“This ‘violates the fly-before-buy concept'”

Testing of new presidential helicopters questioned

Well, it’s probably just a way of life with military equipment, but a number of systems have been called out for having serious issues in a report by the Pentagon. The lead item is the replacement for Marine One, the Presidential helicopter:

Next Friday, the Navy is expected to announce who will get the $1.6 billion contract to produce 23 of the aircraft. Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. and Connecticut-based Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. are competing for the job. The full fleet is supposed to be in operation by 2014.

However, Thomas P. Christie, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, says in his report that the Navy’s schedule will mean the new helicopters will be tested even as they are being built–meaning that lessons learned in the testing process cannot be incorporated into the early production models.

The report claims that the early models would lack even some of the features the present model has. I’m not really sure why we’d need to rush this particular vehicle through the system. It’s not like tanks coming off the end of the assembly line in Stalingrad and being needed ten minutes later on the other side of town to fight the invaders. It seems to me that this one could have a few extra months or years if it needed it.

Other systems noted in the report:

  • The C-130J transport aircraft – This is nothing new. MO noted the claims of trouble in a post about the Stryker last August. There is some debate whether the claims are accurate or not and the J models are already serving, but their inclusion in this report indicates that everything isn’t completely rosy. And speaking of the Stryker,
  • The Stryker – The mortar carrier, the mobile gun system, and the NBC Recon variants are all still having problems. 66 of the 105mm gun-armed MGS models are scheduled to be produced later this year.
  • The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – This fighter bomber is having trouble meeting weight specifications. Big surprise. Just about everything in the military is heavier than it’s supposed to be. MO has high hopes for the F35.

I was going to point out that another system that has been reported to be skipping testing phases is the National Missile Defense system. But a google turns up a Reuters story on CNN about the same report that headlines with the NMD shortcomings:

[Christie] said it was not possible to estimate the system’s capability with “high confidence” because of a lack of flight testing of the Pentagon’s costliest weapons program.

But Philip Coyle, Christie’s predecessor as the Pentagon’s top weapons tester and now an adviser to the private Center for Defense Information, said it was not even possible to estimate with “low confidence.”

The interceptor missiles “have no[t] demonstrated capability to defend against a real attack because they have only been tested with artificial targeting aids, with location beacons onboard the target and with advance information about the attack that no enemy would provide,” Coyle said by email.

I’ve written previously on the plans to skip testing phases in order to rush the NMD into service:

Again, this is similar to what some in the administration and the Pentagon want to to with the National Missile Defense program. Unless the threat of ICBM attack is high (exactly like it isn’t right now) this would be a BAD IDEA. Shooting down military fighters in the Persian Gulf is bad enough, but what happens if the NMD accidentally shoots down an airliner (or a space shuttle, for that matter) near US territory? I suggest that extra testing rather than less testing is the right approach with this thing, especially if software is the main issue. The hardware can be manufactured, or even put in place, so that when the computers are ready to go the system can go online. But we can’t screw this one up.

I originally wrote that after our own Patriot missiles had shot down two Allied aircraft during the invasion of and targeted another. The PAC-3 version of the Patriot had skipped most of its operational testing phase and software problems had been the prime contributers to the tragic errors.

The most recent failure by NMD interceptors was a software failure.

Are we really sure we want to skip that testing?

Here’s more in the Washington Times on NMD and testing. It includes

[Pentagon spokesman Larry] DiRita said the system might never actually be declared operational.

“We haven’t made a declaration that we are now hereby operational. I don’t know that such a declaration will ever be made. But we have a nascent operational capability,” he said.

“Some capability exists, it will continue to improve as we continue to test it, and the testing is, at the moment, a higher priority,” DiRita said.

“Operational” has a very specific meaning when it comes to Defense Department acquisition programs, and Pentagon officials are conscientiously avoiding invoking it.

Asked if the missile defense system has an operational capability that could intercept a North Korean missile launched tomorrow, DiRita responded, “I think I just don’t need to expand on what I’ve said.”

It then goes on to describe the “spiral development”:

Spiral development is a concept that gained favor with the explosion of information technologies in the 1990s. The commercial information technology sector was developing products so quickly that by the time the Pentagon had even agreed to requirements on a system, the state of the art had long since eclipsed them

In May 2003, the Pentagon made it official: spiral development was the desired method for all acquisition projects. In this construct, the system’s desired capability is identified, but the end-state requirements are not known when the program starts. Those are developed in negotiation during the development as the contractor and government program office sees what capabilities are possible on what schedule and at what cost.

This basically takes a bad situation (the government spending our money) and makes it worse (by removing a lot of the requirements that must be met).

At the same time, a 100% perfect defense against ICBMs that has completed a thorough and rigorous testing phase and is declared ‘fully operational’ in 2010 isn’t much good if someone manages to take a potshot at us in 2009.

As I’ve said before: I’m 100% in favor of national missile defense. I’m 100% in favor of spending buckets of money on it if that’s what it takes. I’m 100% sure we can make it work. I’m also 100% sure that we’re probably not nearly as protected as we should be by the present semi-operational, semi-tested system.

We’re at war. Some corners need to be cut. But some priorities, like the national missile defense, shouldn’t cut too much. And other, like Marine One, probably don’t need to cut at all.


  1. Why do people insist on citing the Center for Defense Information all of the time. During the Cold War Bill Gertz said he never used CDI as a source because they always towed the ‘Soviet Line.’ Has CDI ever met a weapon system they liked??

  2. That might be the case, Dan. To be honest, I was wasn’t at all aware of that. But is an analysis that says ‘the NMD needs more work’ demonstrably wrong?

  3. Oh, NMD is clearly not inspiring confidence. My point was that Milblogs such as this one using CDI as a source gives them credibility that they should not have. They are not an impartial observer when it comes to weapons procurement. During the Cold War they argued for unilateral nuclear disarmament and were one of the critics of the M-1 Abrams. Need I say more??