A Case in Point – The F-18 Was Not Worth Buying in the First Place
Your F-18 article (July AFJ) seems destined to stir up all kinds of denials — the Navy will defend their program as it always does when challenged from the outside — Dr. Brown will deny that it is a “Second TFX”, and even if it is, he didn’t start it. (For once he’s right). The contractor(s) will assure everyone that all problems are well on the way to solution, all guarantees will be met, all cost increases, if any, are due to inflation, and that, in any event, any publisher daring to print such scurrilous trivia will be cut off from all future advertising.
The most interesting question to be answered is whether the Congress will be able to grasp the problem as a whole and save the Navy from itself and OSD as was done in the case of the F-111B. The F/A-18 is more clearly a Washington invention than even the TFX, which did start out trying to meet Air Force and Navy requirements for a F-4 replacement, even though the combination of characteristics were clearly beyond the state of the art, then and now. The reduction in capability in both fighter and attack roles over current service aircraft which is being achieved by the F/A-18 is not as a result of any fleet demands of which I am aware. There have been no cries from the fighter community to eliminate the second seat, to reduce radar range, to reduce the quantity and capability of the primary armament, to increase the need for drop tanks, to increase approach speed, to decrease aircraft range, to decrease maximum speed, etc. Similarly, there has been no great demand from the light attack community to reduce payload/radius, to reduce store stations, to increase reliance on external fuel nor to increase weight and complexity. There have been requests for more thrust in the A-7, particularly when heavily loaded, a problem not exactly solved by afterburners not planned for use in attack missions.
There will be many asking how and why naval aviation with a pretty fair record of accomplishment, allowed itself to take its first major step backward in capability. A review of testimony in Congressional hearings is revealing:
- In 1972, The Navy expressed its opposition to Light Weight Fighters (LWF). Admiral Zumwalt supported an all F-14 fighter force by testifying to a 3:1 advantage of the F-13 over the F-4 (or F-15, F-18 or any other Sparrow armed aircraft) and emphasized the necessity of comparing costs of equal effectiveness forces, rather than equal numbers.
- In 1973, Deputy Defense Secretary Clements pushed his prototype scheme as a solution to the OSD perceived problem of excessive F-14 costs. The Navy resisted internally, I ended up with the opportunity of presenting the working level Navy case to the Cannon Tactical Air Subcommittee upon my retirement, and Congress killed that scheme.
- In 1974, under an OSD ultimatum to have but one F-14 squadron per carrier, the Navy revived the VFAX concept from the F-111B days. (One F-14 + three VFAX is a better complement than one F-14 +one LWF + two A-7s). Congress and OSD combined to make the plan less viable by specifying commonness with the Air Force LWF, and a reduced level of capability.
- In 1975, during the Spring hearings, the Navy qualified its endorsement of the LWF by noting the OSD demand for a lower cost complementary fighter to the F-14, but in the Fall hearings, the high-low mix was supported without reservation, despite all logic and previous testimony.
- In 1977, the Navy dropped the F-18 program from its budget, but OSD put it back. (As noted by AFJ, Brown overruled Woolsey.)
In view of the OSD pressure over the years, I can understand how Navy officials end up testifying in support of the program (the “anything is better than nothing” syndrome.) I’m curious as to whether AFJ asked the F-18 program manager, Capt. John Weaver, whether he favored the basic concept of a high-low mix. After his previous efforts on behalf of the AWG-9 Phoenix level of capability, how could he support the giant step backward? I have to believe he was assigned to the job, and as usual is doing his utmost to get the best possible product under the circumstances, for the Navy. Unfortunately, in the long run, this is probably not in the Navy’s best interests. If the original OSD LWF (1973 level) with virtually no capability had been developed it would probably now be dead. Efforts improving poor programs make them harder to kill.
As AFJ has noted, Dr. Brown was associated with the whole TFX fiasco. The record seems to show he really deserves most of the credit for both starting and continuing the Navy version much too long. He signed all the recommendations which McNamara immediately approved. In the F-18 program, however, Brown carried on that which Foster, Clements, Currie, et al started.
In the final analysis, the F-18 is not really an F-111B. Most of the airplane deficiencies now being reported can be corrected, and there is no USAF model to get made worse by each correction. Although weight and performance will get worse, the real case is that the F-18 was not worth buying in the first place. The engineering mistakes and cost growth only reinforce the original conclusion of most of the working Navy that the airplane was not worth buying as a fighter because it was grossly less capable than the F-14 with life cycle costs projected to be about the same from that point on (1975), and was markedly inferior to the A-7 in payload range, and cost much more. (Admittedly, the design could run from air opposition much faster than an A-7, although this characteristic had not previously been rated high on the priority list for a Navy attack airplane, particularly when it cannot run fast enough. One might also note that the afterburning retreat had better be directed toward a friendly tanker.)
Your chart (p.21) showing the slow production build up to the F-18 is but a part of the problem. The time from go-ahead to first flight was also longer than usual, and if the prototype phase were included, another two-year delay is involved. Current A-109 acquisition procedures are so drawn out that costs must be double what they could be. This is a fertile field for some AFJ investigative reporting to help us get back to the type of scheduling which gave us a fleet squadron in not more than five years from go-ahead.
Overall, I have not changed my opinion that the country cannot really afford the OSD. Between OMB and the Congress, the Services have plenty of supervision and all the coordination they need. Too few of those who are brought into OSD seem to have enough common sense to ferret out the true facts by finding reliable sources of information (The editor of AFJ was an exception.) Too many mistakes of the past have been repeated, and too many compromises accepted.