A Navy Department told me the other day that every year, his New Year's resolution is to quit smoking. He has never smoked; he just figures that it's an easy way to annually "come in for the big win". For myself, I remembered this morning that I've been a consultant in this business for ten years—I decided in September 2001 to get involved again, and really got rolling that December. So I figured that I ought to catalog a few salient predictions and recommendations, and one memorably failing one, before planning what to do in 2012. The strictures of client confidentiality prevent me from commenting on exactly what I said to whom, and quite what they did with it, but at least in a general way, I can showcase a few of my own big wins.
The Stryker is a real 'Future Combat System'. In this column, I was chiding Loren Thompson the other day that the late FCS was probably his worst choice to defend as a memory of a programmatic cash-sucking chest wound. The Army Department famously couldn't tell its contractors, several years into the program, whether the howitzer (er, XM1203 "Non-Line of Sight Cannon") would have a 105 mm gun, a 155 mm gun, or something in between. Chaos of that kind and a few others told me that the concept was going nowhere.
So, in the middle of 2005, almost four years before its actual demise, I started loudly telling folks with an interest in the program that they needed a Plan B. For General Dynamics, at least, it turned out that said plan rhymed with "Stryker". For BAE Systems, that might yet be an A4 version of the Bradley, whatever the base vehicle's underlying challenges. But I know one thing—at $10 million or more a pop, it sure isn't going to be a "Ground Combat Vehicle", and the Army should quit pretending otherwise.
The EFV is sunk. The Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program was a disaster from its beginning back in 1996. The US Marine Corps had demanded a troop carrier that could swim ashore at 20 knots, and keep up with tanks moving cross-country. General Dynamics dutifully agreed to try, dropping in the biggest supercharged diesel anyone had ever seen in an armored vehicle, and devising a retractable planing system that made the EFV function like a Transformers toy. Honestly, the folks there were trying hard; it was just that the Marines, in their quest for the very difficult (the opposed beach assault), had asked for the even more difficult.
So, back in 2006, I started recommending to boat and armored vehicle builders that they shake off their ten-year frustration about GD's endlessly fat contract, and start showing some alternatives in PowerPoint. The disaster of the EFV was foundering, even if it took nearly another five years to fully sink. But it was obvious, at least to me, even then that the Marines needed to cut their losses and move on. Every other amphibious landing force in the world would just stare in institutional disbelief at what they were trying to do.
The Zumwalt-class überzerstorer has all the legs of the battlecruiser concept. Like John Lehman, from whom I first heard the comment, I don't necessarily know what to call a 12,000-ton ship, but I know it's not a destroyer. There was never any real chance that even the US Navy was going to build air defense ships of that size, whatever the savings from automation of the crew. Automation is automation, so whatever its merits, it can also be applied to more modestly sized ships.
So, back about five years ago, when plenty of folks were scoffing at the Littoral Combat Ship concept, I was asserting that, at a minimum, the Independences and Freedoms had more programmatic staying power than the Zumwalts. I won't say anything about their staying power in combat; that's often an oddly separable issue.
There may be something to this blast-protection idea. Back in 2006, I spent some weeks cataloging American combat fatalities in Iraq by cause, service, branch, weapon—all sorts of stuff, including the vehicle (if any) in which the combatant was riding at the time. I found, as quite a few reported afterwards, that one was statistically safer in a Force Protection Cougar or a BAE Systems RG31 than in an Abrams tank—and particularly safer than in a Bradley. I briefed some folks at the Pentagon, and quite a few around the industry. At one meeting at a tank factory in Europe (I'll not say where), before I could say anything, the company's head of strategy urged me and everyone else in the room to read the report (he didn't realize that I was the author). I won't pretend that I had a lot to do with Bob Gates' eventual instruction to buy thousands of MRAPs, but I do think that I had a supporting role in the important process that led up to it.
For completeness, I should note my one famously wrong prediction: the US Air Force's decision to buy Airbuses will stick. That didn't happen. Honestly, I didn't have a strong opinion about the merits of either plane, just a mild preference for the A330s, based on my expectations of the long-term operating profile that will emerge. But that preference did and would again depend on price as a component of overall cost, and I will say that the repeated recompetitions may have secured a very good price for the USAF. The folks at EADS certainly don't think that Boeing will make money on this deal.
So what does this all tell me? Notably, all my big predictions have involved American programs. That might seem odd, as I have had plenty of European clients over the past ten years, and plenty of American clients trying to sell overseas. The US market may be perhaps half of the total worldwide, but even that is only half. Frankly, I think that the answer is obvious: as a friend in the armored vehicle industry once put it to me, only the British are better are mismatching their would-be requirements to their actual resources. The Pentagon will keep blowing up its programs if the political appointees keep letting the services write stupid specifications. Thus, even while predictions of Berra's type (those about the future) can be difficult, I think that I can resolve to be in this prediction business for some time yet.