Why do commercial platforms make such lousy military aircraft?

The above is the question that the US Department of Defense is asking itself, courtesy of a new Defense Science Board Task Force chaired by Jacques Gansler. I wrote about the issue in a news analysis published this week in Flight International. I’ve posted an excerpt below, and you can read the full story here.

Taking an “off-the-shelf” aircraft and adapting it for a new military role was supposed to be the cheap and easy alternative to designing an all-new platform.

So, in accord with the mantra “faster, better and cheaper”, US military services since 2001 have often turned to off-the-shelf derivatives of commercial and military aircraft to satisfy new and emerging requirements for a wide range of missions, including scout and utility helicopters, VIP transports, surveillance aircraft and aerial tankers, to name but a few.

The results, however, have proved disappointing. Far from removing cost and schedule risks, procurements based on off-the-shelf aircraft and similar equipment have led to some of the most expensive acquisition fiascos for the US military over the last decade.

Examples range from aborted efforts, such as the ERJ-145-based aerial common sensor (ACS) or the 767-400ER-based E-10A, to multi-billion dollar development fiascos, as endured by the EH101-based VH-71A presidential helicopter and the Bell 407-based ARH-71A armed reconnaissance helicopter.

Despite the dubious track record, off-the-shelf alternatives remain popular. A pending contract for an unmanned maritime surveillance aircraft, as well future procurements for new signals intelligence fleets, are all expected to rely on platforms originally designed to perform a different role.

Jacques Gansler, a former US undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics (ATL), has been recruited to help solve the Department of Defense’s problem.

“A lot of the older systems also had the same characteristics” as today’s off-the-shelf aircraft programmes, Gansler says, adding: “We’ve just got a collection now of bad stories.”

Current ATL chief John Young has tapped Gansler to chair a task force aimed at evaluating the reasons why acquisition programmes based on off-the-shelf equipment often fail or face costly delays.

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5 Responses to Why do commercial platforms make such lousy military aircraft?

  1. BUG 1 April, 2008 at 11:59 pm #

    Hmmm I wonder why you have the EH-101 in that article? Last time I checked its a Military helicopter also in (limited) use for Civilian purposes (CSAR & the Tokyo Police).

    Also the EH-101, ARH-71A and to a degree the EC-145 are not the problem area, the decision by the Military to accept less capability in some areas, allied to gross over-specification in other areas, has led to mis-managed, delayed and over-budget programmes.

    ERJ-145-ACS met the original requirement but was too small for the final specification, and E-10A appeared to be both mis-managed and allowed to meander into technical development areas it shouldn’t have gone.

    EH-101′s Presidential helicopter woes have less to do with the airframe and more to do with the fact specification growth has been allowed to proceed without due recourse to even commonsense.

    Perhaps the US Armed Forces and the DoD need to be more concerned about their atrocious Project Management skills and lack of Change Control than whether the carrying airframe is civilian or not.

    Your focus of attention is wrong gentlemen.

  2. ELP 2 April, 2008 at 3:27 am #

    Interesting question.

    I do think that if the Northrop Grumman/EADs KC-45 goes through, you are going to see a civilian based platform that can bring in a lot of supplies and manpower in and out of a theater logistics hub very well and free up the roll-on-roll-off aircraft like C-17 to do those things only they can do: Roll-on-roll-off and oversize (C-5) cargo. Here again, USAF tankers don’t just do tanker work.

    I am more concerned about our communication between the government customer and vendor/service provider. Here too I don’t think the government has such great skills at writing out a contract and managing it.

  3. Royce 2 April, 2008 at 2:08 pm #

    Dubious track record for commercial aircraft? It’s not like the Pentagon can point to “purpose designed” F-22, F/A-18E/F, Commanche, V-22, or F-35B as arriving in service without development problems.

    The commercial aircraft work well when the military operates them the way commercial operators do. Nobody has reported any major issues with the C-40s or various bizjets used in the VIP role, for example. It’s when the military buys a commercial platform and then expects to operate it like a purpose-built platform that problems arise. Or when it buys a lower cost commercial airframe and loads it up with too much gear, as in ACS.

  4. John S. 2 April, 2008 at 6:38 pm #

    Amen to what BUG said. In most cases, it’s not the airframe that’s the problem, it’s the ever chaning mission requirements and developing the electronics to meet those moving targets that usually sidelines these projects.

  5. Keith Sketchley 2 April, 2008 at 6:58 pm #

    Looking beyond the exaggerated headline, the question is one of adaptation.

    I suggest that program management is the key. Rarely done well, often done bureaucratically (and we know bureaucracies don’t do much well very often).

    A great many airliners are in military service, where their efficiency as transport aircraft is an advantage but special characteristics such as low loading height or soft-field landing gear are not needed. (Fighters of course being a completely different bird.)

    Also, I suggest looking at the many integration and work coordination problems that occur in both new commercial and new military aircraft development, such as the 787 and countless military programs. Modifications encounter the same problems in my experience – and what we are talking about here is modification.

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