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The $5 Billion Misunderstanding

The Collapse of the Navy's A-12 Stealth Bomber Program

by James P. Stevenson


An artist's impression of the A-12 Avenger II in flight. The aircraft never flew.

This book takes up on certain themes in Stevenson's earlier books but it is a much angrier book. It's also much harder to read. There is a lot of abbreviations that are not explained. The cast of characters is very large and their roles are confusing. There is little technical information about the aircraft in question, as most of it is still. Unless your heroes have always been bureaucrats, the book seems to drag on interminably. His writing style is terrible and he uses the word "specious" far too much. Yet it is an unusual book on a "black" program.

Since the Second World War, the US Navy has argued that it can hit targets far inland with carrier aircraft. It has also sought a role for itself in the nuclear bombing business, basing bombers off its carriers. To do this required a long-range aircraft and the navy developed in turn the A-3 Skywarrior, A-5 Vigilante and the A-6 Intruder. The A-6, which first flew in 1960, participated in the war in Vietnam, the strikes on Libya in 1986 and the First Gulf War before being retired in 1996. 

All along the US Air Force has argued that since bombers need long range anyhow, there is little to be gained by basing them on carriers, whereas doing so restricts their size and the the number of ground crew that can support them.

In 1985, the US Navy began work on a replacement for the A-6, in the form of a "stealth" bomber which could operate from carriers. Now, there are a number of ways of making an aircraft "stealthy" like a camouflage paint scheme, not leaving a long vapour trail, having quiet engines or having engines not quite so hot (thereby fooling infra-red detectors). But increasingly, "stealth" came to be seen as meaning less observable to radar. Given that the value of radar has been questioned, the value of radar defeating technology is constrained.

From the beginning, the A-12 project was abysmally managed. Statutory requirements were ignored, milestones were not carried out, legal i's and t's were not dotted and crossed and accounting was generally sloppy. A terrible decision was taken to use a Fixed Price Plus Incentive (FPPI) contract rather than Cost Plus Fixed Fee (CPFF), the more conventional (and legal) form of an R&D contract. Costs ran out of control and it soon became clear that the project could not guarantee the cost of the project, the delivery date or the aircraft specifications. Oversight by Congress, the Department of Defense and other arms of government was minimal at best, partly due to security requirements.  

Security also prevented the contractors from accessing data from other stealth programs such as Have Blue, Have Key, Have Flash, Have Glass and the F-117 and B-2 programs. This led to a "re-inventing the wheel" situation, in which the contractors met and overcame technical problems already encountered and solved by other projects. That they often solved them quicker and better does not detract from the wastefulness of this situation. It also seems (although this is only mentioned in passing) that the contractors took advantage of the shoddy program management and overspent on various facilities.

As the price per aircraft rose to $150M (still cheap compared with a B-2 bomber), first the Marine Corps and then the Air Force pulled out and then the navy began to cut back on its proposed purchases. This eliminated the contractors potential profits. Then Defense Secretary Cheney, under congressional pressure to cut billions off the defense budget, cancelled the project. A scurrilous attempt by he government to terminate the contract for default led to ten years of litigation, with damages, costs and interest being awarded to the contractors. The book does not cover the human cost to the thousands of workers who were laid off. 

There's still room for someone to write more about this project but unless and until someone does, this book provides the sole tombstone of $5 billion spent without a thing to show for it.

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