History Spot: Case Studies in Defence Procurement

Yes, it’s my avatar for a reason. The De Havilland Mosquito was the most accurate bomber of the first half of World War II, with the lowest ordinance expenditure per target, the lowest loss rate and the highest kill probability. It could race in at treetop level for precision work, or soar above anti-aircraft fire while heavier bombers were slaughtered in droves. When the RAF needed to take out a particular wall of a prison to free French resistance fighters, they used the Mosquito.

But that was not all. The Mosquito, as the fastest aircraft in the world at its introduction, was ideal for conversion as a fighter, night fighter, fighter bomber, U-boat killer and numerous other roles. It combined heavy armament with high speed and needed no escort. The wooden airframe was as strong as contemporary metal airframes, but much lighter, and it avoided drawing on critical war supplies and skilled labour- any cabinetmaker could help produce a Mosquito. It was in many ways the most perfect military procurement program in history, made all the more so by the fact that Geoffrey De Havilland designed the aircraft in the face of Air Ministry skepticism and forced the RAF to recognise its merits. The only flaw in the program was that many more weren’t built, and that a serious update was not funded until the end of the war. This was the Hornet, one of the highest-performing piston-engine fighters ever made.

Here are two documentaries on the aircraft that made Hermann Goering “turn green and yellow with envy.”

Less celebrated but certainly a spiritual successor to the Mosquito philosophy, the Douglas Skyhawk was the backbone of US carrier striking power for many years. It is an attack aircraft that has been used as a fighter and an aggressor trainer, and continues to serve in other air forces.

Despised by Tacair jocks in the US Air Force for decades, the A-10 “Warthog” stands alone as the most effective close support aircraft ever conceived. Designed to be everything that fast jets are not- slow enough for accurate targeting, a stable gun platform, rugged and extremely well-armoured, the A-10 has proven its ability to soak up damage and still fly home, to support troops with accurate fire in situations where other fixed-wing aircraft would risk friendly fire, and above all to destroy massed columns of tanks. And that is exactly why the US Air Force tries to give the job of this cheap, effective little aircraft away to expensive and vulnerable fast jets every five years- they don’t like any aircraft whose job is to support the Army.

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3 thoughts on “History Spot: Case Studies in Defence Procurement

  1. Robert says:

    Much of the success of the Mosquito can be attributed to the fact that the designers had the freedom to make design choices and trade-offs as, at least to start out with, the Mosquito was developed as a private venture. Although not developed in accordance with any stated requirement, both procurement and deployment were exceptionally rapid. In fact, the first operational flights took place within a year of the initial test flights. The extraordinarily difficult military circumstances of the time meant that things that were seen as being of military value got done one way or another.

    Conversely, many developments prompted by official specifications were disappointments or outright failures. Interestingly, a specification for a bomber that could be constructed using non-strategic materials resulted in the Ablemarle, a mediocre aircraft that, although procured in quantity, was only used in secondary roles.

    The reality is that it is really difficult to develop good specifications. There are many factors to be balanced, some of which include:
    – performance
    – functionality
    – development potential/flexibility
    – ease of use
    – time to service (technological maturity is one factor)
    – cost
    At the same time, technologies and requirements are continuously evolving. There are many pitfalls. A specification may simply be inadequate. It may be unachievable in one or more respects or require undesirable compromises. It may leave out requirements that allow a vendor to meet the specification with a product that has serious practical deficiencies.

    In the current Canadian defence context, there are complications arising from political and administrative issues

    – the need to maintain a perception that the procurement processes are fair
    – bureaucratic delays, partly arising from the large number of organizations involved and which have goals tat are likely to be in conflict.
    – political requirements (such as regional benefits)
    – rule based processes
    – organizational cultures

    On top of these are complexity issues. Modern defence systems are extremely complex and it is not easy to be a smart buyer.

    Furthermore, the defence industry has possibilities for gaming the system. For example, if there is an expectation that changes in the specifications will be needed for one reason or another, one can submit a low-ball bid in anticipation of being able to renegotiate the deal on favorable terms. There is also the knowledge that the end user may be obliged to accept a deliverable that falls short in some way when the alternative is to do without.

    From what I have seen, one of the problems is that the efforts to solve procurement problems by and large have involved the addition of bureaucratic processes. Unfortunately, this has resulted in unintended consequences. In addition to delays, one result is to push decisions up to the level of personnel who are relatively unlikely to understand the technical/operational aspects. Another issue is that I understand that PWGSC is not allowed to question claims made by a vendor – these have to be accepted at face value.

    To cut things short, there is a host of difficult challenges that can’t be easily resolved – there are no silver bullets.

    • There are indeed no silver bullets, and each country has its own set of problems to deal with. I do believe, however, that the most critical problems are political (to use the term in a broad sense) rather than bureaucratic, from the “revolving door” between Congress, the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex in the United States to the Canadian government’s habit of formulating orders and procurement strategies for primarily political reasons, rather than waiting for realistic strategic assessments and operational requirements.

      One problem in the current procurement culture is that no one seems to have an idea of what a successful procurement of a high-end weapons system would look like. Specifically, a highly effective platform does not also have to be an extremely expensive one- a fighter without stealth capability but with excellent performance, ordinance and electronics is preferable to one with stealth if the cost difference means that fewer than forty of the latter could be procured. Complexity and cost become excuses to avoid coherent standards for success or failure of a program.

      Some of the parameters that are frequently ignored include:

      – Cost ceiling. While it is accepted that most procurement programs go over budget, the real question is whether they are over budget compared with other comparable programs. Northern European frigate programs are a good example- the Dutch, German and Danish classes are all but identical in capability, and yet the Danish program is the only one which successfully controlled unit cost.

      – Survivability. In world context, how survivable is the platform? Is it missing any key features that would allow it to survive against peer opponents?

      – Operational viability. Is the force large enough to sustain operational roles, training, maintenance and operational losses on a continuous basis?

      – Cost of ownership. Will owning the platform drain money from other capital programs?

      – Cost effectiveness. Can the platform be simpler without losing effectiveness? Has the money invested truly produced a superior product in world context?

      These and similar questions should be applied consistently and serious and public analysis of procurement failures should take place. Until this happens, no procurement process will ever be effectively reformed.

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