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Sorry, I Forgot to Mention Contractors Yesterday

Yesterday, I compared the Central Asia Institute to the federal government in terms of waste. That’s not really fair is it? I mean we all know the government wastes money. What we really need to do is show how effective and efficient the private sector is when it comes to spending money.

So how does a private organization--say Lockheed Martin--compare to Central Asia Institute in terms of spending the money the U.S. government has donated to it? Take, for example, the Joint Strike Fighter.

The per unit cost of each Joint Strike fighter has gone from an initial bid price of 50 million dollars per unit to 74 million dollars, in 2002 adjusted terms. To put that in perspective, Lockheed Martin said in 2002 they could build Joint Strike Fighters for 50 million dollars per plane, but were off by the annual budget of the CAI. Per plane. Oh, and the initial production date of 2010 was pushed back to 2015. (That’s as if the CAI had wasted millions of dollars, but said they still didn’t plan on wasting the money for five more years.)

In response, former Secretary of Defense Gates withheld 614 million dollars in bonuses from Lockheed Martin; or about 12 times the amount the CAI has ever earned in donations. The Economist’s reporting did a pretty good job illuminating the Joint Strike Fighter’s failures. (Technically, Congressional Quarterly Weekly did the ground breaking, but they're owned by same company.)

All of which begs the question, has it been a wise use of funds? According to Stars and Stripes (which had some pretty good coverage too):

“Meanwhile, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is on Capitol Hill’s radar after a CQ Weekly cover story hit every member of Congress’ office, blasting the program as the most expensive weapons project in history, way over budget and overdue. Get your hands on a copy to read how each administration has passed the blame, and how an unworkable helmet targeting system planned for JSF pilots could scuttle the entire project.”

And the Joint Strike Fighter will keep on costing. Lockheed now predicts that the plane will cost the Pentagon a trillion--with a T, trillion--dollars over the course of its lifetime. As an added bonus, according to The Wall Street Journal, Chinese computer spies might have hacked into terabytes of data about it. Recently, both the Joint Strike Fighter and the F-22 Raptor have been grounded to mechanical problems. In other words, we have spent billions on two new fighter planes, neither of which works.

While milbloggers and security wonks anxiously await the impending cuts to defense that will “ruin our national security” (insert your own link here), the Joint Strike Fighter reminds us that maybe the Pentagon isn’t that good at saving taxpayer money. The Joint Strike Fighter isn’t the only example, just the latest. Remember the Future Combat System?

And ballistic missile defense? And untested body armor?

And the Littoral Combat Ship?

And the Comanche? And the Crusader?

And the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle? And the V-22 Osprey?

And the Coast Guard’s “Deepwater” modernization program? And Homeland Security/the Border Patrol’s fence “Secure Border Initiative Network”?.

We’ll learn. Someday. Maybe. Hopefully.

seven comments

However, let’s keep some things in perspective. Whenever we deal with experimental technology, we have to accept that some projects will fail. And some will have very lackluster debuts (The P-51B model was a shell of the fighter the legendary P-51D would become). Some projects fail for purely bureaucratic reasons, because the threat changed, or perhaps for reasons not related to their underlying technology (read up on the AH-56 Cheyenne).

And in some cases, technology from a failed project (say, Comanche) can be used in another project (e.g., Stealth Black Hawks).

I agree with those points, and that military innovation often has immense public benefits—GPS, computing, the internet.

However, the WWII analogy provides an apt metaphor, but different than the P-51B/D. Instead, I think of the German Tiger tank versus the American tanks. The Tiger was expensive, huge, complex, and costly. The American tanks were the opposite, and we basically out produced them.

With current U.S. tech, I see the same thing. Any adversaries we do have, will either out build us, or defeat our expensive tech with low cost missiles.

I have more to say on the Army’s/military’s budget process but it boils down to this: we take way too long to bring things from development to production. The Air Force is already preparing for their next gen fighter in 2030. Too long. It will go over budget, it will probably be too complex, and it will not live up to expectations. We should make all new equipment go from development to fielding in five years, maximum. If not less.

Second, looking back on the history of U.S. weapons development, and I need to do more research, in the last 25 years, exactly what success has the military had? I mean, I scratch my head looking for a plane/vehicle/ship that took decades to build, and when they finally emerge they are costly, underperforming machines that are—especially in the case of flying vehicles—hangar queens. They all are notorious hangar queens.

What about the French’s watse of money on the Maginot Line? By betting it all on an old style of warfare, they blew it.

You may be saying, well, we need to adapt to the new war. But I’m not convinced the next war will be fought by fighter planes and stealth bombers. I think it will be more COIN. At the very least, put more money into that.

The F-22 reminds me of that movie the Pentagon Wars and the creation of the Bradley fighting vehicle. The spent millions trying to make it amphibious. How much was spent giving the newest version of the F-22 hover capability? You want to know the worst part? Now no one can challenge our air superiority which means no Top Gun sequel or Iron Eagle remakes.

Why do you refuse to give Stealth its due as a fighter movie?

When I get more time, I’ll address the “A lot of the good enough stuff as opposed to the gold-plated stuff” narrative (re: the US and Germany). It’s a little more complex than the oft-stated comment, though you are on to something.

It also disturbs me that the military lobbies Hollywood to place high-dollar defense items in movies (F-22 in Transformers, for example). I wouldn’t be surprised if the LCS appears in “Battleship”.

That’s why I have avoided writing a post on Gold Plated versus good enough” and the Tiger tanks. I haven’t studied the issue. What I know, I know because of anecdotes, and On V doesn’t like relying on anecdotes.

I do know, though, that the system we have, and since about the mid-1980s, is unsustainable. Our continued economic growth and lack of “shooting wars” has hidden that fact. The record of failures, or at least 100+ million dollar cost overruns and delayed time scales, should be a good sign the Pentagon needs to change.

I don’t understand why we don’t see what plane we can build in five years. Tops, five years, best plane we can have, in production, in five years. Then five years from that, a new plane. Is that unreasonable?