Good Riddance

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Nayef was a menace. We should be happy he's gone, but worried about the aging House of Saud he leaves behind.

Washington woke on Saturday to the news of the death of Crown Prince Nayef, who was next in line for the Saudi throne. The collective sigh of relief by senior U.S. officials was almost audible -- even though, within hours, President Barack Obama issued a statement about his "great regret" on learning the news.

The president emphasized the positive. Under Nayef's leadership of the Interior Ministry, the statement said, "the United States and Saudi Arabia developed a strong and effective partnership in the fight against terrorism." Obama also noted that Nayef had "strongly supported the broader partnership between our two countries."

There was no mention of the stark reality: Nayef was renowned for being difficult and unimaginative, only able to view policy options in terms of choices that worsened problems rather than eased them. His support for the kingdom's religious conservatives during his decades in office had arguably only added to jihadi extremism. He labeled Shiites in the Eastern Province protesting at their lack of rights as "acting at the behest of a foreign country," thereby provoking a confrontation with Iran rather than side-stepping it.

One took on Nayef at one's own peril, so few did. He was outraged when Abdullah, upon becoming king in 2005, failed to make him second deputy prime minister, a slot seen as "crown-prince-in-waiting." Abdullah had wanted to limit the power of his brother princes in the so-called Sudairi faction, whom, he felt, had spent decades undermining him. Nevertheless, he found himself having to appoint Nayef's full-brother Sultan as his own heir apparent -- as the largest group of full-brothers in the royal family, Abdullah just could not ignore the Sudairis.

But Nayef bided his time, waiting for Saudi Arabia's creaky succession system to work in his favor. He dutifully managed his portfolio at the Interior Ministry and, by 2009, with Sultan's health declining as well as the king's, was finally awarded the second deputy prime minister title. When Sultan died of cancer last October, Nayef's own real opposition was a couple of older brothers who could be discounted as political nonentities.

Along with Nayef, there probably also dies media interest in the escapades of one of his ex-wives, Maha al-Sudairi, who was stopped earlier this month as she was leaving a Paris hotel in the middle of the night, along with a personal retinue of 60 and attendant luggage, without settling the $8 million bill. (Princess Maha has something of a track record for this sort of behavior but the incident dwarfs an earlier tale about her selection of $100,000 worth of lingerie, which went unpaid for.)

Perhaps the imaginative British tabloid press will report that Nayef's actual demise -- it appears to have been a heart attack -- was prompted by being told he needed to write yet another check to cover Maha's extravagances. Although reportedly suffering from cancer, Nayef was not thought to be on death's door. Indeed, just last week he had been visited in his Geneva residence by a group that included the Saudi minister of labor and the kingdom's representative to the World Trade Organization. His full-brother Ahmad, who has been promoted to head the Interior Ministry in Nayef's place, was quoted earlier this month as saying Nayef was in "good health" and would be returning to the kingdom "soon."

The House of Saud has yet to meet a problem it doesn't want to kick down the road, and slotting Prince Ahmad, 72, into Nayef's old job as interior minister fits the bill nicely. Leadership of Saudi ministries is handled as if they are feudal fiefdoms rather than modern bureaucracies: When Sultan, who doubled as minister of defense as well as crown prince, died, his brother Salman, the newly minted crown prince, filled the gap. Ahmad and Salman, who are also Sudairis, would not want the leadership of such an important ministry going to a non-Sudairi half-brother, such as Prince Muqrin, the 69-year old head of intelligence and close confidant of King Abdullah.

Tapping Ahmad avoids promoting a grandson of the kingdom's founder Abdul-Aziz, also known as Ibn Saud, to being a full minister. Among the next generation of Saudi princes, there is intense competition for such a prestigious role in a major ministry. The heavyweights in this contest are Mitab bin Abdullah, the 59-year old son of the king and commander of the National Guard; Khalid bin Sultan, the 63-year old son of the late crown prince and deputy defense minister; and Muhammad bin Fahd, the 62-year old son of the late King Fahd and governor of the Eastern Province, the home of the kingdom's oil wealth as well as its pesky Shiites.

Another one to watch is the counterterrorism chief, the 53-year old Muhammed bin Nayef. If merit were a critical factor in senior appointments, he perhaps should be the next minister for his work in eradicating al Qaeda from Saudi Arabia. MbN, as he is known to U.S. officials, has actually been bloodied in his job, surviving the 2009 attempted embrace of a suicide bomber who had hidden explosives in a body orifice.

Therein lies the fundamental problem with leadership of the kingdom: Its succession mechanism is an actuarial disaster area. Notionally, the throne should pass from brother to brother (actually usually half-brother) among the sons of Ibn Saud, who died in 1953. Only sons who are unwilling or universally accepted as being incompetent are jumped. But the system means that Saudi monarchs are getting progressively older -- with all that means in terms of energy for the role and mental acuity.

Since Ibn Saud, the kings of Saudi Arabia have been Saud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd and Abdullah. Exact ages are disputable but, accepting that, the trend for age on accession to the throne is still unmistakable: 51, 60, 63, 61, 82. The trend line for the age at which they were appointed crown prince is similar: 31, 49, 53, 54, 59.

If we add Sultan and Nayef, crown princes who died before becoming king, to the series, the problem becomes even clearer. The two princes assumed the role at 81 and 78 respectively -- and Salman is still a worrying 76 years old.

The kings of Saudi Arabia are graying, and look to become even grayer in the years ahead. The logical way to resolve this problem is to allow the succession system to jump down to the next generation. It arguably should happen but almost certainly won't -- personal ambition of individual princes outweighs their appreciation of their mutual interest. Given Saudi Arabia's centrality in the Middle East, if not the world, that may turn out to be to the detriment of all of us.



Flight Blindness

Why F-35 pilots suddenly have the jitters.

A host of problems plague the military's newest jet fighter, the F-35, but one of the simplest yet most troublesome is identified in a new government audit as unreadable "symbology."

The problem exists inside a small item at the heart of what makes the F-35 the world's most sophisticated aircraft -- if only it could be made to work. Namely, the pilot's helmet visor. On the world's most advanced, fifth-generation military aircraft, the visor is meant to be much more than a sun shield. It is supposed to do wondrous things.

Acting like a small, see-through movie screen, it is designed to display data showing how the plane is performing, where enemy targets are, and which weapons the pilot can use to handle them. As the pilot swivels his head, the display is meant to adapt, creating a direct link -- as in a science-fiction movie -- between the pilot and the aircraft's unprecedented computing power.

The visor is, according to the Government Accountability Office's latest annual report on the F-35's development, "integral to the mission systems architecture." In other words, the plane was more or less designed around the unique capabilities of that fancy helmet appendage.

Just one problem: It doesn't work. In flight tests, the visor's "symbology" has evidently been unreadable, because the plane itself has been bouncing up and down in the air more than expected. The effect is probably like trying to read an e-book while riding a bicycle along a boulder-strewn path.

"Display jitter," the GAO report says in a footnote, "is the undesired shaking of display, making symbology unreadable ... [due to] worse than expected vibrations, known as aircraft buffet."

Unfortunately for the plane's designers, jitter and buffeting are only part of the problems undermining the visor's use. The others are a persistent delay in displaying key sensor data -- making the visor symbols outdated as the aircraft streaks through the air at speeds up to 1,200 mph -- and an inability to show night vision readings properly.

So what's the big deal? It's just a visor. Well, the GAO report says "these shortfalls may lead to a helmet unable to fully meet warfighter requirements -- unsuitable for flight tasks and weapons delivery, as well as creating an unmanageable pilot workload, and may place limitations on the [F-35's] operational environment."

In short, if the visor doesn't work, the plane may not be able to do all the impressive things that the Pentagon is spending more than $1.5 trillion -- over the next 30 or so years -- to make it do. The GAO said this alarm was sounded by the program officials interviewed by its investigators.

A new visor is under development, at an estimated cost of just $80 million, so the Air Force may have a backup if the original visor's kinks cannot be worked out. But according to the GAO, the alternate visor won't be as capable. An Air Force spokesman did not respond to a request for comment, but quoted the F-35 program director in March as promising that the helmet troubles are "being addressed."

The director, Vice Adm. David Venlet, told a defense conference that the plane was just having "normal teething problems."

A few things went well for the F-35 program last year. A version being made for the Marines, capable of short takeoffs and landings, "performed better than expected" in flight tests. And the Air Force was able to double the number of test flights it performed the previous year. The volume of changes made to engineering drawings of the plane's components every month -- even while the plane is in early production -- has started to decline.

But there wasn't a lot of other good news in the report. Although the program was extensively restructured by senior Pentagon officials last year, by adding many millions of dollars and stretching out key deadlines, it still managed to meet only six of its eleven objectives for the period. Many of these goals were administrative. Among the uncompleted tasks: an interim upgrade of the plane's software and a redesign of its tailhook.

The plane has had no difficulty being launched by catapults, a key prerequisite for its use by the Navy aboard aircraft carriers. But so far, it has not been able to use its tailhook to catch a cable and stop suddenly -- which is also, well, crucial for operations on an aircraft carrier. Generally speaking, Navy pilots need a place to land when their missions are complete.

Venlet has called the tailhook troubles "a damping-bouncing issue" that could not have been foreseen. It is being redesigned, but the GAO warns that "other aircraft structural modifications may also be required." The discovery of cracks in the plane's bulkhead, an upright wall in its fuselage, will require costly repairs, and other parts are showing unexpectedly early signs of wear. Flight tests so far have shown "different structural loads than predicted," the GAO disclosed, a sure sign that unplanned work lies ahead. "Aircraft reliability and parts shortages" contributed to testing shortfalls last year.

In an October report, a special testing team of Air Force, Navy, and British officers found shortcomings in "aircraft handling characteristics and shortfalls in maneuvering performance," according to a GAO summary of the officers' report. Besides flagging the troubled helmet, they complained about poor management of spare parts supplies, excessive repair time for the plane's delicate radar-absorbing skin, and "poor maintainability performance."

The Pentagon has increasingly been at loggerheads with the chief contractor, Lockheed Martin, over the work ahead. Already, cost overruns on four early production contracts have totaled $1 billion, with the government on the hook to pay just over two-thirds this amount. But Uncle Sam's ambition is still to buy 365 of the planes (out of 2,457) at a cost of $69 billion, before completing so-called developmental flight tests - the spins in the sky that are needed to make sure everything is operating properly.

Until those tests are finished, the GAO said -- repeating a theme the government watchdog has sounded for the past seven years -- the F-35 program is "very susceptible to discovering costly design and technical problems after many aircraft have been fielded." The auditors expressed worry as a result that the Pentagon may not be able to afford the program in its current form and urged that it conduct a study now of the impact of future budget cuts.

In a written reply, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David G. Ahern said the Pentagon conducts such studies all the time, but "does not believe there is value" in making them public. He also said that any such analysis would have to consider the impact of any cuts in a broad context, including the "industrial base," the size of the existing fighter fleet, and Washington's deals to sell the plane to foreign allies.

UK Ministry of Defence