Concurrency is so strong that even an admiral is powerless to stop it.
As of now, according to Admiral Moore, the whole AAG testing effort is two years behind schedule, yet the system is being installed anyway and the Ford is slated to be commissioned in less than one year, in March on 2016.
There are many other issues with the Ford Class as well. For instance, the ship’s innovative AN/SPY-3/4 Dual Band Radar system remains problematic. Making things much worse, in a stunning announcement just recently, the Navy says it will only fit the new Dual Band Radar system on the Gerald R. Ford, with an entirely different radar system being chosen for the next ship in the class, the USS John F. Kennedy.
This means that the Dual Band Radar (DBR) will only exist in its full form on one single ship, as the DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class destroyers will only feature the ‘single band’ AN/SPY-3 radar array as part of a cost-savings effort. This means that economies of scale will be drastically reduced and upgrades and support for a one-off system like this will be costly and troublesome.
The whole Ford Class radar debacle is eerily reminiscent of the USS Enterprise’s (CVN-65) SCANFAR phased array radar system which was thought to be a game changing system at the time, but was eventually totally replaced by a more conventional system.
The Congressional Research Service report clearly states that the Dual Band Radar is a fairly untested capability and its integration aboard the Gerald R. Ford remains an issue:
Previous testing of Navy combat systems similar to CVN-78’s revealed numerous integration problems that degrade the performance of the combat system. Many of these problems are expected to exist on CVN-78. The previous results emphasize the necessity of maintaining a DBR/CVN-78 combat system asset at Wallops Island. The Navy is considering long-term plans (i.e., beyond FY15) for testing DBR at Wallops Island, but it is not clear if resources and funding will be available. Such plans are critical to delivering a fully-capable combat system and ensuring life-cycle support after CVN-78 delivery in 2016.
The CRS report all notes that these new systems, particularly EMALS, AAS, and DBR, have not, and will not, receive critical shock trials (where explosives are blown up near the ship to test how systems would stand up to the test of actual battle) for many years due to corner-cutting on the Ford Class’s development and delivery schedule.
In effect, what you end up getting is not only a major unknown for the Gerald R. Ford when in combat situations, but also a major issue when designing sensitive sub-systems into other carriers in the class.
And it really is just like that, as if it was a line right out of The Pentagon Wars, the Gerald R. Ford will not go through shock trials for the better part of a decade, if at all, because doing so could delay the ship’s already questionable entry into service date. Meanwhile, construction of the next Ford Class carrier has already begun, a ship that would have the same critical issues as those potentially found during the Gerald R. Ford’s shock trials.
Even the ship’s “improved” flight deck design concept, said to offer a large jump in potential sortie generation rates when combined with EMALS and the AAG, is now suspect. The ship’s weapons elevators also have issues that will impact sortie-generatoin rates under real world conditions, causing a cascading series of delays, backing up flight operations further and further, that could make the ship vulnerable to attack.
Because without the ability to launch and recover its planes, an aircraft carrier can become a sitting duck in the water.
The Gerald R. Ford is also facing many other issues, including those having to do with integrating the F-35 and its particular maintenance needs, and the sheer noise on the deck and in the hangar bay. Even the aircraft’s lack of adequate lightning protection while sitting on the deck is a major issue.
Other problems, such as those having to do with available room for growth, especially in crew size, are also mentioned in the Congressional Research Service report.
Regardless of all these issues, like so many things concurrency related, the USS Gerald R. Ford is ‘scheduled to deliver on time’ even if it is totally ineffective as a weapon system. Because in the world of concurrency, the appearance of meeting goals is more important than actually meeting them.
With all this in mind, one has ask why the Pentagon thought putting such a large asset, both in expenditure and size, into production with such an immature set of core subsystems that also happen to be nearly impossible to replace with proven ones, was a good idea?
It’s not as if existing arresting gear, catapults and radar systems, or the previous Nimitz Class design for that matter, are ineffective. Including all these immature sub-system into a carrier that costs more than $13 billion assumes massive amounts of totally avoidable risk.
Unlike the F-35, we do not have the luxury of building hundreds, or even dozens of Ford-class carriers in the near term in order to “eventually get it right.” What happens if the ship’s core technologies, namely its launch and recovery systems, are simply not in an operational state by the time the ship is supposed to formally enter the fleet? What cost will such a delay bring to the program’s already ballooning budget? Then there are also the operational and end-strength issues as the Navy is already experiencing a critical ‘carrier gap’.
What’s worse is that it may not even be possible to retrofit this giant vessel with proven “legacy” systems, such as hydraulic arresting gear engines and steam catapults, if their newer, high-risk alternatives prove to be far from reliable.
And if these new systems aren’t reliable at all, they’ll need to be taken out. Which means cutting the entire carrier apart. Alternatively, the Gerald R. Ford will be a harbor queen until these systems are developed to a point that they work reliably.
Then there are the opportunity costs of these new technologies. Theoretically, how much are these supposedly less maintenance intensive and more operationally flexible arresting gear and catapult concepts really worth? Are they worth delaying a supercarrier’s introduction into service by years?
Is a highly-questionable 30 percent increase in sortie rates under ideal conditions (some say 10 percent, at best, if all the Ford-class’s design changes work perfectly together) really worth risking the usability of an enormously expensive weapon system?
Why not just work the bugs out of these critical systems and then install them on the next aircraft carrier of the class, or whenever they are truly vetted and ready for operations?
Betting many billions of dollars and America’s standing aircraft carrier capacity on totally unproven technology highlights just how near-sighted and/or easily sold those in leadership approving such decisions are. Although Navy brass and the defense industry can promote the theoretical advantages of an entirely new set of carrier launch and recovery capabilities, they cannot explain why they were rushed into service untested.
Now, years after these pieces were set in motion, it seems like everyone involved acts as if this was the situation they were handed. Maybe that is so, but it is worth finding out who handed them this situation in the first place as it seems like whoever did needs to explain and justify their questionable and risky decision making process. Hey, it’s a matter or national security right?
Concurrency has so seriously damaged the reputation of major DoD procurement programs originating from the last decade or so that the word concurrency alone is like a cuss word among many in the defense apparatus. Sadly, many of us “on the outside” of the Pentagon’s five walls predicted these blunders long ago. Currently, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Littoral Combat Ship and now the Ford Class of supercarrier, as well as other smaller programs (everything is relative in defense procurement terms), have suffered horribly under the concurrency myth.
In fact, another new aircraft carrier class, one that is also supposed to field the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter is going through its own concurrency hell right now. That being the new USS America, the Navy’s ambiguous Amphibious Assault Ship that isn’t really so much about amphibious operations as it is air operations. A ship that much like the F-35Bs it will host, is having to be heavily refitted before it actually gets sent on a mission.
Concurrency genuinely does look great on paper, as it shows that old assets can be replaced with new ones on an incredibly tight schedule, along with laughably optimistic cost predictions. But in reality, the practice ends in a desperate scramble to fix issues as they come up, as well as fiscal and political hell.
Of course, Washington’s decision makers and their industry partners could admit their mistakes and ignorance when it comes to buying into or selling chronically unrealistic goals. Although this is hardly a good thing for lawmakers who are always looking to get re-elected, and it’s especially bad for the careers of those in charge at the Pentagon, many of whom will go onto earn top salaries at the same companies that they played the concurrency game with in the first place.
It’s not like there’s any repercussions for defense industry executives, either. Sure, they might take some sort of weak excuse for a “pounding” in the political arena, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. Defense executives aren’t beholden to the general taxpayer, they’re beholden to shareholders.
And development dollars, heading straight into corporate coffers, delight shareholders.
Thus you have end up with a culture of never-ending “doubling down” on troubled weapons programs, in hopes that they will be usable someday. And nobody really has to ‘own’ any of these decisions anyway, because those responsible end up getting promoted, or moved to another position, or have long left for the cushy confines private industry, by the time things start falling apart.
As concurrency isn’t bad enough itself, some basic, proven and highly logical practices that are aimed at abating some of the risk posed by a concurrent procurement and testing strategy get thrown out for savings that amounts to a tiny fraction of an entire program’s cost. Case in point, the incredibly stupid move to cut the F-35’s alternative engine. It seems that under concurrency, all logic is tossed overboard in the hopes of buying, or selling, just a few more units down the line.
What complicates matters even further is that delays and cost overruns surrounding weapon systems built under the concurrency fantasy end up requiring the existing and proven inventory of weapon systems to be upgraded to “bridge the capability gap,” until their troubled replacements eventually come online.
The problem is that the failures of concurrency, and the avalanche of delays and cost overruns it causes, suck up so much funding that there is often simply no money left to provide these necessary upgrades.
As a result, even ensuring that the existing fleet remains strategically or tactical relevant becomes a pipe dream.
This situation can be seen with the cancelled F-16 structural and avionics upgrade program, which is badly needed due to delays with the F-35, or in the debate over refueling and overhauling the USS George Washington.
Yes, there was a chance that a Nimitz Class nuclear supercarrier was going to get retired after only half its useful life, because the Navy couldn’t afford to refuel and overhaul it. Yet at the same time, the Navy is supposed to be able to afford its $13B+ replacements all the while.
Defense procurement and weapons development apparatus already faces a ton of challenges as it is and under the currently fiscal conditions we simply cannot afford to pay for the totally foreseeable mistake called concurrency any longer. Sure, defense contractors and those trying to make their career at the Pentagon may love its ability to package myths and unrealistic goals into a neat and sellable concept, but it is really just a package of lies and half truths that nobody has to own or be accountable for.
For a military bureaucracy that is obsessive about learning from its wins and losses on the battlefield, it sure has a short memory span when it comes to recollecting and learning from its past procurement blunders. This has to stop. If the War College is essential to teach our combatant commanders the strategies they need to win in battle, then Pentagon Procurement History College is needed so that we don’t keep reliving the costly mistakes of our past.
Our military is already a shadow of what it was a decade ago, and due to the concurrency blunders of yesterday and today, our forces will eventually collapse in on themselves economically. Alternatively, at the very best, we will own 2500 F-35s and a handful of Ford-class carriers that we can’t even afford to operate, and that are too temperamental to do their predecessor’s job reliably.
When it comes to procurement, concurrency is chaos, and it must be stopped.
Adapted from a previous piece by the author from Aviationintel.com
Photos via DoD and industry, Pentagon photo via Patrickneil/wikicommons