Get your design requirements right

posted in: Life and things | 0

It’s amazing how history repeats itself so often. Or maybe it’s not, people being what they are. I read this in The Australian the other day.

“Australia’s new $45bn Hunter-class frigates will be ‘substantially’ slower, have a shorter range than originally intended, and could be vulnerable to detection by enemy vessels, a classified Defence Department report reveals.

The 36-page report sets out an array of serious problems with the ‘immature’ British design, which is being substantially modified to meet Australian requirements, and warns that the government’s contract with shipbuilder BAE Systems provides ‘very limited means … to influence contractor performance’.” [source]

If we substitute ‘frigate’ with ‘submarine’, the information wouldn’t have been very different. Which was why the Government finally grew some spine and cancelled the deal with the French submarine builders and opted for US boats. There were lots of reasons for the (very expensive) decision – French failure to meet deadlines, substantial blow-outs in time frames and cost, and the changing political environment.

However, all of that need not have happened. The French had agreed to replace their sub’s nuclear powerplants with diesel, and make changes so the subs could work with US weapons systems. We could have bought off-the-shelf Japanese subs for a fraction of the price, with virtually immediate delivery. But no. The Defence chiefs decided they HAD to have a vessel to meet future requirements (except for the nuclear engines – which, ironically, is what the US subs will have).

Then there’s the Joint Strike Fighter (Lockheed-Martin’s F-35A) which we bought to replace the F-111s. That’s another project beset by design problems, cost blow-outs, and delays.

“Pushed by the US Government and defence heavyweight Lockheed Martin, the F-35s were in the design phase when Australia committed in 2002 to buy up to 100 of them. The cost was estimated at $16 billion.

Mr Grazier has been watching the F-35 program for years as a Military Fellow for US Defence spending watchdog, the Project on Government Oversight. He said the combat jet currently had almost 900 design flaws, with seven considered critical.” This ABC news article from September 2021 gives a balanced report on the pros and cons of the aircraft.

In summary –

  • The frigates are a brand-new design, with not yet a keel in the water. And our ships needed extra this and that to meet Australian requirements.
  • The submarines needed major changes to suit Australian requirements.
  • The F-35 aircraft was still in the modification phase when we signed up for it.

There’s a pattern, you see.

A model of the Vasa

In the 1620s the Dutch were at the height of their ‘golden age’ when the East India Company’s merchant vessels dominated world trade. The Dutch were recognised as the best ship builders in the world, so they were hired to build a powerful new warship for Sweden. Like the Dutch merchant ships (which also carried weapons), the Vasa was configured with a gun deck, an oorlop deck, and the hold, and carried 32 guns. But ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ was a driving force at the time and the powerful king of Sweden was right there with the rest. He wanted TWO gun decks, so he got two gun decks. The thing is, this style of ship wasn’t designed to have all that weight on the top decks. As soon as Vasa encountered a breeze stronger than a zephyr, she keeled over. The canons broke their restraints and slid over to one side, and water came in the open gun ports. She had sailed about thirteen hundred metres. She foundered just outside a major shipping lane and lay there in the mud complete with the remains of at least fifteen people who went to the bottom with her, passing out of history (a bit like the One Ring) until 1950.

So you see, poor decisions have been around for a long time.

Mind you, these types of colossal mistakes are not confined to Defence. I worked for some time for Australia Post around the time they decided to buy new mail-sorting machines. Post could have bought tried-and-true machines from Siemens, but they signed a contract with Lockheed Martin, which had never built a mail sorting machine, so off the plan.

Six machines were delivered, well past the scheduled date and the cost. They performed so poorly, Lockheed-Martin took them back to America and started again. These days the company provides sorting machines to several countries, so they sorted out the issues eventually. But at what cost, and delays?

Lockheed Martin is also famous because of a certain Mars probe. It seems the lander the company built disappeared shortly before it was meant to land. The reason for the error? NASA used the metric system (meters, kilometers) while Lockheed Martin used Imperial units (Feet, miles). This led to substantial errors in calculations and the complete failure of the mission. Still, NASA accepted fault. “NASA does not place the responsibility on Lockheed for the mission loss; instead, various officials at NASA have stated that NASA itself was at fault for failing to make the appropriate checks and tests that would have caught the discrepancy.” [source]

I also worked for Western Mining Corporation. The company bought an off-the-shelf accounting package, written when computing was in its infancy. But WMC management decided it wanted certain modifications to suit the company. So, they had the IT department modify their version of the package – which was their right. The problem was, every time the original package was upgraded (which happened every six months or so) WMC’s modifications had to be fitted again. We had a group of programmers who did little else but support those bespoke mods. It would have been much simpler and cheaper to change procedures to fit what the package did – or, if the mods were so important, buy a package that did what was required.

There you go. Getting it right is always a trade-off. Provided you know EXACTLY what you want and what compromises you can afford to make. Neither of those things seem to happen much in the Defence Department.

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