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Before its cancellation, the A-12 Avenger project tried to develop a
high-performance fighter aircraft that was hard to detect with radar. The Navy
wanted the A-12 Avenger to be a carrier-based superplane that could survive
the rigors of carrier landing at sea and also evade radar. These two
requirements tend to conflict: the harsh landing, ocean spray, and sun damage
the plane's finish and make it less able to evade radar. For example, the
pixie-dust coating that helps make planes less observable is often damaged in
harsh landings. These technical risks were evident during the concept
exploration stage. No one has designed a low-observable plane that can survive
the harsh "controlled crash" environment of a carrier-landing.
Wolfgang Demisch, a leading aerospace analyst, and other experts believe
the cancellation of the A-12 Avenger attack plane means the end of fixed-price
contracts when there are huge technical risks. (Braham, James. "What Price
Stealth?" Machine Design, February 21, 1991, pp. 26-28.) Jane's Defence Weekly
stated the reason for the technical problems was that General Dynamics' and
McDonnell Douglas' full-scale development bid was unrealistically low given
their stealth experience. ("Why the A-12 Was Cancelled." Jane's Defence
Weekly, February 9, 1991, p. 175.) Major design changes were not possible
within the fixed-price contract.
A major problem during full-scale development of the A-12 was the
fabrication of complex structures using composites, which are fiber-reinforced
plastics. The plane's weight was 10% over specification. Most of the excess
weight was due to the composite material needed to support the stress and
loads. The excess weight decreased the plane's speed and rate of climb, and
increased the cost.
General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas had to develop the technology during
full-scale development because they had limited experience in building large
structures using composites. The technology for manufacturing composites,
especially for the complex shapes of an airplane, is state-of-the-art.
With revolutionary designs that push the state-of-the-art, the Packard
Commission recommended building and testing prototypes before rushing to
full-scale development. The Packard Commission report stated that there should
be extensive informal competition in the early phases
demonstration/validation to prove that the new technology can
"substantially improve military capability."
Among the lessons learned from the A-12 cancellation are:
competitive prototyping of revolutionary technology
should be used to identify and reduce risks
contractors should not bid fixed-price contracts
without realistic cost estimates from prototypes
contractors should be candid about technical risks
as soon as they surface rather than hiding them in the hopes that they can
solve them quickly ("Packard Was Right." Aviation Week and Space Technology,
January 14, 1991, p. 7.)
Government and industry must work together to create a climate in which
contractors can be frank about technical risks.