Imagine having a B-2 bomber style plane on a US Navy aircraft carrier. During the Cold War, that is exactly what the Navy wanted to take on Russia: It was a great concept but also a cautionary tale about how not to run a defense acquisition program.
The A-12 Avenger II was a stealth flying wing bomber that was supposed to take off from aircraft carriers. But not a single airplane was ever built after spending $5 billion on the project. The airplane was eventually cancelled in 1991 – one of the biggest wastes of time and money in history. The A-12 Avenger didn’t avenge much at all.
A-12 Avenger – A Naval Stealth Bomber to Rival the F-117 Nighthawk
Meant to replace the popular A-6E Intruder, the A-12 flying wing was designed for penetrating deep into enemy territory by launching from a carrier, evading radar, and dropping the latest in precision-guided munitions. It started out in 1983 as the Advanced Tactical Aircraft program. The A-12 Avenger was planned to be larger than the stealth fighter F-117A Nighthawk with a heavier payload.
A-12 Avenger – It Looked Good on Paper
The airplane was intended to have a two-person crew with the pilot and a bombardier/ navigator. The A-12 would have more speed, greater range, and a higher ceiling compared to the A-6 Intruder. Two General Electric turbojets were to produce a max speed of 580 miles per hour with a ceiling of 40,000 feet. The range was intended to be 485-miles with the ability to pack 5,500 pounds of bombs and missiles.
These specs and capabilities had the navy, marines, and even the air force excited. The navy planned to buy 620, the marines ordered 238, and the air force wondered if it could procure up to 400.
A-12 Avenger – How Could Billions Be Spent Before It was Cancelled?
The airplane was considered too heavy to conduct operations as promised. This was an engineering issue, but there were systemic problems with the overall acquisition effort. The airplane was also the victim of red tape, burdensome regulations, an outdated procurement system, and just plain mistakes and miscalculations. It was quickly behind schedule and the delays stretched into months – it was finally 18 months behind schedule. Each airplane was going to cost $96 million – 80 percent over budget.
The Inspector-General Blows The Whistle
The program was such a stinker that the Department of Defense Inspector General conducted an investigation and audit at the behest of Congress about the cost overruns and schedule slippage. The IG recommended that Defense Secretary Dick Cheney cancel the program. Cheney announced he wasn’t going to request more money to bail the contractors out. the IG said that General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas were potentially in default.
A-12 Avenger – Cancel This Mess
The IG wrote in their report that “The review disclosed that the cost, schedule, and technical problems in the A-12 aircraft program were of such magnitude that the continued viability of the program was in serious doubt.”
A-12 Avenger – The Media Points Fingers
The media sensed blood in the water and pounced. The Washington Post gave a scathing indictment:
“What is widely viewed as the A-12 fiasco has rocked the Pentagon and the defense industry. The Pentagon’s top civilian procurement official, John Betti, was forced from his job, largely because of the A-12, and two admirals and a captain in the A-12 program office have been censured for their handling of the program. The Justice Department, meanwhile, is pursuing charges of fraud and deception in contractor payments.”
A-12 Avenger – The Contractors Had Excuses
The contractors blamed the military for changing the design repeatedly. They said canceling the program would cost 8,000 jobs. The IG audit also discovered the practice of navy officials covering up engineering and design problems by not informing their superiors or Congress.
What a mess. What could have been a great airplane that would have given the navy an outstanding capability became a casualty of incompetence and unethical behavior on the procurement side. The A-12 fiasco offered many lessons learned for those who worked in the aerospace industry – from uniform officers to civilian contractors – that it was time for everyone to do a better job.
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, Ph.D., is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.