The following guest contribution is from Jonathan Jeckell.
Knowing and using your Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) to your best advantage is a fundamental skill in negotiations. Your BATNA determines the point where it is in your best interests to walk away when your interlocutor pushes for more concessions from you, while up to that point you still have room to accommodate an agreement. If your interlocutor knows your BATNA, they have the substantial advantage of knowing how far they can push you before you walk away…if you can walk away.
Consider the US Air Force’s position with the F-35A. The F-15 Silent Eagle program continues to quietly reach new milestones and spawned from one of the most successful aircraft in US Air Force history. The F-15 Silent Eagle seems to provide highly advanced and competitive features at a reasonable price. It might seem that the F-15 Silent Eagle would be just the leverage they are looking for to provide a credible alternative to the F-35 and the limited quantity of F-22s. Theoretically, the US Air Force could threaten to abandon the project and go with a safer, more evolutionary pathway, like the US Navy did with their F/A-18E/F “upgrades” rather than suffer a risky transition to a whole new platform with commensurate new technological S-curves. Technological S-curves require higher degrees of engineering effort and money to improve performance at the beginning, when the technology is immature and experimental, and at the end, where mature technologies begin to reach fundamental limits, than the middle where advances come relatively quickly. Such radical jumps to new S-curves often promise major shifts in performance, but also require enormous engineering effort and entail substantial technological risk. Meanwhile, others may continue to squeeze performance from the older platform. Clayton Christensen contrasted IBM’s aggressive moves to new disk drive technologies and Hewlett-Packard’s heroic engineering efforts with supposedly obsolete technology to get almost the same performance and cost. (pages 10-14, “Innovator’s Dilemma”, and “Exploring the Limits of the Technology S-Curve,” Production and Operations Management, Fall 1992)
Consider also the comparable performance of the US Marine Corps UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper, based on platforms long abandoned by the US Army for the UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache respectively. Different types of technology improve at different rates and a system may be capable of accommodating the most rapidly changing parts through modular upgrades and remain competitive (Kopp, Technology Strategy, Joint Forces Quarterly). Likewise, while the US Air Force pursued the F-22, a completely new platform, the US Navy convinced Congress to spend money on “upgrades” to the Hornet fleet to produce the F/A-18E & F fighters. They also positioned the EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft to compensate for lack of stealth airframes in the rest of the air fleet. Radical jumps are risky when the operating environment they were designed for changes, which is particularly important with long development times. Their key technologies could lead to a dead end, or enemies they were designed to fight adapt to make their capability moot.
So could the US Air Force credibly use the F-15 Silent Eagle, either as a negotiating tactic, or as a gap-filling purchase to lower risk while waiting for the F-35A? No. The US Air Force is caught in conflicts with two negotiating partners, not just one. The US Air Force is counting on the capabilities promised by the F-35A, to them, the F-15 Silent Eagle would be a disappointing replacement if Congress took their threat seriously. Moreover, allied buyers and the US Air Force have had their purchases cut as costs soar and budgets plummet. All the F-35 buyers are locked into a high-stakes game of Prisoner’s Dilemma. Each cut in the number of aircraft purchased increases the cost per aircraft each remaining F-35 buyer must pay to amortize fixed costs, such as research and development. Any defector for another platform or reduction in purchases could trigger a stampede. The US Air Force, as the single biggest buyer, could trigger such a stampede merely by acknowledging the possibility alternatives. Unlike the US Air Force, many value minded F-35 buyers find other aircraft, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, Rafael, used F-16s, Su-30, or the Saab JAS 39 Gripen, just to name a few, quite competitive alternatives. Early defectors would beat the crowd to get these alternatives early, while laggards either get stuck footing the bill, or get put on the waiting list.
Meanwhile, the US Marine Corps is just as desperate. F-35B performance setbacks, costs and delays threaten the Marine Corps Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) triad of maneuver, artillery and aerial support by devouring a disproportionate share of the budget. Yet the Marine Corps has enormous sunk investments in the doctrine and infrastructure supporting Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing (STOVL), and has no viable STOVL alternatives to turn to as age forces AV-8B Harrier airframes into retirement. This begs the question…how much of the Marine Corps, and what proportion of their budget are they willing to sacrifice to acquire this aircraft? What kind of radical alternatives could the Marine Corps get for that kind of money? Rotary wing platforms, like attack helicopters lack the payload capacity, speed, altitude and survivability to completely replace a manned CAS platform for the Marines. Losing the F-35B would mean that Marines would be tied to land bases or US Navy carriers capable of supporting the F/A-18 or other high performance jets. All this, while the F-35B itself isn’t particularly good at what a Marine Corps aircraft fundamentally exists to do…provide close air support to Marines on the ground. The F-35B has a tiny payload capacity, both in terms of weapons in the bay or on the wings, and the magazine capacity for the gun. Deck plates on ships and tarmacs on land bases had to be modified to keep the engine from melting them or starting them on fire from the engine exhaust. What will F-35B exhaust do to AM2 matting in a forward aerial rearming and refueling point (FARP)? Will the F-35B’s high strung engine be able to survive ingesting all the dust and debris kicked up landing at such a forward site? Even aircraft designed to facilitate operations on dusty, unpaved airfields, such as the C-17 and the V-22 Osprey cause additional damage to their purposely robust engines when they do this. If it cannot, the very purpose of the F-35B’s STOVL capabilities are moot. Could the US Marine Corps use an aircraft like the Super Tucano or modified T-6 Texan II’s, or even a purpose-built remotely piloted aircraft (aka drones) with support from existing Marine Corps aircraft to fulfill the other tasks proposed for the F-35B? These aircraft have ideal characteristics for CAS and could still launch from Marine Corps assault ships and have proven ability to land on rough forward airstrips. This would have the side benefit of maintaining commonality among US Navy and Marine Corps high performance aircraft aboard their carriers for training and limited space for repair parts.
But if the US Marine Corps gives up on the F-35B, the Royal Navy is royally screwed. If design changes in the Queen Elizabeth II carrier class have been finalized, closing the door on CATOBAR and committing them to STOVL, they have even fewer viable alternatives than the US Marine Corps. The Royal Navy has no other high performance, multirole or support aircraft to fall back upon and don’t have the luxury of a sister service providing deck space for Catapult Assisted Take Off Barrier Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) aircraft to make up for lost high end capabilities on their ships. Either the Royal Navy would be forced to undergo an outrageously expensive development program of a new aircraft by itself, or go back and convert the QE IIs back to handle CATOBAR aircraft and chose from the small palette of options in this class.
The US Navy alone has the leverage to sit on the sidelines and watch the show with the satisfaction of being able to walk away. The Chief of Naval Operations clearly signaled as much in an article recently at Proceedings. His post downplayed the importance of stealth and the advantages brought by this technology over a range of other options available to the US Navy, including the electronic warfare capabilities of the EA-18G Growler in support of various aircraft as “trucks” for payloads. The Super Hornet is also a large aircraft with lots of internal capacity for modular upgrades and modifications to facilitate rapid adaption against emerging threats, balancing the best qualities of standardization and variety. But is a modular, adaptable aircraft good enough to compete with integrated high-end fighters like the F-22? I don’t know. But the US Navy has the breathing room to make that decision deliberately and calmly. The US Navy alone has avoided painting itself into a corner and now has the intellectual bandwidth free to focus on new ways to use its payloads and platforms in new ways by focusing on the interaction among its systems and doctrine, rather than fixating on making a particular technology work.
Jonathan Jeckell is a US Army officer specializing in logistics, planning, and technology. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components. Jonathan Jeckell can be reached on Twitter at @jon_jeckell.