Is the F-35 our AT-AT?
This post closely follows the structure of, and includes many direct quotes from, a recent article on the F-35: Is the F-35 a Trillion Dollar Mistake?, in Bloomberg by Paul Barrett. The intent of this post is to portray satirically the ridiculous acquisitions process in U.S. Defense. Mr. Barrett’s article is well worth a read and my hope is this satirical post will draw more attention to it.
The ambition to create a heavily armored combat walker and troop transport, the All-Terrain Armored Transport, or AT-AT, was what got the Imperial Walker Development Program under way after the fall of the Republic. The Imperial Research Projects Agency (IRPA), the Empire’s most sophisticated and technologically advanced weapons development program, began working at the behest of the Imperial Army to create a combat transport that could provide sufficient firepower to operate in limited numbers while deploying and supporting enough ground personnel to quickly consolidate and exploit battlefield gains.
According to an Imperial history of the AT-AT, IRPA sought assistance for research and development of the walkers from the Kuat Drive Yards, the construction site of the Imperial Navy’s signature capital ship — the Star Destroyer. The selection of Kuat for research and development seemed logical as the Kuat Yards were producing the next generation of ships at the same time. Most AT-ATs will be deployed in Incom Dropships, which the Empire retained in large numbers from the Republic. Incom, however, never was able to return to its former glory after Imperialization and the subsequent defection of many of its top engineers.
About twenty years ago, the IRPA-Kuat Yards collaboration had produced a preliminary combat walker concept. Imperial weapons procurement leadership decided that in order to produce a significant number of armored transport walkers on an accelerated timeline, the preliminary concept would be green-lighted without additional testing or soliciting alternative platform ideas. Kuat Yards would use the basic frame of the AT-AT to design modified walkers more suited to other purposes. One modification would be known as the All-Terrain Armored Cargo Transport, or AT-ACT. As one program manager says, “after this, there was no other walker program.”
The AT-AT was intended to combine transport and combat vehicles built from a standard base model. The base model, designed to accommodate modular additions for alternate missions, was also intended to reduce costs and speed production time across all variants. Variants could be mutually supportive — the Empire could press cargo walkers into supporting a mission primarily resourced with transport walkers. Transport walkers could still provide some cargo capacity while constructing new outposts. The AT-AT program was desperately needed, so the thinking went, to quell rising unrest in the Empire. Its presence was expected to serve as a psychological and tactical blow to any opposition. At the onset, the contract was estimated to be worth 200 billion credits over three decades. Kuat Yards, which is based in Lothal, in the Outer Rim Territories, began construction of the approved base model of imperial walkers, the AT-AT.
But this one-size-fits-all plan quickly encountered problems. The base model AT-AT had the capacity to carry a platoon of Storm Troopers, or 40 troops. The vehicle could also transport speeder bikes, or numerous proton mines. The command section had blasters and cannons mounted to the front. The substantial armor plating could take quite a lot of enemy attention as well. But, with all that bulk, maneuverability had to be compromised. And, in order to make the vehicle passably “all-terrain” the four legs would need to be massive, with many complex parts. The computing power alone required to keep a walker moving and balanced, not even considering targeting systems, required as large a computer as the typical TIE Fighter.
Bulkier variants like the AT-ACT were less mobile and required even more complexity to operate. The degree to which components for the base model AT-AT could be used in modified walkers was well below the initial projections of the program. The AT-ACT was intended to use 70 percent of the AT-AT’s components. But, the added weight of the specified cargo capacity for the AT-ACT required a redesign of the transport bed. The cargo walker could not carry anywhere near the number of troops that the transport walker would support. Instead, a newly designed section was required. The cargo specifications also were heavier than the troop transport section and so more complex components were needed to manage the extra weight. A pattern of continual reengineering resulted in billions of credits in cost overruns and years of delays.
Ten years ago, the Empire accepted delivery of scores of walkers, even as Kuat Yards continued to make design changes and address numerous deficiencies reported from the field. Once new weapon systems are in the hands of the Imperial services, says Grand Moff Jame Prowa, a former Imperial acquisition officer, “there’s a lot of inertia to continue, no matter what.” Mykes Rhine, a Kuat Yards spokesman, declined to comment on what he called the “ancient history” of this period.
Part of the problem stemmed from a policy aimed at reducing red tape instituted during the first decade of the AT-AT program. “There was a notion of trying to skinny down the acquisition bureaucracy,” says retired Grand General Norsch, who served as Imperial Army chief of staff. “In doing so, we regrettably lost much of the systems engineering ability that existed in-house.”
The “cost plus” contracts the Empire signed with Kuat Yards only exacerbated the situation. Kuat Yards was reimbursed for all its costs and was eligible for a performance-based bonus after that. Despite the program’s disarray and frequent cost overruns, which would be reimbursed, the Empire consistently awarded Kuat Yards 85 percent of its potential performance payments in addition to costs. An Imperial Army officer, General Davhe, refused to lower the bonus pool any further and at one time said: “I like the program manager on the Kuat Drive Yards side, and he tells me if he gets less than 85 percent, he’s going to get choked out by Darth Vader.”
Instead, it was Davhe who was choked out. Vader, who has an MBA from Stanford, switched the Kuat Yards contract to a fixed-price arrangement under which the Empire and Kuat split the cost overruns. With the program about seven years behind schedule, the Empire estimates it will spend 379 billion credits over 40 years to develop and acquire more than 2,000 walkers. Adjusting for inflation, that’s a 38 percent increase from the initial estimate. Add more than 600 billion credits for upkeep, and the total price tag approaches 1 trillion credits. But the walkers have already generated a profit for Kuat Yards. Having delivered only 210 AT-ATs and AT-ACTs thus far, Kuat is expected to derive more than 20 percent of its revenue this year from the walker program alone.
For all its stumbles, the program’s geospatial and political heft make it too big to fail. The multiple versions of the walker require a total of some 300,000 parts, and Kuat Yards has parceled out the subcontracting to all but five unlucky regions. Kuat Yards says the AT-AT directly or indirectly supports 146,000 jobs across the Empire, ranging from minimum-wage broom-pushers to engineers paid well into six figures. And, the program has become popular with the Imperial Governors. Imperial walker squadrons have begun to take up positions throughout the territories providing maintenance and contractor jobs at each location. Perhaps not coincidentally, as the squadrons are pushed out and become operational, the reviews from the imperial and military bureaucracy have been largely positive.
Some experts, however, warn that tests and mock battles are different from the real thing — and that imperial enthusiasm should be viewed skeptically. “It’s groupthink,” says Grand Moff Jame Prowa, who oversaw acquisitions during the Clone Wars. According to other experts, many of them also with combat experience, the AT-AT will need support from other weapons platforms to locate and avoid threats due to performance deficiencies. The walkers are slow, especially relative to enemy aircraft, and while they are armored they remain vulnerable at points. The walkers will be able to shoot down enemy craft, but it is unlikely that the enemy will be so accommodating as to undertake a frontal assault against the strongest part of the walkers’ defenses. Therefore, in order to be effective, walkers will have to operate alongside Imperial fighters in support. The Empire’s acquisition leadership contends that the lack of maneuverability ignores a basic point about contemporary warfare: up-close dogfighting is a relic of earlier conflicts, these officials say. When the Empire pushes walkers out into combat, the Imperial Navy would have already taken care of the enemy’s fighters allowing the walkers to do what they are designed to do: deploy and support ground troops.
While that might be the case, it is a far cry from the initial plan for this weapons platform thirty years ago. The Imperial Army sought a self-sufficient combat transport to deploy and support ground personnel. The walkers, at least the transport walkers, can deliver a platoon of troops while providing supporting firepower. But, the vehicles are clearly not as self-sufficient as hoped. At present, only about 10 percent of the planned units have been fielded, many requiring upgrades. And, all of this has come at a bill that may exceed 1 trillion credits rather than the 200 billion credits initially planned.