12 April 2012

The Lastest Thirty Year DOD Aviation Plan

During the Cold War people harped on how inefficient it was for communists to try to adopt five year economic plans for their nations. The U.S. military, by comparison, adopts a thirty year plan each year for its future aviation purposes (i.e. this year's covers planned purchases through 2022) (it does something similar for naval purchases). What is it?

[T]he Defense Department plans on buying two new VC-25 presidential transports (Air Force One) by the end of this decade, kicking off an effort to replace the ancient T-38 Talon around 2018, new bombers and a fleet of more than 600 UAVs by 2022. Most interestingly, the plan lists an effort to develop a 6th-generation fighter, dubbed F-X, to replace the Air Force’s F-22 Raptors and another 6th-gen jet called F/A-XX that’s slated to replace the Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. . . . All in all the document shows that the Pentagon’s aviation fleet will grow slightly from 14,340 aircraft today to 14,415 by 2022, with aviation spending totaling about $770 billion during that time.

The reality is that there is serious reason to doubt that sixth generation manned fighters to replace the F-22 and F/A-18E/F will every be built as drone technology takes off, and the utility of a new long range manned stealth bomber to replace the B-2 is questionable. Moreover, the presumption that one can really make meaningful aircraft procurement plans thirty year out is doubtful. The theory is that it tracks the useful life of the longest lived classes of aircraft, but technology changes to rapidly to make planning over such a long term time horizon very sensible, and allowing that kind of time horizon only encourages the kind of unreasonably long thirty year design to completed production run project schedules seen on projects like the F-22 that cause projects to go over budget and get behind schedule while encouraging unreasonable technological expectations that lead to technologically frought efforts that produce only marginally superior or sometimes inferior products at times long after the need for new weapons systems arises.

And, like all routinized planning requirements, this one has degenerated into a bureaucratic rehash of all recent past plans rather than genuine new thinking about what strategic direction the U.S. should take in its aviation procurement by people with enough vision to consider better alternatives than the status quo, and with enough clout to put the behmoth on a different course when the plan is adopted.

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