The US military is facing potentially catastrophic funding cuts due to last year's so-called "sequestration" deal between the President and the Republicans in Congress. If Congress and the President fail to agree on future tax and spending policy, on January 1, 2013 automatic cuts will automatically begin, which will result in an almost $50 billion dollar cut from the 2013 defense budget. It is also estimated that over the course of he next ten years the act will, in theory, cut as much as $492 billion from the defense budget.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has described these cuts as "catastrophic." Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa (D Hawaii) has agreed with Panetta, calling them "devastating and disastrous."
Pressure has never been greater to ensure that the defense procurement system works at maximum efficiency. Ideally, this means that the procurement system should provide the armed services with high quality, reliable and affordable weapons and equipment, on schedule and without unplanned cost increases.
Unfortunately, at present there is little sign that either the Obama administration or Congress are ready to make the dramatic, comprehensive reforms that are needed for America's complex and confusing Federal Acquisition Regulations which govern the procurement system. Today's economic problems, however, are serious enough so that they might open the way for reforms that would make a significant difference to the way the system works.
Ever since the early days of the Reagan build-up in the early 1980's, there has been a lively and, at times, nasty debate over military procurement reform. The bureaucratic system, which the US Department of Defense uses to design, develop and produce the seemingly infinite number of military weapons and equipment required, is widely recognized as broken. Almost all new weapons and new equipment are delivered to our troops late, and these items almost always seem to end up costing far more than originally planned. Often, a new weapon which had been in development for years, is cancelled because the leadership of the Defense Department decides that it has grown too expensive, as shown below. The cancellation then results in wasted billions that have already been spent .
In the 1950's, the Pentagon may have had some significant problems, but the procurement system itself was not one of them. As one former Air Force General said, "Procurement decisions were made by the highest ranking officer technically qualified to make the decision."
In the early 1960's, under then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a new management system was put into place. McNamara removed authority for major procurement decisions from the Army, Air Force and Navy and gave it to senior political appointees in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). Essentially, the decision-making power was given to a group of civilian political appointees and analysts who owed their positions to McNamara and no one else. These civilians were known as the "Whiz Kids." Their ideas were neatly summed up by Charles Hitch, McNamara's Comptroller of the Defense Department when he said, "We regard all military problems ... as economic problems in the efficient allocation and use of resources."
By reducing the role of the men and women in the military to the mere fulfilling of a set of economic, statistical requirements, Secretary of Defense McNamara not only eliminated the role of traditional warrior virtues in the conduct of US military operations, he also removed officers with real-world experience from the procurement process. Many of the failures experienced by the US military since the McNamara era have been due to the excessive use of business management principles and techniques instead of reliance on strategy and doctrine based on military experience.
The McNamara system has undergone several minor reforms since the early 1960's, notably the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. This legislation strengthened the role of the nation's senior military officer, namely, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It made him the principal military advisor to the President and thus no longer just the "first among equals." Regrettably, the Goldwater-Nichols Act Act failed to give the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs solid authority over the procurement process. Even worse, as former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman put it, "The intention of the legislation was to get uniformed people completely out of procurement."
Another unsuccessful reform effort was the disastrous concept of the "Lead System Integrator," promoted in by Bill Clinton's first Secretary of Defense and former McNamara whiz kid, Les Aspin, in 1993. As the concept was implemented, the Pentagon's cadre of civilian engineers and scientists, which had been built up and trained during the 1980s explicitly to supervise and hold accountable the big defense contractors, were let go.
Supposedly, these civil service scientists and engineers, who had accumulated years of experience working with uniformed armed service members and who understood their needs, could be laid off because their work would be done by the defense industry itself –- exactly as happened. These experienced men and women were replaced by the "Lead System Integrator," which gave near total design and development authority for new weapons and equipment to the major defense contractors. Left without close and expert supervision from Defense Department scientists and engineers, programs developed under this concept have unsurprisingly experienced spectacularly large cost overruns and delays. For example, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), which provides early warning of missile launches, and had an estimated cost of $3.68 billion in 1995 dollars, will end up costing more than $10 billion in 2012 dollars.
Despite all the small scale changes that have been made, the essence of the McNamara procurement system has survived. Since experienced military officers have been removed from the system, the only people who now judge whether or not a weapon or a piece of equipment is ready to go into service are the Pentagon's lawyers, accountants, and political appointees.
As these lawyers, accountants and political appointees lack the judgment based on military experience that the uniformed servicemen and servicewoman have, they insist on unnecessary extensive design reviews and test procedures, which, although perhaps occasionally beneficial, add considerably to the price of any weapon or piece of equipment procured. Excessive, repetitive testing can not only add to the overall expense of the weapon or item being bought, but also mislead the Defense Department into thinking that an item is ready to go into service when its parts may have been tested repeatedly, but the whole weapon has not been properly tested -- a problem that recently occurred in the F-22 when the oxygen system for the pilot was found not to work properly with the pilot's flight vest.
Often a program is begun which is beyond today's technological state of the art. Sometimes this is due to excessive optimism --- but sometimes because the leaders of the Defense Department foresee the need for something and imagine that if they begin a new program, the military eventually will get what it needs. Sometimes this kind of gamble pays off, more often it fails.
The Army's RAH-66 Comanche reconnaissance and attack helicopter, for example, would have combined stealth with extremely advanced electronic sensors and communications systems. In the mid 1980's, when the program began, no one had ever tried to apply stealth technology to a helicopter. No one even knew if it could be done. While the Comanche fulfilled some of its promise, it failed to live up to all of its original requirements. So the RAH-66 was cancelled in 2004 after the Army had spent $6.9 billion on the program.
Had a soldier, rather than a politician, made the decision, the Comanche, if it had fulfilled 80 or 90 percent of its requirements, might have gone into production. Because it was cancelled, the Army had to keep its old light reconnaissance helicopters in service. The needs of the lawyers, accountants and political appointees were fulfilled, but the needs of the soldiers were not.
Today, control over all major military spending decisions remain exclusively in the hands of political appointees, and soldiers, sailors and airmen are left with the job of trying to defend their country and themselves with the inferior results of decisions made by politicians. Even worse, due to the long time frames involved in building today's extremely complex weapons, military officers may find themselves responsible for implementing programs which were devised by politicians who long ago disappeared from the scene.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for instance, which is now in the early stages of production and deployment, was designed to fulfill a requirement formulated by the aforementioned Les Aspin. If anyone ought to be held accountable for the cost overruns, delays and other problems with the program, it is he; but in1995, he died.
It was also Aspin, however, who brilliantly insisted that a single aircraft be designed for the Air Force, Navy and Marines and that it incorporate stealth technology, advanced electronics, and that the Navy version be aircraft carrier capable and the the Marine version be a "Jump Jet" with the ability to operate from extremely small carriers or short runways. He also insisted that the airplane be "affordable" and that international partners be brought into the development process.
Given this set of requirements it's a miracle that the F-35 can actually get off the ground, let alone the fact that it is probably the deadliest all around aircraft flying today. Of course the one thing that the F-35 is not, is cheap. Now, unfortunately, the F-35 is in danger either of being canceled or being purchased in ridiculously small numbers.
Similar results were obtained by the Air Force with both the B-2 bomber and the F-22 air superiority fighter. The USAF originally wanted more than 200 B-2 bombers to replace the B-52s and more than 700 F-22s to replace the F-15s. In the end, due to the high costs of both programs, the USAF got 21 B-2s and 187 F-22s.
Similar problems exist with almost every major Defense Department procurement program, the significant exception being the Navy's new anti-submarine warfare, reconnaissance and patrol aircraft, the P-8. One of the main reasons the P-8 program has not had the usual cost problems is that the plane itself is based on the Boeing 737 airliner which has been in production since the mid-1960s. Any problems with the airplane were solved long ago, and since the Navy and the Air Force have previously bought versions of the 737 for training and transport, the military was already familiar with the aircraft.
Another failed program is the Medium Air Defense System (MEADS), which started as a international US, German, and Italian program that aimed to develop and deploy a more advanced version of the Patriot anti-aircraft and missile defense weapon system. Even though MEADS uses the existing PAC 3 Patriot missile, the system's new radar and new command and control system turned out to be far more expensive and harder to develop than expected.
Both Germany and Italy were reluctant to go ahead with the program, but instead of figuring out a graceful way to unwind the program, the US unilaterally announced that it would not buy any systems for the US Army, even though the Defense Department would fulfill its obligations by spending more than $100 million to complete the development of the system.
Congress, of course, is having had a hard time understanding why so much money was going to be spent on something that would never be deployed. The House of Representatives has balked at appropriating the money needed to finish the development phase of the program. This has given Germany and Italy solid grounds on which to complain that the US is breaking the promises it made.
MEADS is a perfect illustration of the way the US procurement system combines the worst of our adversarial political and legal culture with a highly regulated, slow moving bureaucracy. Worse, it shows that promises the US Defense Department makes to foreign governments are worthless when weighed against the need to conform to the latest twists and turns of "inside the beltway" budget politics.
Designing, developing and building weapons systems which not only have to survive on the battlefield, and overcome enemy effort to neutralize them and kill the men and women operating them is never going to be either easy or cheap. Why then should US government regulations and procedures make it so hard for both the military and US industry to perform this essential task?
The role of industry lobbyists is also part of the political and legal complexity of the procurement system, but the power of the lobbyists grows directly out of the system's lack of direct military involvement. Experience has shown that active duty military officers, while not perfect by any means, are far less vulnerable to lobbyist influence than the executive branch or congressional civilians.
The case of Darleen Druyan, the Air Force Undersecretary who was caught taking illegal favors from Boeing for which bribe she served five months in jail in 2005, has, at least in recent decades never been matched by anything uniformed service members ever did. A corrupt civilian, it seems, can do far more harm to the military procurement system than servicemen, who is under far stricter supervision.
It is time to scrap the whole procurement system and return control of the purchase of weapons and equipment to the uniformed military. The armed services understand accountability, and they are the ones whose lives depend on the effectiveness of these systems. Perhaps the next administration should give the men and women in uniform a chance to show what they can do. After all, it is hard to imagine that they could make a worse mess of things than today's procurement bureaucracy has so thoroughly managed to do.