Crashing Into An Ocean Of Play Doh

A good obituary in the Times about the Future Imagery Architecture (satellite system), R.I.P. It’s not dead in a John Cleese way, either: pick parrot or villager. Its burial? 2005.

Herewith gruesome details:

But an investigation by The New York Times found that the collapse of the project, at a loss of at least $4 billion, was all but inevitable — the result of a troubled partnership between a government seeking to maintain the supremacy of its intelligence technology, but on a constrained budget, and a contractor all too willing to make promises it ultimately could not keep.

“The train wreck was predetermined on Day 1,” said A. Thomas Young, a former aerospace executive who led a panel that examined the project.

The Future Imagery project is one of several satellite programs to break down in recent years, leaving the United States with outdated imaging technology. But perhaps more striking is that the multiple failures that led to the program’s demise reveal weaknesses in the government’s ability to manage complex contracts at a time when military and intelligence contracting is soaring.

. . . By the time the project, known by its initials, F.I.A. [which consisted of two satellites, electro-optical and radar], was killed in September 2005 — a year after the first satellite was originally to have been delivered — cost estimates ran as high as $18 billion . . . The [Boeing] company received a $430 million kill fee for the optical satellite system.

The demise of U.S. technical capability should be cause for concern regardless how one views the Warlord. First, we agree with the Times that there is a demographic problem: the engineering age cohorts who entered careers because of Apollo, Minuteman and the like are simply retir(ing)(ed). Those following are fewer, less well trained and subjected to more paperwork and internal bureaucratic bullshit than actual practicing their craft. We have had this conversation with the senior most people in OSD, including DARPA and elsewhere. It is a pervasive and real problem.

The Times lays out well how contractors have every incentive to over promise to win the initial contract award and ask for a plus up when the inevitable technical problems multiply. It isn’t just a Boeing problem, although their engineering expertise across several sectors is shaky. General Dynamics and Lockheed have used the same ploy. And like Boeing with the FIA, both the latter belatedly saw contracts terminated. Cost to the Nation cumulatively? Tens of billions of dollars. Switching the small contractor base around to provide faux competition really doesn’t work well. We’ve touched on some of the contractor politics before within the FIA context.

The poor demographic/expertise level remains acute. And it goes beyond sheer numbers. The U.S. commercial industrial base for engineering is largely gone. In the past, the U.S. could count on a healthy consumer cadre of engineers to cross pollinate with defense needs. That no longer happens. Engineering projects for defense programs get so drawn out – one system can take decades to design and field. And the requirements, even when met, are often not applicable to commercial use, conversion advocates notwithstanding. We are truly witnessing Mary Kaldor’s predicted “Baroque Arsenal” some decades later than expected. Moreover, the Times documents well how basic items like wiring supplied to Boeing for the FIA were totally defective.

General Jello and William Perry began the so-called “consolidation” of the defense base. They wanted a peace dividend and assumed the Cold War’s conclusion meant the end of extensive U.S. military obligations and procurements. Their team encouraged M&A in the defense field which led to further constricting expertise, competition and creativity. Les Aspin continued that thinking.

One can bash Rummy for many things. We do and did all the time. But his team did understand this problem. They embraced the concept of “spiral development” — encouraging deployment of adequate technology quickly with the expectation that refinements would follow (and based on experience). It made alot of sense. It also got out of control. One reason is that OSD did not have sufficient oversight and was unable to “see” down into the individual program managers’ “views” of a procurement. This problem is endemic and requires absolutely ruthless focus and commitment to a concept — akin to Boyd’s and Sprey’s insistence on the agile dogfighter (F-16) after Vietnam. So “spiral development” under this regime? Just another contractor vehicle out of control.

Finally, at STSOZ 1.0. we mentioned OFT’s (Office of Force Transformation, within OSD) attempt to promote “rapid prototyping.” In other words, get U.S. industry in the habit of building things again. The idea was simple. Have an idea. And ask companies to build a prototype — from the Iron Triangle and even start ups and what’s left of U.S. commerical industry. Pay them for the prototype and get it out into the field. Play with it. Test it. Break it. And see what good ideas arise. But actually the purpose really was pedagogical — to teach everyone back here in CONUS how to rebuild design and fabrication capabilities and skills. The rapid prototyping idea never really made its way through the DoD Ocean of Play Doh. It exist(ed)(s) on PowerPoint slides and press releases mostly.

All of these issues require management and willingness to immerse oneself in detail and follow-up. Keith Hall’s attempt to blame the FIA fiasco on the budget cap is true but trivially so. There has been no real management of the Iron Triangle for over a decade. (Also unmentioned in the article was that the NRO had a secret stash of moneys it never told Congress about, amounting to billions and billions of dollars accumulated over the years, so it could afford to “water the plant” when trouble arose. That stash was discovered and yanked last decade, considerably weakening NRO’s fexibility).

In the 1990s, Cohen as SecDef was so ineffectual running OSD let alone the Pentagon that the Joint Staff all but took over. Cohen couldn’t even control Wesley Clark and the Balkans campaign. Rummy and Wolfowitz — as you know — were all about the spin, ideology and AgitProp. The ‘snow flakes’ reveal Rummy never followed up more often than not. Gordon England, Lupus Maximus’ replacement (hat tip Comment) is a manager. But only one. Gates is a caretaker and a stranger to the Iron Triangle world. Utter lack of management across government, abysmal oversight and groveling, revolving door surrender to contractors characterizes government today, military, Community and civilian.


In an earlier age, a healthier age for the Republic, we as a people saw the Dollar a Year Men (Women now) seek to aid government. What a perverse inversion of that idealism and sense of obligation. Extractive abuse rules. Sadly for the rubes at Boeing, if they only could have figured out a way to position the FIA as a means of protecting fetuses, the contract would still be in place. Boeing et al. could be the worst of our Time — degeneratively debilitating to the Nation yet still not hip to the game. Our history descending from gold and steel to iron, rust and Play Doh.

Where have you gone, Ron Paul,
The Bill Maher Show turns it’s lonely eyes to you.
What’s that you say, Mr. Kemp?
Ron Paul loves the Gold Standard today,
Hey hey hey.


  1. Dr Leo Strauss says

    Classic. Good on the Chicoms for giving us a wake up call. Not quite Taranto in 1940 or the Swordfish against the Bismarck, but close. A signal that the old stale iconography and associated multi-billion dollar infrastructure are obsolete.

    The Navy needs a kick in the ass. Possibly several. They are so ossified and the engineering still slumps. This is likely the calss of subs the Chinese defeated in penetrating the CBG:

    An example of a boat designed to do too many things and none of them with excellence — and like FIA within cost constraints to boot — one would think the Navy learned from the F/A-18 but . . .

  2. Comment says

    Look, we’re Americans. We can rebuild – We developed the Big Gulp when no one said it was wise and the Europeans said no one was fat or stupid or gross enough to drink that much soda. But we went ahead and developed it – Then we built the Super Big Gulp. Mind you, this was years before the development of the Super Size Double Quarter Pounder.
    So we can build anything as long as we put out minds and hearts (and stomachs) to use.
    Aha = Lightbulb! More H1 visas!

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