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Nov 24, 2008



Look, this is how it works. Let's say you're a government employee and you see a need for a new weapon. In this case you see that we haven't had a new airlifter since the early '90s and you want to remedy that situation. Not only is it well past time for a new airplane, but you've also just seen an airlift guy promoted to be head of the USAF. So acting in what you see as the best interests of the nation you lobby for a new airplane program within the government. Once you get your start and get some seed money, you enlist your potential suppliers to help you build program momentum.

The contractors come up with all kinds of whacky ideas, everything from full stealth, piloted/unpiloted with composite structure and vertical take off and land (VTOL) to an updated C-141 with a glass cockpit and high bypass engines. Understand, everyone involved knows the continued existence of this program depends on their being able to show a big bang for the USAF buck. Because they know this, some will produce numbers for their airplane that are, to put it frankly, lies. But they are lies that have the name and backing of a major US defense contractor standing behind them, so who's to question them? The system depends on these lies. If everyone told the truth, there would be no new airplane program. Ironically, typically the biggest lies are told about the most conservative designs, because anything you claim about a wild new design will be treated with considerable skepticism. Thus our current procurement system is biased against new technology (despite what the GAO might tell you).

Once the contractors get to the competition phase the whole point of the competition is to see who can sell the biggest lie. There is no down side to lying. The worst thing that can happen is you can work on the design for years and years until it finally comes to the point of producing hardware and then you have to admit your design won't work. That will either cause the program to be cancelled, in which case you count all the profit you've earned and get a bonus for cancellation, or it will be rebaselined. This means you get to throw out everything you did up to that point and design a whole new airplane that may or may not work. This causes the program to drag out longer and means profits go up, and still you don't have to produce anything.

You think I'm kidding? Look at the Airborne Common Sensor program. One company sold the government on an airplane that was half big enough, but it looked pretty good compared to the other that was one third big enough. Look at the Joint Strike Fighter VTOL airplane that wouldn't get off the ground. It's funny how little press that one got. They built an airplane that wouldn't get off the ground and everyone said, "ho hum". No one lost their job. No one even cared. And why should they? The company that built the prototype made a profit on every day they worked on that turkey. The only loser was the US taxpayer, so big deal. Next.

As long as companies have nothing invested and nothing to lose, why tell the truth? Telling the truth means you won't get selected. It means your program won't get funded. Were you hoping the defense contractors just wouldn't notice? It pays better to lie and you wonder why you buy lies. It pays better to fail, and you wonder why you buy failure.

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