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Friday, December 1, 2006

Editor’s Notebook: Senator Pothole

By James T. McKenna

A FAVORITE WHIPPING BOY OF POLITICIANS and the media is the military procurement program. There seems to be no end to cable-news sound bites and juicy headlines about how this program or that is over budget and behind schedule, the latest "glaring" example of military officials squandering taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars to the illicit gain of defense contractors.

Certainly, there are cases that warrant such ridicule and bombast. Too often, though, procurement programs are handy scapegoats for politicians looking to grab limelight and headlines.

I’ll illustrate the mindset at work. Fourteen years ago, a small USAir jet iced up and crashed on takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, killing 27 and injuring nearly as many. One of New York’s senators then was Al D’Amato, a small-time politician who gained a reputation as a ferocious defender of his constituents after he landed on Capitol Hill; "Senator Pothole" drove his staff to attend to the most minor of voters’ concerns, like getting potholes on their streets fixed.

Within a month of the crash, D’Amato convened a hearing on it by a Senate transportation subcommittee — not in remote Washington, but in downtown Manhattan, a short drive for camera crews from every TV station in metropolitan New York. I was reporting on the crash investigation and covered the hearing.

The hearing room was like a big shoebox, with D’Amato and committee representatives backed up against one long wall and TV crews packed against the opposite wall. In between were those to be grilled and the spectators — crash survivors, victims’ kin, reporters, and the public. But those in the middle were only props. The TV crews turned on their camera lights and D’Amato went to work, lacing into everyone he could — those from the FAA, the airline, the airport operator, and the pilots’ union. He demanded to know why they hadn’t done more to save those lives and protect the public. He accepted no reason. He cut people off. He shouted at them. He waved papers in their faces and gestured to the victims’ families. He rolled his eyes and snickered at witnesses. He did everything but take off a shoe and pound it on the table before him.

Then something interesting happened. The TV crews turned off their lights; they’d collected more than enough for the 30 – 45 sec. of tape that might actually make it on the air. Suddenly D’Amato stopped yelling. He calmly asked a few more questions in a civil tone and volume. He let witnesses answer. He didn’t argue or cut them off. He’d already gotten what he’d come for — video sound bites of him fighting for the voters. The details of the issues at hand? The facts? Well, if they didn’t fit in 30-45 sec. of videotape, they weren’t much use.

The most current example of the procurement whipping boy may be the Royal Australian Navy’s SH-2G(A) Super Seasprite program. The Australian $1-billion, fixed-price program is five years behind schedule. After an in-flight anomaly prompted the navy to ground the aircraft temporarily in May, Defence Minister Brendan Nelson — only a few months in office — ordered a review of the program. He wanted defense officials to tell him whether it should be scrapped, scaled back, or supported. They forwarded their recommendations in late October; Nelson is expected to decide the program’s fate by the end of this month.

Now Kaman Aerospace, the program’s prime contractor, has had its share of problems. Not the least of those, the company says, is that subcontractor Litton crapped out in developing (or failing to) the Integrated Tactical Avionics System avionics that is the heart of the aircraft’s intended capabilities, forcing Kaman to basically start over.

The SH-2G(A) is, at the same time, a very ambitious program to field an over-the-horizon, anti-surface warfare capability while simultaneously reducing aircrew requirements for deploying it — critical considerations given today’s threats and shrinking pilot pools. Australia rightfully believes it deserves defense systems on par with those fielded by the United States, the United Kingdom, and other major military powers. That, too, is ambitious, requiring program management and program discipline that regularly tax the skills of the best in the Pentagon and other ministries of defense.

Nelson concedes as much. "The Super Seasprite is a very good airframe," he said back in May after ordering the review. "However, it is one that has aged and we are trying to fit state-of-the-art technology into it."

As convenient as it may be for elected officials (and even ones in uniform) to pretend otherwise, however, letting a contract to a defense manufacturer does not really justify transferring responsibility for such ambitions to that company. Nor does it justify making the industry team the scapegoat when it becomes clear the program’s reach exceeds the defense community’s grasp.

Nations around the world face defense challenges more complicated and immediate than the old Cold War threat of mutually assured destruction. Meeting them requires leaders who can promote intricate collaboration between the private and public sectors, and who understand that the real solutions are necessarily more complicated and nuanced than ones that play well in a sound bite.

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