Monday, April 04, 2011

Ragin’ Hedge Baby on the Loose!

Forget that missing zoo cobra (they found it last week). This is much worse.

That “Ragin’ Hedge Baby from the Shires” (aka Bill Sweetman) is beating his ‘Anti-JSF’ drum again. This time, it appears he’s laying the groundwork for more negative F-35 stories in April:
"The Canadian debate will be influenced by the second April news story, the release of the full Government Accountability Office annual report on the program. Notwithstanding all the standard criticisms leveled at the GAO -- "It's old data", "The GAO criticized the F-16/M-1/Bradley/Trojan Horse etc" -- the fact remains that the GAO since 2007 has predicted the trajectory of the program much more accurately than the program's managers."
This represents what IMHO is among the most disingenuous ploys common to partisan journalism. Can you say ‘poisoning the well’ boys and girls? I find this a rather transparent attempt to preempt and diminish any criticism of the GAO ‘report’ once it is released.  I must say it causes a part of me to wonder: does Mr. Sweetman  already know that it is going to be, in the current vernacular of the White House, a ‘turd sandwich’? Nah. It's that's probably just my old C-I mojo acting up.

The implied claim that the GAO’s reports may have predicted anything on the F-35 since 2007 is unadulterated BS: GAO warns about ‘maybes’, ‘mights’, ‘coulds’, and ‘if-thens’. They never predicted anything – that would make them too easily accountable and subject to direct ridicule.

GAO reports (at least since Mr. Sweetman’s 2007 date) concerning the F-35 have been typical of most GAO reports on defense acquisition programs. They wail and moan over ‘risk’ as if it was THE most important concern. Contrast this with program managers who must manage the risk to cost, schedule, and performance while actually executing the program to meet a stated mission NEED. …And by the way, program managers make this point clear at every opportunity. They understand their charter and work to fulfill it – they do not work to make a GAO auditor’s day.

The two entities, the GAO and the JSF (or just about ANY) program simply talk past each other on the subjects of risk and “what-ifs”. The difference is, that while the programs deal with reality, and actually seek to identify and manage the risks that exist in all enterprises -- without certain knowledge of all possible futures, the GAO on the other hand, does a ‘drive-by’ on programs. The GAO then barfs a laundry lists of risks that they assert as needing avoidance. In later follow-on reports the GAO will point and cackle whenever some risks (rarely unforeseen and/or mitigated by the program’s management as well) become ‘issues’.

I find GAO 'defense' reportage in most cases a most cynical form of the 'Texas Sharpshooter” fallacy', and holding up a GAO report as the ultimate word on just about any defense program topic is as big a misplaced appeal to authority as you can make. The GAO can crunch numbers, but if their track record on predicting anything related to Defense topics can be called “consistent”, it is ONLY in the sense that they always predict there’s ‘too much risk’ and that things are or will be ‘bad’. The GAO is hardly alone in the naysayer role. Today’s programs must run a gauntlet of criticisms and predictions of doom from eternal experts and pundits, but since they are not inside the program day to day, usually their commentary is of little use, and is typically ignorant and unhelpful (a point I believe I sufficiently drove home in an earlier post on B-2 development).

The GAO also gets to cherry-pick ‘worries’ based upon whatever task their Masters have assigned while carefully avoiding implicating their Masters as having a role in creating the worries in the first place. For instance, the GAO can bemoan the immaturity of F-35 production processes year after year in their ‘Selected Acquisition’ Reports without ever having to reference the Congressional funding decisions made annually that deliberately slow production, and the GAO can avoid mentioning without recrimination that the F-35 program is in Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) ramping up to Full Rate Production, which is actually when production processes are EXPECTED to be mature. We need a GAO: we just don’t need the GAO we have*.

Sweetman’s piece, like oh-so-many of his recent posts, is focused on discrepancies between various ‘Cost Estimates’. It also, like oh-so-many of his recent posts, carefully avoids noting that of all the ‘estimates’ of costs, actual unit costs to-date are most closely tracking to (and actually beating) Lockheed Martin’s cost-curve estimates.  This includes up to and including the latest LRIP 4 aircraft lot buy, which is under a Fixed Price with Incentive (FPI) contract.

This ‘FPI’ contract arrangement is significant.
This is the first time in the history of modern defense acquisition that I am aware of that a contractor agreed to a Fixed Price contract while the program was still in the LRIP phases. This includes the equivalents in the paradigm before (back when SDD was ‘sorta’ EMD) the current one. In fact, according to my Defense Acquisition University course materials, the first Full Rate Production contract is where the transition from 'Cost Plus' to a Fixed Price contract structure is supposed to occur. Right now the program is about halfway through the planned LRIPS, although that could change if the lot buys keep getting reduced up front. Since ‘costs’ seem to be a really big issue** with Mr. Sweetman, I find this transition, occurring years ahead of what should be expected under traditional timelines, as curiously absent from his chant as his lack of willingness to give weight to the fact that actual costs are even beating the most optimistic (LM’s) estimate curves. Like climate models, cost estimates that cannot predict the present cannot be relied upon for predicting the future. And it must always be kept in mind that even ‘good so far’ estimates are subject to revision when new data becomes available and must be continuously revised, albeit less and less as more of the risk of a program falls in the past and issues are avoided and put to rest.

Sweetman closes with a sort of curious ‘damning with faint praise’ comment concerning the Australian Williams Foundation that now urges Australia to ‘delay’ their F-35s, apparently to Mr. Sweetman’s surprise. If one follows the link provided, it takes the reader to an earlier post by Mr. Sweetman where he questions the foundation’s objectivity based upon their funding sources. If this current article is somehow a nod to his earlier, apparently unfounded questioning of bias on the part of the foundation, and an expression of his subsequent regret, it was pretty weak. But it was an indication that the ‘logical fallacy’*** might be a tool that Mr. Sweetman will reach for all too frequently on the subject of the F-35, and that subsequent events just might highlight the use of the fallacy.

*I’m tempted to preemptively neutralize accusations that I am committing a logical fallacy in my criticism of the GAO, but I’m curious enough to see if any materialize and am in an evil-enough mood to enjoy debunking any such claim. BIG Hint: relevance of evidence factors large in determining if something is a ‘fallacious argument’ or not. If I was arguing the GAO’s performance on Defense issues was an indication of their performance on say, Housing and Urban Development issues, would that be different?

**BTW: The program is being managed to minimize total ownership cost (TOC), which allows for increased unit costs if the costs are offset with equal or greater savings when operating and supporting the F-35. Q: Why does no one discuss TOC in detail? A: TOC requires understanding of 'Cradle-to-Grave' Program Management, i.e. Too Hard?

***I’m torn on categorizing this one. It comes down to ‘intent’. If Mr. Sweetman’s primary purpose was to cast doubt about what the Foundation was asserting at the time, it was a commission of the ‘Genetic Fallacy’. If his primary target was the Foundation’s future statements, it could be considered ‘Poisoning the Well’.

Disclosure: Me and the F-35
Since I’m posting a lot about the F-35 these days, and the controversy that SOME in the Aviation Press seem intent on promoting doesn’t make it look like that is going to change any time soon, to help readers more completely understand where this source (moi) is coming from and in the interest of ‘disclosure’, I should remind readers of the following:

1. As with all my posts, I never discuss anything that isn’t open source and public. Fortunately, much of the F-35 is in the public domain and can be easily referenced….even if it is generally spun and twisted by the critics.

2. I don’t work for LM but have vested interests in LM and the F-35. They’re not as deep as they used to be (since I’ve minimized ALL my publically-traded stock exposure).

3. I’m not a ‘fighter fan’. I’m a ‘guided-weapon/kill-the-enemy-as-efficiently-as-possible’ guy. If a brick works best – then throw it. But as a general rule, I think fighters get way too much attention to the detriment of everything else. I assert: “Fighters make noise and kill things. Bombers make policy and change governments.”

4. Having said #3, the current situation we are in (having to replace a lot of assets at once) was caused by three things:
a. The simultaneous procurement of the AF’s High-Low mix (F-15 & F-16) in the 70s-80s. It should surprise no one that concurrent acquisition increases probability of concurrent obsolescence. The F-16s are in a little better shape wear-and-tear-wise than the F-15, but the Stealth Revolution and advances in near-peer fighter and air defense technology is bringing obsolescence to both fighters at about the same rate.

b. The failure of the Navy to execute the A-12 program. A large gaping hole was created in Naval Strike when that program failed and after the A-6s were retired.
c. An earlier Congress pressing on combining Air Force and Navy needs, then requiring the absorption of the Marine Harrier replacement effort. This forced three efforts that could have been developed at their own pace which would have spread out the costs and risks to be rolled into one schedule and one set of budget line items paid for at the same time. Combining three efforts into one creates program complexity that should be avoided if it can be avoided, but given a. and b. above, this arrangement became unavoidable. You can argue the ‘unavoidable’ part only if you are willing to assume a completely different set of risks as acceptable. The DoD doesn’t believe it was/is avoidable and I don’t either.
5. I think the best mix of offensive airpower would have been (when it was doable) for the AF to buy ALL the F-22s they wanted, 30-40 more B-2Cs, and 700-750 F-35As, with the Navy minimizing their ‘stop-gap’ F-18E/Fs and buying many, many, more F-35Cs and F-18Gs. But that mix isn’t doable anymore.

6. The mix the US is pursuing IS the best mix that is most executable now. This is fortunate, because a reset would be even more un-executable.


sferrin said...

In my opinion the GAO is *almost* as respectable as POGO. In either case, their mantra is pretty much "we've never met a weapon we didn't hate".


SMSgt Mac said...

I'd place the GAO as more repectable (Just not more effective). But then again, I just simply cannot abide unaccountable Non-State Actors, and POGO is an intersting one IMHO. POGO and almost all the 'reformers' that came out of the 70's made their mark publishing outlandish exaggerations about the defense establishment using outliers and distortions of the truth. Dina Rasor, founder of POGO and a frickin' journalist became a 'somebody' largely over the C-5 program travails and the M-1 tank development. Her book,Pentagon Underground, makes some interesting reading in retrospect: it was SO bad and SO wrong.

sferrin said...

She wouldn't be the same who use to moan about the Bradley with it's "fammable armor" because aluminum is used in rocket propellant is she?