Defense IT

DOD projects didn’t go unscathed on April Fools' Day

Air Force F35 fighter

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: grounded?

April 1 arrived this year with the regular assortment of decent, bad and tasteless pranks, from CERN announcing that the scientists working with the Large Hadron Collider had confirmed the existence of the Force (alright, then) to an NFL player tweeting an apology for a DUI arrest that didn’t happen (sir, stay away from Twitter).

This year, April Fools’ Day pranks also involved the serious business of the Defense Department, in at least two instances—one targeting the most expensive weapons program in history, the other perpetrated by the batty boffins at the Pentagon’s lead research office.

In the first case, a website called Russia & India Report broke the story that Defense Secretary Ash Carter had given the OK to kill the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

Plausibility: Enough to catch your eye. The F-35 program has run into a lot of problems, from cost overruns and schedule delays to design and technical problems, drawing the ire of Congress and others. The $400 billion fighter, which has estimated 55-year lifecycle costs ranging from $850 billion to $1.1 trillion, has faced calls for its cancellation before.

The Tipoff: Well, in the second paragraph we hear from a Pentagon spokesman named Siphon Cash talking about how the F-35 was getting “whipped” in wargame scenarios by the Russian Su-27 Flanker. There’s also a comment from a U.S. senator who doesn’t exist (“Andrew McLaiyyer”) quoted from a USA Today story that doesn’t exist (we did check, for the heck of it), saying he would “strangle any Johnny-come-lately who cancels our most patriotic military programme.”

Rating: Two-and-a-half out of four jester’s hats. Given the F-35’s history, the headline (“US to kill F-35 fighter”) could suck people in, though R&T Report pretty quickly lets you know it’s just having some fun.

In the second case, there was this announcement from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on its next round of “high risk/high reward” research projects. A week earlier, DARPA had heralded its Breakthrough Technologies for National Security, citing projects underway, and now was announcing four new projects for “making the impossible possible.” Following DARPA’s practice of naming projects so that they produce pronounceable acronyms, the agency announced the projects as ALADDIN, SEE SHADOW, JAWWS and LEPRECHAUN.

Plausibility: High risk/high reward has always been DARPA’s game and it has paid off in a number of areas, from the creation of the Internet to breakthroughs in flexible prosthetics. So when researchers announce new, far-reaching projects, they have some built-in credibility.

The Tipoff: You don’t have to look too far; DARPA scatters winks throughout its posting. The headline, in fact, notes that the new projects would “test limits of technology, credulity.” ALADDIN would produce soft, man-portable suits you could put on and use to fly, complete with “vortex-minimizing fringe” and “nanotech stealth coatings to ensure stain resistance.” SEE SHADOW (starting next February at a partially underground location in western Pennsylvania) would use big data analytics of animal behavior and photonics in order to make accurate weather predictions six weeks in advance. JAWWS would use “extremely large sharks or cheesy shark facsimiles” as remote weapons platforms. And LEPRECHAUN would enable the mass production of “unobtainium (Uo), an exceedingly rare element prized for its ability to catalyze a wide range of otherwise implausible capabilities.”

Rating: Three out of four jester’s hats. The key to a good April Fools’ joke, as opposed to a cruel prank, is that at some point you let people in on it, the better to enjoy the ride. DARPA might not have strung people along like George Plimpton did in his classic 1985 story of the Buddhist-trained, 168-mile-and-hour throwing pitcher Sidd Finch, but it did deliver some pretty good jokes. Well played.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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