If you saw the Sixty Minutes piece on the JSF last night, you probably not a happy camper. The opening salvo was pretty staggering: The program is costing $400B for 2400 airplanes, or about twice as much as the US spent to put men on the moon! So how did we get here? When I was a squadron Commanding Officer in the 1991 timeframe I witnessed a rare occurrence at the Pentagon, The cancellation of the A-12 Avenger program by then Secretary of Defense Cheney. The A-12,intended to be the next generation aircraft for the US military, was scheduled for a buy of about 850 jets. But it was 18 months behind and already $1 Billion over budget, so SECDEF axed it! The JSF didn’t just wind up 7 years behind and $163 Billion over budget overnight, so one wonders why subsequent SECDEFs let it get this far. I think we got here in much the same way that the DoD ethics problem evolved……just a little at a time. Despite all the warning signs and poor performance, leadership allowed it to continue with the “hope” that with the proper amount of money and leadership, the problems would go away. They didn’t. All successful military officers and corporate executives know one fundamental tenet of leadership: Hope is not a good strategy. Yet it appears that was the main strategy at work with the JSF. I am reminded of the classic The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis in which a senior executive devil, Screwtape, provides advice to his nephew, Wormwood, an apprentice devil. When asked by Wormwood what big event he should use to cause his assigned mortal to turn to the dark side, Screwtape replies, “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,…” Sound familiar?
Now the program has a gun to our heads. It’s the only TACAIR replacement on the books, not withstanding the excellent and under-rated F-18E/F, which, by the way, is a perfectly acceptable alternative well into the 21st century. It’s ironic that in order to pay for the ever increasing JSF price tag, DoD wound up taking money highly successful programs, like the F/A-18 . We now must resort to a strategy of hope to deliver the JSF. There’s a lot of similarity here with ERPs, don’t you think?
There’s a lesson to be learned here. Be vigilant early in procurement programs. Don’t let the little things get by without correction, lest one finds oneself on “the gentle slope, soft underfoot” of Too Big To Fail.