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Weapons Acquisition Problems Span the Globe

It's not just a U.S. problem. Australia, Canada, Russia, and the UK have all experienced their fair share of troubled acquisitions efforts

4 min read

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on What's Wrong with Weapons Acquisitions?

The United States isn’t alone in having defense acquisition problems.

The Royal Australian Navy is spending AUS $1.5 billion (currently about US $1 billion) to upgrade its four Adelaide-class guided missile frigates. The upgrades cover the ships’ sonar suite as well as combat and fire control systems to launch a new type of surface-to-air missile. The upgrade program, being led by defense contractor Thales Australia, is now more than four years behind schedule. There have also been performance problems with ships that have been upgraded; in 2007, the Australian Navy refused to accept the upgraded HMAS Sydney because its new weapon systems did not operate correctly. Reportedly, the ship’s antimissile and antitorpedo systems could not be integrated with existing systems, and the electronic surveillance system was unable to detect certain types of threats.

Meanwhile, the Royal Australian Air Force’s Boeing 737–based Wedgetail airborne early-warning and control aircraft has slipped several times during its development. A number of technical issues are blamed, including problems with developing and integrating the 360-degree coverage airborne radar with other aircraft avionics. The aircraft was originally scheduled to be operational two years ago, but that date has now been pushed out to early 2010.

Ironically, the prime contractor, Boeing, had originally touted Wedgetail as a ”low risk and high performance” aircraft program. More recently, the company has conceded that it is an ”extremely complex program” with ”hardware and software challenges.” Wedgetail’s contract is for a fixed price of AUS $3.5 billion, so the Australian government has not been hit with any extra costs as a result of the delays. However, Boeing has had to write off nearly US $1 billion in charges to cover the extra development.

The five-year, AUS $745 million contract for Australia’s troubled Super Seasprite helicopter upgrade, on the other hand, was not a fixed price. Begun in 1997, the program led by Kamen Aerospace Corp., of Bloomfield, Conn., was meant to enhance the electronics and some other components of 11 of these 1960s-era helicopters. But trouble with Seasprite’s avionics and flight-control software soon emerged. The problems grew so severe that the helicopters were grounded last year. According to former Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, ”You could not have 100 percent confidence in the software program that supports the pilot flying the helicopter to 100 percent safety.”

The Australian Department of Defence finally decided earlier this year to cancel the program. Australian taxpayers will pick up the estimated AUS $1.3 billion tab for the failed effort, plus the additional costs of procuring new helicopters.

Over in the United Kingdom, the Ministry of Defence has had its own helicopter problems. The MOD has so far spent more than £500 million (US $812 million) on eight Mk3 Chinook helicopters, none of which has flown since Boeing delivered them in 2001. For the past seven years, the MOD has been trying to make the Chinooks airworthy. The original contract did not give the Royal Air Force access to the avionics source code, and so the RAF could not determine whether or not the helicopters passed Britain’s strict airworthiness criteria. As a result, the aircraft could be flown only in clear weather at low altitude—150 meters—so that the pilots could navigate by visual landmarks.

In 2004, the ministry decided to have Boeing upgrade the avionics software at a cost of £215 million. That effort was canceled three years later because contractual problems had pushed the upgrade’s completion date from 2008 to at least 2011, and because British troops serving in Afghanistan desperately needed helicopters. The MOD then decided to downgrade the Mk3s to a less capable Mk2 version, which basically entails stripping out some of the helicopters’ most advanced systems. The £90 million downgrade will let the Chinooks fly unrestricted. The first Chinook is scheduled to be ready next year, the other seven in 2010.

The program’s troubled development prompted Edward Leigh, chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, which oversees UK government expenditures, to call the program ”a gold-standard procurement cock-up” and ”one of the most incompetent procurements of all times.”

The UK has also been suffering from continuing problems with its £2.4 billion Bowman radio program. It came into service in 2004 some 10 years late and almost £500 million over budget. Soldiers continue to complain about the radio’s reliability and range. One infantry commander in Afghanistan reportedly described the Bowman as ”astonishingly bad.” Another claimed that to find out how much power was left in the radio’s batteries, you had to take them out of the radio and test them.

Other UK acquisition efforts that are in trouble include the BAE-built Astute nuclear-powered submarine, which has now slipped four years and seen cost overruns of £1 billion. Then there is the BVT-built Daring-class destroyer, which is running 2.5 years late and costing £1 billion more than expected. And there’s also the BAE-developed Nimrod MRA4 maritime reconnaissance and attack aircraft, which has risen in cost by £700 million and is about six years behind schedule.

Russia has had its fair share of acquisition nightmares. In an article about problems in the Russian defense industry, military analyst Nikita Petrov claimed that ”since 1992, not a single state defense order has been fulfilled completely or on time.” The Russian Navy’s multipurpose frigate Steregushchy, for instance, was commissioned nearly two years late, and the cost per ship was reportedly double the original estimate.

Even Canada, with its relatively small military, has had problems with its defense programs. Late last year, the public was notified that 12 military projects totaling CAN $7.3 billion (US $5.6 billion) were over budget and behind schedule. However, the Canadian Department of National Defence would not disclose exactly which 12 programs they were, saying the information was confidential advice to ministers.

The U.S. Department of Defense must be jealous.

To Probe Further

For more articles and special features, go to What's Wrong with Weapons Acquisitions?

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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