Everyone in the aerospace sector, from uniformed officials to civilian contractors, might take something away from the A-12 debacle: the need to step up their game.
A-12 Avenger. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
“What went wrong with the U.S. Navy’s A-12 Avenger stealth bomber?”
It had fantastic potential as an idea, but it was a textbook example of how badly to manage a military procurement project.
The A-12 Avenger II was meant to be a carrier-based stealth flying-wing bomber. Despite a $5 billion investment in the program, they never built every plane. Canceling the plane in 1991 was one of human history’s worst uses of resources. There wasn’t much vengeance from the A-12 Avenger.
They developed an A-12 flying wing to replace the A-6E Intruder. It can launch from a carrier, avoid radar, and drop the most cutting-edge precision-guided weapons to penetrate deep into enemy territory. It all began in 1983 under “Advanced Tactical Aircraft” (ATA). The original concept for the A-12 Avenger called for it to be larger and more capable than the F-117A Nighthawk stealth aircraft.
It was planned for the pilot and a bombardier/navigator to be the only passengers on the plane. Compared to the A-6 Intruder, the A-12 would be faster, have a longer range, and be able to fly higher. Maximum speed was projected to be 580 mph, with a ceiling of 40,000 feet, thanks to two General Electric turbojets. The target range was set at 485 miles and was designed to carry 5,500 pounds of bombs and missiles.
The specifications and capabilities of these vessels piqued the interest of the Navy, marines, and air force. There were 620 items on the Navy’s shopping list, 238 on the marines’, and 400 on the air force’s want list.
Decided earlier that the plane needed to be more manageable to perform its intended missions. Systemic issues with the acquisition process led to this engineering challenge. In addition to human error, the plane was grounded by bureaucratic hurdles and onerous rules and regulations imposed by an outmoded procurement system. The project fell quickly behind schedule, and the delays continued for months. After 18 months, it was finally 18 months late. Over budget by a factor of 0.8, the cost per plane was estimated at $96 million.
As a result of Congress’s concerns about the program’s cost overruns and schedule delays, the Department of Defence Inspector General conducted an inquiry and audit. In their report, the IG suggested that Defence Secretary Dick Cheney scrap the project. Cheney said he would not ask for further funds to bail out the contractors. The IG reported a possible default by General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas.
According to the IG’s findings, “the continued viability of the A-12 aircraft programme was seriously questioned” because “the review revealed that the cost, scheduling, and technical difficulties in the A-12 aircraft programme were of such magnitude that the programme was seriously questioned.”
The news media saw an opportunity and swooped in to seize it. A blistering critique was published in the Washington Post:
The military and the defense industry have been shaken by what is being called the A-12 debacle. Two admirals and a captain in the A-12 program office have been criticized for handling the program. The Pentagon’s chief civilian procurement official, John Betti, was forced out of his job partly because of the A-12. Meanwhile, legal action is being taken against those responsible for contractor payment fraud by the Department of Justice.
Contractors claimed design changes were the fault of the military. They estimated that if the program is scrapped, they will lose 8,000 jobs. Naval officers habitually kept technical and design issues secret from superiors and Congress, as uncovered by the IG probe.
Good grief, what a catastrophe! As a result of ineptitude and unethical actions on the acquisition side, a fantastic jet that would have given the Navy exceptional capability was lost. Everyone in the aerospace sector, from uniformed officials to civilian contractors, might take something away from the A-12 debacle: the need to step up their game.