While many of Australia’s defence commentators are in the US witnessing the roll out of the country’s first F/A-18F Block 2 Super Hornet, which is the metaphorical equivalent of unveiling a Polish cavalry rider and horse on the eve of WW II, the Boeing 787 is emulating the JSF program as being a screw up.

A flawed design. A graphic overview of the JSF by Dr Carlo Kopp
A flawed design. A graphic overview of the JSF by Dr Carlo Kopp

Peter Goon, co-founder of Air Power Australia describes the similarities.

The fact that design of the most critical of primary aircraft structure, namely, the B-787 wing root, and the determination of the amount of electrical power required to drive the JSF aircrafts’ systems can be gotten so wrong beggar belief.

What makes these major program SNAFUs of even greater concern (as if that were possible) is neither are isolated instances in their programs and common sense, let alone independent expert analyses, show there are more to come – a lot more.

Experience also shows there is going to be a lot more sophistry and spin (S&S) because S&S lead to SNAFUs which, in turn, beget more S&S to create the alternate realities to explain away the SNAFUs leading to what are likely to go down in history as two of the most significant aerospace FUBARs, ever.

If you think there is not much in common in these two programs, intended for totally different purposes, then think again, as the following less than exhaustive list demonstrates.

  • Heavy reliance on simulation and modelling (S&M) in the development of the design with all the inherent risks this entails. S&M are really only very expensive, high powered video games until they have been independently verified and validated (IV&V), using real world data. This includes all the assumptions and boundary conditions, as the 787 Dreamliner Program is now finding out in the CATIA modelling of the wing root join.
  • Much of the design work has been outsourced to component supplier sub-contractors and design ‘body shops’ around the world; the latter being manned by bright eyed, ‘Young Turk’ Design Engineers, firstly, because they know how to drive computers and software to build the virtual world model from which the aircraft will be built and, secondly, because they provide a ‘lower cost base’ (a.k.a. cheap).
  • The few ‘design mentors’ that were resident in either organisation (that is, the Design Grey Beards with the necessary knowledge, experience and expertise) have either left in disgust or been asked to leave or are spread so thin that mentoring and the oversight required to produce quality designs play second fiddle understudy to the daily grind of keeping up appearances (i.e. attending management meetings, meeting ‘marketing’ deadlines, trying to explain Engineering to people whose expertise lies elsewhere, and administering to the young ‘Design Turks’ needs).
  • Such mentors are now ‘always on tap, never on top’ when it comes to decision making on the expectations and direction of the design, now the province of marketeers and senior generalist management types (. . . till things go wrong, of course).
  • Heavy reliance upon composite materials to perform tertiary, secondary, and, now, primary structural roles. One of the major problems with composites is they are difficult (and expensive) to inspect for damage, especially low impact damage.
  • Inordinately high levels of concurrency in the research, design, development, testing/certification, manufacturing and production activities with the extremely high levels of risk this entails. Concurrency requires all the checks and balances as well as rigorous oversight governance to work properly. They clearly didn’t work in relation to the wing box-wing join issue on the 787, throwing doubt on its total design integrity.
  • Heavy reliance upon modelling and simulation to qualify and certificate the aircraft and its components, to the point where the JSF Program is planning to sell more than 500 aircraft (many to its international partners) before completion of the initial ground and flight test programs. The intention to only qualify some 17% of the F-35 JSF aircrafts’ performance characteristics by actual flight testing should be sounding alarm bells in the heads of those who are members of the JSF coalition of the willing. Boeing recently claimed 80% of its certification work on the 787 had already been achieved through simulations.
  • Both program products are significantly weight challenged and both are now years behind on schedules that have been re-scheduled a number of times.

And the list goes on to which readers are invited to contribute or, if you like and in the interests of critical and open debate on the merits, challenge the ones presented above.

In the interests of balance and objective thinking, we should also ask what these two programs do not have in common?

In the technical details, there is of course much that is different between these programs.

However, at the programmatic level, one obvious answer is that one program is privately funded and, thus, is subject to the checks and balances of competitive market pressures, commercial considerations, oversight of a Board of Directors who could be personally sanctioned, including face jailtime, if they get it wrong, and, at the end of the day, common sense.

Meantime, the other is not subject to any such checks and balances, being funded with tax payers money from around the world by politicians and military leaders who were captured quite early during the program’s Conception and First Trimester. This situation has been aptly and correctly described in ‘game theory’ terms, by at least one senior Defence official in Australia, as The Prisoners’ Dilemma – in which the best winning move, is to extricate oneself from the game.

The willingness of politicians and military leaders around the world to do this – to pull out or abort – has been and still is highly problematic since to do so would require admitting mistakes have been made. When do politicians let alone generals and senior public servants ever admit to making mistakes?

Such failings in governance which, undoubtedly, are well understood by the directors and senior executives of international conglomerates, have now put the holy grail of corporate greed within easy reach; namely, that of a monopoly and the status of being “too big to fail”.

The danger of such military monopolies is that should the JSF fail in air combat, the consequent loss of Western military superiority will have grave strategic ramifications.

The real question, though, for Mr & Mrs Joe Public who are going to be funding this 30+ year monopoly with all its incumbent risks, design flaws and capability shortcomings, is where will that leave the defence of their nation’s sovereignty, and, of equal importance, what legacy are they passing on to their children?

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