The Navy's $2 billion mistake

April 29, 1993

The Navy's recent admission that it has lost $2 billion worth o aircraft due to a control flaw in its F-14 Tomcat fighter underscores a persistent problem with the Pentagon procurement process. Earlier this month The Sun's Richard H.P. Sia reported that Navy officials knew for at least a decade that the $60 million plane had a serious problem. Yet rather than jeopardize the program's funding, they kept on buying Tomcats while hoping for the best.

The results were predictable. Since 1976, 31 F-14s have crashed and six aviators have died as a result of unrecoverable spins caused by the control flaw. The crashes represent about one-third of all F-14 accidents and account for some $2 billion worth of military hardware.

It's an axiom of aircraft design that if something can go wrong, it will. Yet the Navy essentially adopted the same attitude toward the flawed F-14 that NASA took toward its space shuttle before the Challenger disaster -- a sanguine disregard for reality that might be summed up as "Keep 'em flying, and keep your fingers crossed!" Such wishful thinking was a sure recipe for disaster.

One would think the military might learn from its own history, which is replete with examples of the mischief caused when cost-conscious administrators try to overrule the basic laws of physics. Spins -- a condition that results from the loss of lift over the wings' surface -- have been killing pilots almost since the invention of the airplane. The first military aviator to die in a spin-related crash was Lt. Thomas Selfridge, killed in 1908. The Army named an airfield after him, but didn't take the lesson. After World War I, U.S. airmen flew for more than a decade in obsolete -- and accident-prone -- craft. In a single year nearly 100 fliers were killed or injured in 330 crashes.

In wartime, a problem like the F-14's would have been corrected in a matter of months, regardless of cost. In peacetime, however, every design change carries a political penalty that forces administrators to choose between living with the imperfect or facing the prospect that programs might be killed altogether. That is especially true of military aircraft, whose costs have soared. A single F-14, for example, costs more than all the aircraft in a World War II-era fighter group.

No wonder Navy officials were reluctant to confront the F-14's problems a decade ago. Yet it's obvious that many lives and an awful lot of taxpayer money could have been saved had they simply fixed the problem when it first came to light.

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