US speedskaters can ditch their new skinsuits for last season’s model. The US DoD is ditching that option in fighter jets.
As the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, after a few tense meetings of athletes and coaches over the long weekend, the US Olympic speed skating team decided to ditch its new "Mach 39" Under Armor skinsuits for its older Under Armor skinsuits. The trouble was that “after six long-track events in Sochi, no U.S. skater has finished better than seventh,” but in the older suits, the team had dominated the World Cup circuit earlier in the season. Speculation about the problem centers on a dorsal air vent, thought to be inducing unexpected drag.
Fairly, the suits may not be to blame; as assistant coach Kip Carpenter argued, “it's ridiculous to think we're slowing down a second and a half because of a skinsuit.” I imagine that the team and an army of consultants will will be looking at weather, altitude, tactics, coaching, psychology, and a host of other factors long after the games have concluded. Today’s Wall Street suggests that the problem was not the suits at all, but improvement this season by key competitors. After all, the suits had been extensively tested in competitive conditions, but not in actual competition.
If there is embarrassment to endure, performance apparel maker Under Armor is sharing the pain with Lockheed Martin, whose aeronautical engineers helped design the suits. Again, the team is not pointing fingers. As the Journal reported, US skater Patrick Meek worked closely with both companies in developing the suits, and insists that “these guys make F-16 fighter jets. If they can invade Afghanistan, they can build a speedskating suit."
Lockheed can indeed build F-16s, but can it build F-35s? Adding to the embarrassment this weekend was 60 Minutes brief “Is the F-35 Worth It?”, on Lockheed Martin’s perhaps better-known product. Designed to replace the US military’s AV-8s, F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s, that program is the biggest bet-the-farm project in the Pentagon’s portfolio. And in a nutshell, the story observes that the F-35 is "seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget.”
In terms of performance, the plane has thus far been less impressive than the new suit. The suit may be slow, but the plane definitely doesn’t yet work. Even though dozens of aircraft have been delivered, the latest version of its operating software has little combat capability—it’s essentially meant for training and testing. In a parallel to the apparent simplicity of the skinsuit's vent, the F-35 has problems with its tires, tailhook, and running lights. These are components that have been on aircraft for almost a century. The plane even has a skinsuit of its own: a wrap-around suite of sensors feeding threat information to a pilot’s visor even cooler than Shani Davis’ sunglasses. But again, it doesn’t yet work.
All this trouble led me to think about the skin suits as an analogy for Lockheed Martin’s airplanes. Lockheed’s F-16 is the old suit. It actually drops bombs over Afghanistan. At some point in the future, another team may have a better suit, so the team’s engineers keep working on something better. Lockheed’s F-35 is the new suit. Whether or not it will eventually be proven a winner, it’s looking pretty bad right now. The change back to the old skinsuits was swift and decisive, and with no interference from Under Armor. But why is no one in government seriously considering alternatives to a program that has gone, according to the program manager, Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, so far “off the rails”?
The trouble here is that we really don’t know whether the old suit works better than the new suit, because the ordeals of developmental testing are not the crucible of combat. The speed skating team gets instant feedback—you’re slow. Fighter squadrons get harsher feedback—you’re dead—but only with the infrequency of war. Speedskaters can learn from losing daily to the Dutch on the ice; military forces may never lose, as they may never encounter an enemy like the Russians or the Chinese in the skies. Aerial combat is a lot harder to model than speedskating: flying around the track has the aerodynamics, but the other skaters aren’t trying to kill you.
Profound uncertainty is at work in decisions. The US speedskating team has little understanding of what is really hampering its performance, but figures that it cannot do worse with an older technology today. The US Defense Department has little understanding of what will matter in a possible war years in the future, but figures that it must gamble. But unlike the speed skaters, after it pays off the F-16s and other airplanes to fund the F-35s, it will have no alternative, no suits from the 2014 World Cup on which to fall back. And that is truly betting the farm.