The high flyers Abbott needs to target

Here’s an idea for the new Abbott Government — read up of the story of the U-2. What! you say – that’s the spyplane the Russians shot down 53 years ago. Wasn’t the whole thing a publicity disaster for the U.S.?  What can that teach a fledgling government facing horrendous problems of debt and structural deficit? Read on.

The CIA has just released a previously classified document The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Program, 1954-1974. It is posted on the website of the National Security Archive and reveals many unknown details of high-level flights over China, Tibet, India, Cuba and Indonesia.

In the early 1960s, I remember seeing a U-2 from time to time on the tarmac at Jackson’s Field, Port Moresby. The American team refused to say what it was doing, but it’s now clear it was part of the surveillance of Indonesia at the time of the confrontation with the Netherlands over the future of West New Guinea/West Irian. The Eisenhower Administration had ordered over-flights, we now learn, because it was concerned about President Sukarno’s sympathy with communism and his policy of ‘guided democracy.’

But what the Abbott government needs to focus on is the origins of the U-2 project. In 1954 President Eisenhower authorised the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Allen Dulles, to use $35 million from the Agency’s Contingency Reserve Fund to finance the top-secret project. On December 22, 1954, the Agency signed a letter of contract to Lockheed, using the codename Project OARFISH. In it the Agency proposed giving Lockheed “performance specifications” instead of the more rigid “technical specifications”, then standard in Air Force contracts. Note: that meant telling the planemaker what the aircraft must do, not specifying every aspect of the design. (Compare this with the fiasco of Lockheed’s latest project, the F-35 Joint Strike fighter which has to do all things for all the services).

Lockheed’s brilliant Chief Engineer Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson (designer of the WW2 P-38 Lightning, the first U.S. jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star, and the Constellation airliner) agreed this would save time and money.

When first approached in May of that year, Lockheed had proposed a $28 million contract to design and build 20 U-2 aircraft, with General Electric J73 engines. After discussion, the company modified its proposal to a $26 million contract for 20 airframes plus a 2-seater model for training, and spares. The Air Force was to supply the engines. The problem was that the government needed $12.5 million for the cameras, communications equipment and life-support gear for the pilots. It told Lockheed it could afford only $22.5 million for the aircraft.

After some haggling, the fixed-price contract was agreed and signed on March 2, 1955, with the caveat that there would be a review at the 75% mark to determine whether the costs would be exceeded. It required the first plane to be delivered in July, 1955, and the last in November, 1956. That was a phenomenally short time from inception to delivery. Johnson had adapted the fuselage from the F104 Starfighter, and added 80-foot long drooping wings of a sailplane. His design philosophy was KISS – Keep it Simple, Stupid!

The result: the aircraft was delivered on time and for only $19 million, $3.5 million under budget.

There were some bizarre moments in the deal. Waiting for the formal contract to be signed, Lockheed needed a cash injection to keep the initial work on the U-2 going. To maintain secrecy, a senior CIA official wrote a cheque for $1.25 million and posted it to Johnson’s home. The key to the project was that the CIA was the only U.S. agency which had permission to use “unvouchered funds”, free from external oversight or audit, so was the only organisation that could ever have got the U-2 into the air inside a decade.

So what’s the lesson? Technical specifications, tenders, approval processes, EIS documents, inter-departmental committees all contribute to waste of time and money.

Put that together with the recent analysis of the Commonwealth Public Service by Alexander Phillipatos of the Centre for Independent Studies.

He found that although the service is roughly the same size as it was two decades ago, (actually it seems to have increased by half a million), the composition has changed, and the cost has gone up. There has been a great reduction in the number (7,323 to 895) of entry-level public servants (APS1) and a huge increase in the number at executive level (EL1 & EL2). These more highly-paid groups have increased by 250% and 190% respectively.

It’s at the executive level that caution is applied to public service decisions and recommendations. These are the people who cannot afford to be caught out, or their careers will be blunted. Theirs is not the task of implementing policy swiftly and efficiently; they keep the candle burning for responsible avoidance of mistakes. They are the naysayers who slow the system down, questioning, referring, demurring, cautioning, and warning their ministers. Tony Abbott could not do better than to zero in on this highly-paid cohort (a lovely public service term) to eliminate his 12,000 jobs.

Over time, 86 U-2 aircraft were delivered, initially to the CIA, later to the US Air Force. They tracked communist insurgents in Laos, photographed preparations for the French nuclear tests in the Pacific and monitored Chinese missile and nuclear sites. A version was developed to operate from aircraft carriers. The cameras they carried could define objects down to four inches in size from 70,000 feet.

Geoffrey Luck was an ABC Journalist from 1950 until 1976

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