Congress imposed a smaller, less expensive fighter aircraft on the U.S. Navy 24 years ago because it believed that there was not enough money—even during the Cold War—to fill carrier decks with F-14 Tomcats. The less expensive aircraft went to the fleet as the F/A-18A Hornet.
It was not the expose of financial hanky-panky that brought down the A-12, but the suppression of information relating to cost and schedule problems caused by weight growth. When challenged, Navy leaders said that they had not been informed.
In October 1996, eight months after the first F/A- 18E wing drop, the Navy wrote a deficiency report on the severity of the problem. The problem was so serious that the Navy flight-test director issued a second report on 12 March 1997, only two weeks before then-Undersecretary of Defense Paul Kaminski approved low-rate initial production (LRIP) for 12 aircraft (Lot 1), advanced procurement for Lot 2, and total LRIP quantity of 62 aircraft over three lots. The director's report included the following:
"The aircraft has consistently demonstrated objectionable, uncommanded bank angle changes at 0.60 to 0.90 M and at elevated angle-of-attack [AOA] from 7 to 11 deg[ree] AOA on all three airplanes flown to date.... The presence of large, uncommanded bank angle changes in the normal maneuvering AOA range will prevent or severely restrict the performance of air-to-air tracking tasks during Air-to-Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM). There, the operational effectiveness will be compromised."
In June 1997, the wing-drop problem still was unresolved. But in a letter to the Chairman of the National Security Committee, the Chief of Naval Operations wrote, "Testing results have clearly exceeded all specific performance parameters." These types of informed but nevertheless false statements helped bring down the A-12. The failure to be informed about the true status of the F/A-18E program now threatens it.
Today, the final fix has yet to be announced, although a Blue Ribbon panel of aerodynamics experts recommended last fall that the service should initiate intermediate wing redesign of the outer panel, leading edge flaps, trailing edge flaps, and ailerons while considering a total wing redesign. Whatever fixes are incorporated, their effect will not be known for months.
Navy leaders are "stewards of the public trust," in the words of then-Secretary of the Navy Lawrence Garrett III testifying to Congress concerning the A-12. They must not be cheerleaders for the government-industry weapon system du jour . They have a higher calling; they also are responsible for people's lives.
James P. Stevenson is the former editor of the Navy’s Topgun Journal ; author of The Pentagon Paradox , a history of the F/A-18’s development; and a forthcoming history of the A-12, The $5 Billion Misunderstanding .