A recent article in National Defense magazine has an interesting look at the military’s latest attempt at joint aircraft development. The new program is intended to produce a new rotorcraft, known tentatively as future vertical lift (FVL), for possible use by all the services. The article details the military’s efforts to learn lessons from history to avoid mistakes that have plagued joint aircraft development for decades.
And there is a great deal of history to draw on.
Dating back to the F-111 program in the 1960s, only one jointly developed aircraft has made it to the production phase. That aircraft happens to be the most expensive weapon system in history: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In a study published by the Air Force before the F-35 program began, Richard Hellion concluded that joint development, rather than adapting one service’s plane to for use by the others, is almost never successful. Yet the Pentagon continues to try.
The idea behind joint development makes sense. As the author of the National Defense piece, Valerie Insinna, writes, “If multiple services buy the same aircraft, in theory the government would save money by sharing development resources and by garnering economies of scale once an aircraft was in production.” Reality, however, is far messier.
Part of the problem is that differing service needs complicate the development process, driving cost growth later. Insinna quotes Ray Jaworowski, a civilian aircraft analyst, stated,
The problem with these joint aircraft designs is that essentially they result in design compromises because you’re having to account for the requirement of the different services, and no service really gets everything it wants. There’s a penalty with building in these differing requirements and it could be a penalty in terms weight or in terms of performance or something along those lines.
Jaworowski is right, but the problem goes even deeper than that. As Carl Builder pointed out at the end of the Cold War, the different military services have different personalities, identities, and ways of viewing the world shaped by their history and experience in war. Those qualities color their analysis and interpretation of their own needs. They make the compromises that Jaworowski notes necessary. They also ensure the final product ends up less capable for each service. A problem the F-35 makes abundantly clear. As the services attempt to address problems related to its suitability to their particular mission, costs inevitably rise.
Large organizations with complex bureaucracies do not easily reach consensus. When agencies within that bureaucracy have specialized knowledge, as the individual military services most certainly do, it makes consensus that much harder. By jointly developing the FVL, the Pentagon is making consensus the priority and therefore compromise the end result. The costs of making the new system suitable for each service will surely follow.
Instead of developing the FVL jointly, the military should open up competition among the services for a new rotorcraft. The best design can be adopted by the other services, and adapted for their needs, should they choose. As National Defense notes, that is exactly what happened with the Army’s Black Hawk helicopter—which served as the basis for Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard models.