The Trillion Dollar Crap Shoot (Part One)

by John Delach

Q: What do Mao Zedong and Don Rumsfeld have in common?

A: They both promulgated the concept of a “Great Leap Forward.”

Q: How did that work out for them?

A: “Furgeddabouit!”


We will not speak unkindly about Chairman Mao. Let the dead rest in peace even though his great leap forward resulted in the deaths of countless ordinary Chinese citizens. Let’s face it…The average day under Mao was usually not a day at the beach, and so it goes.


On the other hand, Uncle Don, as Secretary of Defense under Bush 43 insisted that our next generation of weapon systems then being budgeted must incorporate a new paradigm, “Leap Ahead Technology.”


The exact meaning of Leap Ahead Technology is lost to history. Success has a thousand fathers, failure is an orphan. Another instance where think tank, big brain so-called wunderkind analysts convince DC policy makers that their latest, greatest new-think weapons solution are in fact: “The way the truth and the light.”


The result; the Elmo Zumwalt class destroyers, the F-35 Lightning II fighter and the Gerald Ford nuclear aircraft carriers. I understand that Leap Ahead Technology would incorporate the next generation of technology into the new weapon by relying on unproven systems still in development. This amounted a crap shoot, betting that this technology would reach maturity before the weapon system was completed.


When I wrote about the Zumwalt’s in 2015, I reported: “Back in 2009, the GAO “…found that four out of 12 critical technologies in the Zumwalts’ design were fully mature. Six were approaching maturity but five would not be fully mature until after installation.”


So much went wrong that the navy cut the order from 32 ships to three and deemed that this trio would be utilized, “…as state of the art platforms for experimental weapons such as lasers and electromagnetic rail guns…” This way the navy could play with all the stuff that didn’t work as promised in the first place. Cost: $4.2 billion for each ship not including an additional $10 billion in development costs plus invoices still to come to make these systems workable.


In 2002, we touted the F-35, Lightning II as only one of two fifth generation jet fighters on earth, the other being our F-22. We invited every nation we considered to be friends and family to participate (i.e. help pay for) this the best tactical fighter jet on the planet capable of performing every conceivable mission for the rest of the 21st Century:


Step right up, ladies and gentlemen; nothing up my sleeve. I present to you, each one of you the future of tactical military aviation. Tell you what I’m gonna do…if you sign up right now for your share at my low introductory price of $233.0 billion, you will be the first on your block to possess this gallant steed…sign up now as I shall not pass this way again…


And how they signed up: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Italy, Korea, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, the United Kingdom. Hello suckers, feel right at home. By 2007, the price had swelled to $278.5 billion, by 2012 to $395.7 billion and by 2017 to $406.5 billion. Oh, dear how loudly the Aussies, Canuks, Danes and Dutch squawked as each installment came due. You would have thought Uncle was to blame!


Did I mention that the cost of the helmet was not included? Whoops, well, its price tag of $400,000 each is an extra. But what a helmet! “It offers a 3-D scan, noise canceling headphones, night vision, a forehead-mounted computer, and a projector that displays live video on its clear visor.” The helmet comes in dark green and weighs about four to five pounds about the same as a football helmet. “When tethered to the plane, the helmet gives pilots the combined visual capabilities of Superman and Iron Man, if they were flying Wonder Woman’s invisible plane.”


Everything the pilot needs is shown on the visor and the pilot can see through the aircraft with a 360-degree view. It just took a while to get it to work the way it’s supposed to work but I have it on good authority that it’s now working peachy keen. (Did I mention that each pilot has his own one-of-a-kind helmet?)


The Lightning II comes in three models, A, B and C. Most buyers have ordered the traditional Model-A suitable for air force service at $94.6 million per airplane. The aircraft carrier capable Model-C navy version costs $121.8 per unit and the Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL) Model-B favored by the marines comes in at $122.8.


The B has been a bitch and a half to get working right. Its second internal vertical lift engine really complicated the airplanes avionics and performance adding time, money and near nervous breakdowns to its development. It remains in development and is just now going into production. The C has had similar problems and delays due to the need for folded wings and added stress during catapult takeoffs and arrested carrier landings. Delays forced the navy to purchase 90 additional tried and true F-18E Hornets(fighter-bombers) and 80 EA-18G Growlers (electronic warfare aircraft) to fill the gap.


Fifteen years removed from the programs origin, only the USAF is operating 104 F-35As in an ongoing developmental and training role and the navy is testing a small number of F-35 Cs. Foreign partner pilots participate in the training program as production plans are updated. The best estimate that I can find is full production will begin in 2019 and our foreign partners will begin to receive their airplanes beginning in 2021.


So much for that great leap forward and in the words of one American general: “Think really hard before deciding on any future joint-service platforms.”


(To be continued with Part Two: Ford Class Carriers)