Military aircraft procurement: An insider reflects on why it so often goes wrong


Despite the billions at stake, it is not unusual for air arms to develop or buy the wrong warplane. Jim Smith, who spent much of his career close to the world of military aircraft acquisition, reflects on why this happens. 

Sometimes, you have to wonder – Reflections on procurement successes and failures

“Having spent much of my career close to the UK and the Australian acquisition systems, and having been at least occasionally at the margins of the US acquisition system, sometimes, you have to wonder. Dr Ron and I wrote a recent article for Hush-Kit about some spectacular conceptual failures affecting the British Aircraft Industry, for example the decision to build four V-bombers, and to then field three of them. There was also the mistaken belief that a turret-fighter, such as the Defiant, was a good idea. Plenty of other questionable decisions are to be found in the military transport, advanced trainer, or the civilian market. Other good examples are to be found in the enduring saga of the Fleet Air Arm, where pretty much everything of British design was a disaster, with the exception of adaptations of land-based aircraft, and the excellent Buccaneer S2…

But let’s not point the finger solely at the British. The US has had some truly spectacular moments where misjudgements about technology or requirements have resulted in unfortunate outcomes, and sometimes this has been compounded by a system where lobbying in Congress can replace sensible decisions with ones that are a little less so. (Does anyone know when the KC-46 will reach full capability?).

The French have produced some fabulously successful aircraft – exemplified by the Mirage Series from the Mirage III to the Mirage 2000. But there have also been a number of misconceived aircraft, like the Mirage 4000 – absolutely successful at demonstrating what a huge fighter could do – but not actually bought by anyone.

Apart from disasters, other surprising outcomes are possible. Sometimes, serendipity comes to the rescue, and something you were not at all sure about turns out to be just the job. An example from the US is the Fairchild A-10. The A-10 ground attack aircraft was nearly the victim of a long-fought campaign to take it out of service, until it proved unexpectedly to be just what you need in the complex ground campaign in Syria.

Sometimes, the requirement is out-dated, and a leap into new technology proves transformational. The A-4 Skyhawk exemplifies this, having been designed in response to a US Navy specification which envisaged a twin-engine bomber weighing 30,000 pounds. Heinemann’s Scooter came in at 15,000 pounds, flew in 1954 and remained in production for 25 years.


So, how to go about illustrating some head-shaking decisions? Well, the plan is to provide an explanation of the sorts of issues that get considered in a generic acquisition programme, and then provide some examples where the outcome appears to be unexpected. And, perhaps most difficult of all, suggest what may have gone wrong. In doing this, I am going to try to avoid anything of which I have direct first-hand knowledge. This is a disadvantage, but I cannot put myself within the reach of the Official Secrets Act!

In the interests of brevity, I’m going to focus this first look on fighter aircraft. Partly because it’s a key area of interest for Hush-Kit, and I think there is enough material, but also because there’s always the prospect of following up with a look at naval aircraft, helicopters, or bombers if there is sufficient interest. I’m also only going to look at aircraft that actually made it into service.  As an analyst, it’s probably also fair to warn that the outcome of this is more likely to be more questions than answers. But that’s OK, as these might be the inspiration for future topics.
Acquisition – What are the issues? 
Most real-world acquisition systems are complex and full of twists and turns as approvals of various sorts are sought and achieved. In general, looking at diagrams of such systems, initial reactions are likely to be ‘No wonder it takes so long!’, or the sarcastic ‘Couldn’t they find a way to make it more complicated?’.

Let’s cut through all that to the issues. The big questions are:
‘What do you need?’ (and the all-too-often unasked question ‘Why’) and ‘How many do you need?’ – sometimes referred to in the UK as ‘Needs and Numbers’.
The need should ideally be expressed as a capability.
What do I mean by that? Well, suppose you want to prevent threat aircraft from penetrating an air defence area. That’s a capability, because it states what you want to do, without jumping straight to the solution. Even if it turns out you need 100 aircraft a radar system and a command and control system to deliver the capability, you are also going to need manpower, training, maintenance, spares, consumables like fuel and so on. But you should also be looking at other ways of providing the capability, such as ground-based missile systems, which will require different manpower and support arrangements. Or you might want to dominate and hold dominance over threat airspace. That’s a different capability, Air Superiority, rather than Air Defence, and may drive to a different solution (reference earlier article on BVR combat), while requiring a similar, but different set of support capabilities.

188 XF923 MoA air to air rear three quarter stbd & below neg 76502 small.jpg
‘When do you need the capability?’ – all too often re-interpreted as ‘When can we fit it in the budget?’. This is an important question though, as it is a key driver for technology and risk. If you need the capability right now, there is no option but to buy something already in service. A great solution for timeliness and low risk, but you will then be tied to technology that is perhaps 10 years old, and which was developed for someone else’s needs.
If the capability need can’t be met without developing new technical solutions, then you will inevitably have to grapple with the time, cost, and capability risk of developing those solutions. In either case you will need to consider how the new capability is to be integrated with your existing systems.
‘How much will it cost?’ Always an excellent question, because you will not know the answer at the outset. Even if you have the sticker price available for an off-the-shelf product, you will still need to work out how to get it into service with your trained manpower, on your bases, with the necessary operating equipment, facilities and spares, and provision for support of all sorts for the expected life of the solution. If you are having to develop a new solution, or pay someone else to do this, all of this data, and the time required, will be at best uncertain.
‘Who would you like to buy the capability from?’ This may seem a daft question, given you will not have selected a supplier until you have detailed answers to all the questions, and a Commercial offer from some entity that can deliver what you want. But your Government’s National Industrial Policy will come in to play at this point, with all sorts of complications and issues to consider.
If you are buying a ship, do you want it to be built in Spain, or Scotland? Or on the West Coast or the East? Should we sustain our own design capability and bear the additional cost and risk to do this, perhaps to avoid the constraints of US ITARs (International Traffic in Arms Regulations)? Or perhaps build someone else’s design under license, and wear the time taken to transfer the technical knowhow, build specific facilities and so on. Or is it really time we ordered a new helicopter from (insert name)? Or can we really get another European procurement through Congress?
‘What are we actually going to buy?’ This of course is the big question at the end of the process, although all-too-often the answer may appear to have been decided at the beginning. What we are going to buy will generally determine the manufacturer, unless a license or collaborative deal is to be struck.

Can you imagine the immediate post-war problem (before collaboration was thought of for the UK) – “…the next fighter, chaps, should we buy it from Armstrong-Whitworth, Avro, Boulton-Paul, de Havilland, English Electric, Fairey, Folland, Hawkers, or Vickers-Supermarine, or must we consider some ghastly foreign supplier? Or for a transport, Avro, de Havilland, Blackburn, Handley Page, Miles, Airspeed, Shorts or Vickers?”
The answer to this final question depends, of course, on the answers to all of the preceding questions, generally determined through a competitive process in which the Government declares detailed requirements, against which companies, or consortiums, make commercial offers to supply systems that meet those requirements.
Well, that’s the ideal, but in reality, anything off-the-shelf probably won’t meet all your requirements, and modifications will have to be designed and paid for; anything developmental will carry the risk that it will not meet the requirement, or will do so only after a longer period than you could conceivably have guessed; training, spares support, licensing costs, special facilities and ground equipment will all be needed, and all cost money. And, of course, Contractual terms have to be negotiated and agreed.
After all that, one almost understands why the processes are so complicated.
A word about culture: Of course, there are also other cultural factors outside the strict process to be mastered, overcome or got around. The US hates to buy anything from anywhere else. Fortunately, as the only Nation in the world still using the Imperial measurement system, everything has to be re-designed for them anyway, so a special variant can always be built in the USA, making it a domestic product really. I am told that in the Indian procurement system there are perhaps 20,000 people who can say ‘No’, and only three who can say ‘Yes’ – doubtless a dreadful slur, but perhaps with a grain of truth.
And then, there’s collaboration. Suppose you want to do a complex combat aircraft with about four partners. That means you are likely to have a National Industry from each of the partners, as well as some sort of Joint Company to deliver the product. But there will also be four sets of National Officials, seeking to meet the requirements of four National Air Forces, all coordinated by some sort of Joint Project Agency. So, a design review will need a minimum of 10 representatives?  Well no, the representatives will need to be advised by specialists, for example in ‘pilot interface’ (you can’t just say cockpit), control systems, sensors, weapons, airframe structure, aerodynamics and performance, propulsion system, logistic support and so on. If everyone turns up, your ten representatives are likely to be being advised by about 70 or 80 specialists. Collaboration is not easy.

Example 1:  UK post-war jet fighters


So how come the UK managed to have the Hunter, Swift, Meteor F8, Meteor NF 11, Javelin, Sabre and Venom all in service at the same time?

At the end of World War II. The US had world leading capabilities in aircraft production, the UK had world leading capabilities in gas turbine engines, and the Germans had the most advanced understanding of high-speed aerodynamic design. As German resistance to Allied Forces crumbled, a race began between the US, UK and Russia to gain access to German aeronautical knowledge.

One of the key transforming technologies in high-speed fighter design was the application of swept wings to allow flight at high transonic and supersonic speeds. Despite the UK maintaining a technical edge in jet propulsion, both the Americans and the Russians gained early access to swept wing technology, and the Americans, in particular, gained an early appreciation of the need for powered flight controls to produce supersonic fighters.
In the early to mid-Fifties, the UK was playing catch up, seeking to understand and apply this new knowledge to the Swift and Hunter as day fighters, and to develop night and all-weather fighter capability through the Venom and the Javelin, which would eventually supplant the Vampire and Meteor in this role.
The Swift, Hunter and Javelin all suffered protracted development as various aerodynamic and control issues were understood and ironed out, and the Canadair Sabre was used briefly as a stop-gap in advance of the Hunter becoming fully operational.
In the context of the procurement process, the management of technical risk was the main issue. Lack of detailed understanding of transonic and supersonic aerodynamics, and control system design, led to a series of issues with the Swift, Hunter and Javelin, with the latter also encountering ‘deep stall’ problems due to the interaction of its delta wing with its T-tail.
The other aircraft – the Venom and Meteor fighter and night fighter variants, were simply incremental advances of the Vampire and Meteor, and provided reliable service until supplanted by later aircraft.

Example 2: UK fighter aircraft progression


Credit: BAE Systems

In the UK, once the Hunter and the Javelin were in service, the air defence of Great Britain might have been thought reasonably secure. However, this happy situation was not to be, as in November 1955, the Soviet Union successfully tested an air-dropped H-bomb. No longer could the RAF envisage intercepting Soviet bombers over the United Kingdom. Instead, efforts would be required to develop a high-speed, rapid climbing interceptor which could be launched from land bases to intercept bombers before they could overfly the UK.

Effectively, the Air Defence of Great Britain would now have to be achieved using rapid-climbing supersonic point defence interceptors, rather than using, at-best, transonic fighters. The immediate consequence was the development of the English Electric Lightning, surely one of the most extreme and impressive fighter aircraft ever developed. The initial requirement was to protect the V-bomber bases to maintain the viability of the UK nuclear deterrent. The Lightning entered service in 1960, and remained in service until 1988.
During this period, the role of the aircraft slowly changed. Despite its rapid climb rate and high speed, Lightning capability was always limited by its short endurance and range. Progressive development increased fuel volume somewhat, and improved missiles and radar gave the aircraft more capability as a weapons system. In the meantime, however, the USSR had developed long-range stand-off missiles for nuclear weapon delivery, challenging the RAF to push interception points further offshore.
Effectively, the requirement had changed from point defence of the V-bomber bases to stand-off interception at a distance. Defence of the V-bomber bases had, of course, become redundant in 1968, with the transfer of responsibility for the Nuclear deterrent to the Royal Navy. The extended interception capability required an aircraft with more endurance, better radar, and longer-range missiles so that bomber threats could be intercepted before reaching their missile launch points.


This requirement was filled by the Tornado F3, a clever design which exploited a variable-sweep wing to enable high endurance combat air patrols which could loiter on patrol, supported by tankers. With fully operational radar, and data-linked AMRAAM missiles, the F3 became a very effective Beyond Visual Range (BVR) fighter, and the introduction of ASRAAM provided a significant Within Visual Range (WVR) capability. The aircraft was retired in 2011, having been replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon. Changes in the global strategic situation had complicated Defence requirements and planning. The Tornado F3 was optimised for situations where the threat was both identifiable and somewhat predictable, but the world had changed, and was no longer so convenient. The key capabilities now needed were the ability to operate effectively when the threat direction and behaviour was unpredictable, and where the mix of aircraft in use could include similar types on both sides. The ability to deliver BVR combat was no longer assured, and WVR combat was more likely.
In these circumstances, the high wing loading and relatively low power-to-weight ratio of the F3 was a significant disadvantage, particularly in WVR combat against agile and powerful threats. Something was needed with greater air combat manoeuvre capability, and this has proved to be the Typhoon. Agile, with very high energy manoeuvrability as a fighter, and flexible multi-role capability as a strike aircraft, the Typhoon is combat proven and very effective. When armed with the Meteor missile and equipped with an active electronically scanned array radar (which may become a reality this year for the Kuwaiti air force) Typhoon should be one of the world’s most flexible and capable weapon systems.

Yet again, a nagging doubt emerges … US, and increasingly, Russian and Chinese, aircraft have low radar signatures as well as having good manoeuvrability and range. Hence the next step down the air combat path is being investigated – the Tempest project.
In the context of the procurement process, UK fighter aircraft have been requirement chasing. No sooner has each been developed to be a very effective system, then the requirements have changed. From the simple WWII-like intercept capability of the Hunter and Javelin, to the point defence interception of the Lightning; then to Combat Air Patrol and BVR combat with the Tornado F3; and on to long-range missiles for BVR, high energy manoeuvrability for WVR, and the multi-role strike capability of the Typhoon.

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Next to flexible, stealthy air combat and strike with the Tempest and its adjunct projects. Arguably, always half a step behind …
Example 3: USAF Fighters

Since 1950, the USAF has operated an incredible range of fighter aircraft. Considering only the jet aircraft, and only the genuine fighters that entered service, one can identify seventeen different types, compared to the ten types used by the RAF.
From the many aircraft one could consider, I have selected the F-104 Starfighter, one of the most iconic aircraft of all time. With its minute wings, large engine and rocket-like appearance the F-104 is a spectacular aircraft. Yet from a USAF perspective, it can only be considered to have been a failure.

Screenshot 2020-03-30 at 14.24.37.png
The USAF eventually accepted 296 Starfighters, of which 170 were F-104As and 77 were F-104Cs, a relatively small proportion of the 1400 eventually built. The F-104As had a troubled development history, with propulsion, structural and aerodynamic problems. No less than 52 aircraft were used in the flight test programme over a two-year period, and the general use of the aircraft was somewhat ad hoc.

The USAF made two operational deployments of the F-104A – to Germany for 1 year at the time of the construction of the Berlin Wall, and to the Southern US at the time of the Cuba Missile Crisis. The F-104Cs were also deployed as a precaution during the Cuba Missile Crisis, and were based in Taiwan, and at Da Nang, South Vietnam, for two periods between 1966 and 1967. Twenty four aircraft were used as target drones, others were transferred to the Chinese Nationalist Air Force and to Pakistan.

So, what went wrong? Well, the early F-104A and F-104C aircraft were designed as short-range day fighters, with US experience on the Korean peninsula in mind. In the US context, the aircraft was seen as a simple, low-cost day fighter. The F-104A and C can be regarded as having met these requirements, but, in practice its capabilities were not very useful to the USAF, as evidenced by its limited operational deployments in circumstances where rapid reaction was perhaps more important than flexibility of operation. In short, while the F-104 met the specification, that specification did not meet the USAF’s operational needs. Although blessed with a scorching climb rate, the short range of the aircraft was mismatched to either the home-defence role, or to deployment unless to protect high value local targets.


The interceptor concept was more of a success in Japan, where proximity to China made for short reaction times, increasing the utility of the F-104J. The F-104G, which was widely used within the NATO European environment, was extensively strengthened and redesigned to support all weather multi-role operation, but not operated by the USAF.
Other Projects, Other Questions
The few fighter-focussed examples considered have shown some of the difficulties that can arise in introducing new technologies; in keeping the capability relevant; and in getting the requirement right in the first place. There are a heap of other questions that could be looked at through the lens of the difficulty of getting the right capability at the right time.
Some of this is to do with looking ahead and trying to understand where geo-politics and technology might provide opportunities to exploit, or threats to counter. Some of it is down to the inherent difficulty of trying to out-match rivals who are themselves trying to out-match you. And some of the difficulties are down to managing processes to rapidly and accurately select the right capability, product and supplier, while spending large sums of public money in a contested environment.”




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  1. brian

    Russian or former Soviet Union aircraft selection would be an interesting study.
    I’ve just finished reading the Kurt Tank biography. Tanks philosophy seemed to be a little more on the practical side. His fw190 traded off outright performance for, ease of maintenance & simplicity of use in the cockpit. A very successful, high performance design.
    So many British post WW2 aircraft seem to be optimised for a single role. This makes these aircraft less flexable when requirements change. Comparing the BAC Lighting to the Phantom II F4 is interesting. Similar vintage; one optimized for for one role, one became a multi role.

    • Jim Smith

      If you have the money, and are clear about the requirement, and if it is an enduring role, going for a point design will always give you the best result. US examples would be the A-10 or the U-2. You describe the Phantom as multi-role, and it may eventually have come close, but there are always compromises. I think the F-4 was a good strike aircraft, but had major deficiencies air to air. Poor manoeuvrability, dysfunctional radar and missiles, large size, very smoky. New missiles, new radar, adding a gun, better engines in the F-4K, and lots of training made it kind of OK.
      Multi-role aircraft tend to stay in service longer because they can be more flexible as operational requirements change. Best option is probably either F-15 or Tornado approach, where you have a dedicated fighter and a dedicated strike option. Or builb in operational flexibility and upgradeability from the start – but in either all-rounder or dedicated-variant case, you probably don’t get the world best fighter or strike aircraft.
      Russia and China probably don’t need or want multi-role aircraft, but do operate from some austere bases, and have large operating areas, and some extreme requirements. So generally produce aircraft optimised for their roles, but a bit larger than Western equivalents. Thinking Su-27 and developments, MiG 25 and sevelopments, J-20 etc. Constrained budgets generally drive compromise solutions. And if you break that nexus – think F-22 or B-2 – sometimes you end up with an optimised system you can’t afford to operate in sufficient numbers.

    • Jim

      Yep, russland stories of their aircraft would be interesting. But I want to say that just as equally interesting are Uncle Sam’ s aircraft stories such like few people are aware that over 650 F-16 jets have crashed ( to ground or sea) since 1979. and the feared F7U Vought cutlass fighter that killed scores of its own pilots during its time in service or the very thing about the B-47 that crashed on over 200 occasions and suceeded in killing over 460 people. Truly interesting.

      • Jim Smith

        F-16 losses not really the topic of this article. However, a quick look – see Wikipedia, and importantly the documents referenced by their article – suggests 607 hull losses up to the time of their article. One of their references is what looks like a comprehensive data base of the losses.

        When looking at sources of data for the F-16, it is important to recognise that much US-sourced material only relates to US experience. This may be why some sources state significantly lower figures.

        The F-16 is an interesting procurement example, but does not represent a blunder. What is interesting to observe is, in fact, a common tendency. An aircraft designed as a light-weight fighter turns out to be much more useful as a general-purpose strike aircraft. As time goes on more systems, capability and weight is added, and the lightweight fighter aspiration tends to get lost along the way – at least for Air Forces who have other air superiority assets.

  2. Duker

    The EE/BAC Lightning started development way before the Phantom with preliminary designs from 1948, via contracts for the P1 prototype in 1949. The F-4 as a ‘point defense missile only fighter’ to defend a carrier started around mid 1955. McDonnell’s previous experience with naval fighters showed with the quicker development time , while English Electric had their first fighter and first supersonic plane with a very highly swept wing all rolled into one. The idea that a supersonic versions of the Supermarine Swift would come first meant they took their time

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