Concurrency, in defense procurement parlance means putting something into production while the weapon system is still in testing, or not even tested really at all. The inaction of this crazy concept may be the result of the best sales job of all time by defense contractors and over-eager DoD leadership. The idea that a weapons manufacturer, and its associated DoD program office, aided by computer modeling and other gadgetry, can design something so complex, yet so perfect, on the first try, that testing is more of a formality than a necessity or prudent measure is totally outrageous. This notion literally goes against every historical trend when it comes to weapons procurement. Furthermore, it goes against logic. Why purchase something in mass, especially something very expensive, extremely complicated, and that has massive national defense implications, without even testing it first? How this totally arrogant and naive concept came to pass is a totally different story unto itself, but let’s just say that “concurrency,” in some circles, is a bigger threat to national security than what the potential enemies, for which products built under this disastrous idea were designed to fight, represent.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a weapon system that is so over budget and behind schedule, that like so many other major military decisions made in the 2000′s, many wish it simply had never happened. This is especially true now that studies say developing individual airframes for each services’ needs would have cost less, offered more capability and have been fielded sooner than the Joint Strike Fighter. Instead, with the F-35 program, we have a compromised design (at least for the USN and USAF) and an uncertain air combat future. In fact concurrency, another bright idea of the early first decade of this century, is such a miserable failure that the original F-35 calendar of events speaks for itself:
Fast forward to today and the F-35 program’s proposed calendar of major events looks noting like the one shown above. Not to mention the aircraft’s massively increased cost and declining performance goals. But hey, it’s an airplane, one that the DoD plans to buy a lot of, close to 2500 to be more exact. But, that 2500 number is a pipe dream that will never happen due to declining defense budgets and rapidly changing technologies (drones). None the less, the only saving grace of this program is that you can make some very expensive changes to the lemons already built as aircraft are meant to be taken apart and put back to together. Although even with these changes these substandard aircraft won’t last long in actual service.
More importantly, when it comes to aircraft, you can make changes and build them directly into the next batch of jets that get ordered, so eventually you should end up with a relevant production example that will meet the original design requirements. At least this is the theory. The reality is that concurrency fixes are very messy and expensive when it comes to fleet management and sustainability. They are also a very expensive opportunity cost as even with these fixes, you end up buying literally dozens, if not hundreds, of incredibly costly patched up aircraft that will never meet their later production cousins design capabilities or lifespan. So to clarify, because of the large production run of the item, concurrency is fiscal and organizational insanity, but the problems are theoretically solvable if you are willing to throw away $150M jets and burn through lots of time (and flying hours on existing and aging fighters) in the process…
Now take this same brilliant procurement strategy and assign it to a thirteen plus BILLION DOLLAR super carrier (more like $17B with research and development cost rolled in) and you have a huge problem, both in size and dollar figures. This gigantic weapon system, the world’s largest military combat vehicle, that the US builds maybe two of a decade at best, is about the worst place to apply the concurrency myth as imaginable. In other words, if you want to insert “new technology” into one of these 100,000 ton water-tight welded beasts, then you better be certain that this technology works, as you do not have another hundred “production prototypes” to make it right.
This is especially true if this new technology is directly related to one of the ship’s critical systems. In other words, something that the vessel absolutely need’s to accomplish its mission. On a super carrier, this could be some of the same things found on other ships: propulsion, steering, communications and other essentials, but also includes specific items unique to a conventional carrier’s mission, namely catapults and arresting gear. The fact is a nuclear super carrier is a huge waste of money if it cannot launch and recover aircraft right? Well if that is the case than the new USS Ford, of the new “Ford Class” of nuclear carriers, has a major problem.
While the ship sure looks cool, with its smaller “island” set farther back on its enlarged flight deck, and its big electronically scanned array radar apertures, the USS Ford’s sci-fi looks mask its major issues. In particular are the two most basic enablers of an aircraft carrier beyond the basic “any boat” specific gear, the arresting gear and the catapult system. EMALS, standing for Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System, uses electrical current and a set of magnets (called a linear induction motor) to linearly accelerate the “shuttle” that attach’s to the aircraft’s nose wheel. The tremendous power needed for this system to work comes from the ship’s nuclear reactors and is stored in large capacitors below deck.
The EMALS replaces the seemingly archaic, but reliable, steam catapult systems that have been in service since the dawn of the jet-age. Simply put, this device has to be incredibly reliable, as a “cold cat-shot,” one that does not produce enough forward momentum to get the aircraft in the air, can results in a $50M+ jet in the water, potentially a dead aircrew and a full stop to what could be critical operations. Currently, EMALS, which has been in full-scale testing for about four years, is far from 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 the steam system, while providing greater forward thrust, and a larger launch envelope for significantly different aircraft weights. The bottom line is that it is simply not as near as promising as the brochure says it would should be.
EMALS dismal record speaks for itself. 201 out of 1967 launches have failed. That is roughly over 10% of test launches. Factoring in the current state of the system, the most generous numbers available show that EMALS has a mean time between failure rate of 1 in 200. In other words, one out of 200 launches fails. Considering how many aircraft can fly off of a super carrier during cyclic operations, especially during a time of war, this number is startling. Keep in mind these numbers do not reflect a deployed system that is constantly battered by the harsh salt water environment and continuous cycles, not to mention being maintained by sailors at sea!
I remember when the Navy and industry were pushing this concept so hard, stating that similar systems are in use at theme parks across the US (Curse of the Mummy and Aerosmith Rockin Roller Coaster to name a few) and will be reliable. Well, either the imagineers at Disney should be building aircraft carriers or this analogue is highly misleading. A roller coaster EMALS does not operate in the harshest conditions in the world for months on end, and a failed stroke from a unit installed at a theme park does not result in a 25 ton super-fighter being dropped in the ocean with a human or two inside! I am not saying that EMALS technology should not be pursued, but it should definitely not have been a major component for which a whole aircraft carrier, and its class, were designed around before it was highly vetted.
Another critical issue the USS Ford is having is with its other key system that is essential to flight operations, its arresting gear. Traditionally, a super carrier’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 within the bowls of the ship, and although they may seem archaic, they work. The Ford’s new arresting system does away with much of this bulky technology in the form of the Advanced Arresting Gear system. This system, made by General Atomics, the same folks that make the Predator and Reaper drones among a ton of other diversified products, is having even worse teething problems than EMALS. For instance, during testing the AAG failed nine out of 71 times! currently, the mean time between failures for the AAS is projected at 20 cycles. Yes, you read that right, at best the system fails 5% of the time based on its current reliability. This is almost 250 times worse than what was expected!
There are many other issues with the Ford Class as well. For instance, the ship’s innovative AN/SPY-3/4 radar system is not even close to being ready for prime time. Even the ship’s “improved” flight deck design concept, said to offer a large jump in potential sortie rates, is now suspect. The ship’s weapons elevators are also an issue, and these are just some of the ship’s major headlining problems. With all this in mind one has to wonder why we would put such a large asset, both in expenditure and size, into production when its core subsystems, for which the ship was literally designed around, were so immature. Unlike the F-35, we do not have the luxury of building dozens, or hundreds, more Ford Class carriers in the near term in order to “get it right.” What happens if the ship’s core technology, namely the launch and recovery systems, are simply not in an operational state by the time the USS Ford is supposed to formally enter service, and at what cost will such delays bring to the program’s already ballooning budget overall?
I do not believe it is even possible to retrofit this giant machine with legacy, proven systems, such as hydraulic arresting gear engines and steam catapults. It would seem that the ship would have to be cut apart to install such systems and let’s be honest, retrofitting a brand new super carrier with systems it was never designed to be deployed with, just to fit them back again when they are mature and ready for deployment, is not a good start to what should be a 50 year sailing career. Additionally, what about the cost of such dramatic retrofits? How much are theoretically lower maintenance and more operationally flexible arresting gear and catapults really worth? Are they worth delaying a super carrier’s induction into service? How many millions, or even worse billions, are these new “whiz-bang” technologies really worth in relation to their ability to potentially improve a carrier’s overall effectiveness? Is a highly questionable increase of 30% in sortie rates under ideal conditions (some say 10% at best if everything works perfectly) really worth risking the usability of a $17B weapon system? Why not 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?
Concurrency so seriously damaged the reputation of the majority of major DoD procurement programs originating from the last decade or so that the word 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 this exact scenario concerning this idiotic concept. Currently, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Littoral Combat Ship, certain components of our ballistic missile defense system, even the P-8 Poseidon to a certain degree, and now the Ford Class of super carrier, among many other smaller programs (everything is relative in defense procurement terms) have suffered horribly under the concurrency concept. In other words, this is a dismal procurement strategy that has to end immediately.
Although concurrency looks great on paper, as it shows that you can replace old assets with new ones on an incredibly tight schedule with usually insanely optimistic cost predictions, in reality it ends in fleet management, fiscal and political hell. With many programs that have adopted a concurrency like design, testing and production strategies, you have weapon systems that have already accrued rapid investment with little to show for it. Thus Washington’s decision makers, and their industry partners, are either faced with admitting their grave mistakes and/or unrealistic goals, not a good thing for law-maker’s reelection or for the careers of DoD and the defense industry leadership, or you have to continue ”doubling down” on the program in question in hopes that it will even be usable one day, let alone on time or on budget. These delays also require that the existing and proven force of weapon systems that those in development under a concurrency-like strategy aim to replace are 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, sucks up so much funding that during a time of tightening budgets there simply is no money to provide necessary upgrades that keep the existing fleet strategically or tactical. The whole situation really turns into a complex game of negative cause and effect that is as complex as it is detrimental to our military’s ability to fight conflicts that could arise today.
In the end, Washington has to impose a “fly before you buy,” “float then vote,” “drive then buy,” procurement policy. Who would buy a car without test driving it, or purchase a home without inspecting it first? The whole thing is lunacy that many who do not receive a paycheck from Lockheed Martin, its subsidiaries, or the Joint Strike Fighter program office predicted in great detail years ago. Under the currently fiscal conditions we simply cannot afford to pay for this totally foreseeable mistake called concurrency. Sure the defense contractors and those trying to make their career in the Pentagon may love its ability to package many myths and unrealistic goals into a neat concept, but really it is as fruitless of a concept as dynamically projecting theoretical income to fit a static budget. Furthermore, concurrency has such a bad track record, realized in such a short period of time, that continuing with it is almost criminal in regards to the US tax payer.
If this fantastical procurement concept really makes sense than let the defense contractor who is pitching their product foot the bill for it. Otherwise Americans should demand change, especially in the form of firing, not promoting, those responsible for such a stupid waste of money in the first place. Our military is already a shadow of what it was a decade ago, and due to the concurrency blunders of yesterday, today and the near future, our forces will eventually collapse in on themselves. Alternatively, at best, we will own 2500 F-35s and a handful of Ford Class carriers that we cannot even afford to operate.
Demand change from your lawmakers and those in power at the Pentagon regarding this volatile issue. It has, and continues to put America’s military superiority at real risk of being a part of our history and not our future.