In a drizzly ceremony today, we will witness Secretary of the Navy Don Winter accept the delivery of the first EA-18G Growler to the USN's fleet readiness squadron.
This would be a fairly routine affair except for a couple of very distinguishing facts: first, the event is occurring exactly according to the original schedule and, second, Boeing's five-year-old development program is not over-budget.
It'd be nice to think those two facts weren't so extraordinary, but, in the world of military acquisition, it is.
To be sure, there remain a few caveats. The operational test phase begins in September, which will expose any unresolved design or technology glitches. The Government Accountability Office reported in March that a few software issues need to be fixed before operational tests can be performed. We'll see how that pans out, but none of the issues sound like show-stoppers.
Some of the more cynical observers (blush) might also say that Boeing and the Navy cheated with the EA-18G.
This is not the same as starting a new weapon project from scratch. The airframe for the EA-18G is based on the design of the already proven F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the electronic warfare package is based largely on the ICAP III suite already flying on the EA-6B Prowler. The ALQ-99 jammer is merely a decade-old, upgraded version of a pod that first flew in 1971 (and needs to be retired as threats evolve over the next decade).
But it's also not fair to Boeing to dismiss the complexity of this project. Repackaging the ICAP III to fit inside the Growler involved no small risk. The "football" ALQ-218 receiver mounted on the EA-6B's tail was split into two pieces and installed in the more aerodynamically harsh environment of the EA-18G's wingtips. I'm still curious how they managed to pull off the ALQ-218's radome, which must be sturdy enough to survive on the wingtip, yet not too sturdy to interfere with the operations of the embedded antenna.
Integrating the all-new Raytheon-made Communications Countermeasures Set (CCS) also added some complexity to the project, as did the introduction of the highly useful interference cancellation system (INCANS), which allows the EA-18G to continue jamming an enemy radar even while the pilot continues to communicate with other friendly aircraft.
It's reasonable to question whether the navy should have been still more ambitious. Why not introduce an all-new, digital-era jamming pod with the first delivery of the EA-18G? Why not design a next-generation jammer aircraft around a more stealthy platform, like the navy's forthcoming F-35C due to be delivered in 2015? Why not challenge your contractor -- to which you're paying billions of dollars -- to invent something completely new, versus "repackaging" two familiar systems?
At the end of the day, the navy is getting exactly what it paid for, on-time. In this day and age, maybe that's all you can really ask for.