PROPONENTS of the United Air Force idea list, as one of the advantages of the proposed system, unity in the purchase of aircraft and aeronautical material. Such a proposal has considerable popular appeal and appears rational until a critical examination is made. It is the purpose of this paper to make a brief analysis and, to this end, it is important that we realize in advance the essential differences between organization and administration. Organization is a plan for administration. Administration itself is the executive act. It is, of course, common knowledge that any reasonable plan will be successful with competent administration and that the best plan will fail with incompetent administration. With this view established, it is interesting to analyze the unified air force proposal from the standpoint of procurement.
In general, the Army and the Navy constitute two separate task organizations. A fundamental requirement for the administration of any task organization is that its commander have authority commensurate with his responsibility. During the World War, there were reported to be instances of different branches of the government bidding against one another in the procurement of supplies. The solution lay not in a separate department of production charged with procuring supplies for all branches, but in coordination and cooperation on the part of different procurement agencies. This solution was fundamentally sound since the commander of the task organization, who has the responsibility for accomplishing his mission, must, of necessity, have the authority to accomplish that mission. Both the Army and the Navy use the same sugar. Through lack of cooperation in the beginning, they were in competition with one another. Through cooperation at the end, they eliminated their difficulties, while at the same time each task organization retained authority over the procurement, for its own needs, of even such a standardized article as sugar.
This principle is the fundamental one on which the unified air force idea fails insofar as procurement is concerned. The Navy will require aircraft and aviation material in completing its mission of maintaining command of the sea. The War Department will require aviation material in carrying out its mission of defense against invasion. If, now, either the War or Navy Department is dependent upon a separate department for its supplies, one or the other is likely to suffer, depending upon which one is less dominant in the counsels of defense. This situation will become all the more acute when it is appreciated that a third department of the air will, judging by past performance, insist that it alone can win the war. It will, therefore, be reluctant to release aircraft to either of the other departments. The result may be so serious as to bring about the loss of the war.
It may be interesting now to discover just what the proponents of unified procurement may expect to attain by this unity. It is conceivable that a single department might bring about some saving through standardization of equipment, and through placing a single order to meet the requirements of the army, navy, and air forces bring about a reduction in price. The fundamental objection to this is that aircraft for army, navy, and commercial branches cannot be standardized at the present time. It is impossible even to standardize the aircraft for one of these departments, much less for all of them. The requirements which aircraft must meet are totally different in the three activities.
There is a common impression that an airplane is an airplane and can therefore be adapted to meet the different requirements. This is certainly not a fact. Naval aircraft must, in general, be seaplanes; for carrier use they will also be employed as land-planes. This requires that they be convertible from landplane to seaplane and this, in turn, necessitates some structural changes. It is necessary that naval aircraft be designed to withstand the loads of catapulting and this requires stiffening. These are essential details.
A broader difference lies in the fact that aircraft produced for shipboard are limited in size because of limitations of stowage space and are restricted in weight because of catapult limitations. These restrictions do not exist for military airplanes. Within limits, military airplanes can be as large and as heavy as desirable, but naval airplanes must be reduced both in weight and size to the absolute minimum consistent with the performance required. This limitation may bring about the necessity for a larger number of small airplanes rather than a smaller number of large airplanes. As a general thing, then, military and naval planes are different each from the other, and both are different from commercial planes. Any attempt to standardize the three would bring about limitations in each, and any attempt to standardize either of the types at the present time would simply retard development.
One of the essential facts of the late controversy is that the Army and Navy have been criticized because they have spent a lot of money and have relatively little to show for it in numbers of airplanes. This does not indicate incompetency, but rather that airplanes are extremely expensive. If, now, we had a large quantity of airplanes on hand, they would most certainly be obsolescent and we would be subject to criticism for having spent a large amount of money on something which became obsolete almost before it was delivered. In time of peace, it is the function of the Army and the Navy to restrict their procurement to the state of readiness required by national policy, and to devote their efforts to improvement in quality rather than in quantity. At the same time, plans must be made for quantity production in time of emergency. The two services, therefore, find themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea—criticized on one hand for having failed to purchase large numbers of aircraft when they would be equally subject to criticism on the other hand had they purchased large numbers of aircraft. On the whole, it is to our credit that we have not on hand a larger number of obsolescent types.
The two possible advantages of uniform procurement are impossible of attainment. No unified procurement branch could standardize types and it could not therefore, as a general thing, bring about a reduction in price by purchase in quantities.
There is, however, a way of accomplishing the desired result, and there is nothing new about this. It has been in force for a number of years. In December, 1922, both the Navy and Army purchased a large number of Curtiss D-12 engines. The price on this contract was based upon a joint order. The Navy Department conducted the inspections. The engines were delivered and the advantage of quantity production was reflected in the price. In 1924 the Army and the Navy purchased 130 sets of fuselages and wings from the Boeing Airplane Company. Since this equipment was required for the same purposes by both services, the Air Service purchased the material for the Navy and turned it over. When it became necessary this year to purchase racers for the Pulitzer and Schneider Cup events, a joint contract was entered into in such a way that the quantity required was greatly reduced. There are many instances of smaller purchases made jointly. This is the rule rather than the exception. Wherever the same article will meet the requirements of the specified services, joint arrangements are made. Great strides have been made toward standardizing this equipment wherever possible, with a view to joint procurement. The motive behind this is the desire on the part of each service to get the most for its money. In other words, the Army and the Navy, through cooperation, had already attained the results claimed for the united air force and at the same time have maintained authority over their purchases commensurate with the responsibility involved.
The agitation for a united air force has produced an impression that there is little cooperation between the Army and the Navy. On the contrary, there is a very close cooperation. This is brought about by the Joint Aeronautical Board. No projects are undertaken by either the Army or the Navy, as a rule, until each is satisfied that no duplication will result. Wherever possible, coordinate purchases are made. Excellent examples of this have been listed above and, in addition, we have a recent concrete example in the purchase of water-cooled engined fighters from the Boeing Airplane Company and the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company. Through a joint order in the first case, and simultaneous but separate orders in the latter, it was possible to get all the benefits of semi-quantity production on these orders.
Another concrete example of mutual cooperation came with the preparations for the polar flight. Both the Army and Navy had orders for new Loening amphibians. The army airplanes had higher priority on the list, but General Patrick graciously waived the priority and furnished the Navy with three complete airplanes for the polar flight. In the meantime, the Army had had enough experience with these airplanes to point out certain defects. The Army promptly furnished the material necessary to make the modifications and gave every assistance in an engineering way in attaining the desired results. In general, then, we have long been attaining unity of procurement not through changing the organization, but through coordinating the administrations of the task groups.
The unified procurement idea introduces certain defects inherent in itself. The British aeronautical trade journals are full of criticism of the technical staff of the Royal Air Force. It is pictured as a bureaucratic ogre which sits on the throne and through its know-it-all attitude, hampers the development of aviation. The best evidence of this domination is the fact that few, if any, aviation records are held in Great Britain, while the development of new types of aircraft and new types of engines in Great Britain has been slow. The friendly competition that exists between the Army and the Navy in this country is the healthiest possible thing for the industry. A change in organization will result in confusion for some time. During this time, development would be retarded and the history of the Royal Air Force indicates that it is resumed with difficulty. Furthermore, a unified air force, anxious to justify itself, would certainly be tempted to purchase large numbers of aircraft which would very likely be obsolescent before delivery.
To summarize, a change in organization to bring about unified procurement is both unnecessary and undesirable—unnecessary because unity is already attained, and undesirable because such a change in organization deprives the task group of authority over procurement which is necessary to carrying out the mission. Furthermore, it is extremely likely that this unified procurement organization would carry with it inherent complications which would serve to defeat its end. The idea is fundamentally unsound in conception and impossible of attainment.