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Holding the Government Accountable

Watching the Defense Department’s Waste Line

Why does the Pentagon develop so many weapons that it never builds?
The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Zumwalt pulls into San Diego. Originally part of a 32-ship fleet, the Navy ended up killing the program after buying only three, sending the price per ship from $1.5 billion to $7.5 billion. (Photo: Emiline L. M. Sen / US Navy)

Pentagon-procurement wags like to say there are only two stages in how a new weapon being built for the U.S. military is faring: too early to tell, and too late to cancel.

There’s a grain of truth in that (cf. the F-35 fighter, the most costly weapon in world history), but, as usual, it’s not the whole story. Too often we spend billions of dollars on developing weapons only to see them canceled, after little or no production. That rarely happens for a lack of performance, which the Pentagon will reliably state can be fixed with just a little more money. Which leads to the real reason most programs are killed: a lack of cash.

Not to put too fine an edge on it, but the Pentagon often reminds me of a drug addict, always seeking its next speedball fix. Not the troops on the front line, mind you, but the civilian and military weenies who are forever planning and developing weapons, sometimes dubious, the nation will never be able to afford.

When it comes to buying weapons, there are two kinds of waste: the premium U.S. taxpayers fork over for every weapon bought under the Defense Department’s sclerotic and irrational arms-buying process, and then what’s spent, wasteful or not, for those never fielded. Yes, there are some technological spinoffs achieved from never-produced arms, but that’s kind of like boasting about the improved masonry skills the East Germans got by building the Berlin Wall.

Let’s tackle that second wasteline here. Because if we have to pay what amounts to a tax on every weapon we actually field, it’s vital to ensure we don’t pump money into weapons that are going to be scrapped before ever making it to the battlefield.

The Pentagon often reminds me of a drug addict, always seeking its next speedball fix.

Generally, the Pentagon is as optimistic that its future funding will rise as it was about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq being short. Part of the brilliance of American technology is that fervor for the next big thing (nuclear weapons, anyone?), and that is a trait we want to encourage.

But there needs to be a governor on military procurement, lashed to historic budget realities, instead of the Pentagon procurement pipe dreams. Monetary mirages persist despite repeated claims that the uniformed troops’ civilian overseers have scrubbed the services’ wish lists clean of like-to-haves instead of must-haves.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney famously killed the Navy’s A-12 attack plane in 1991. He vainly tried to kill the Marines V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft, but the corps and its congressional cohort kept the thing on life support until Cheney and his boss, the first President Bush, changed their minds about the program as part of a failed porkfest to win re-election in 1992.

I can remember watching the Army’s fledgling Crusader howitzer program (“America’s Army: Always Naming Weapons to Be Used in the Middle East With a Tin Ear”) down at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona in 2000. The desert shuddered as it hurled fire extinguisher-size artillery rounds farther and faster than ever before. The Pentagon had declared it an "Essential Science and Technologies/Leap-Ahead Technologies" system. Yea, right.

“Now under development, the Crusader is the world's most fearsome mobile howitzer. It is also among the costliest and heaviest ever built,” I reported, its already cut-in-half program still carrying an $11 billion price tag. “While the Crusader won't be ready for action until at least 2008, the kind of war it was meant to fight is already obsolete.” Sixteen months later Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld agreed, and killed the program. “This decision is not about any one weapon system, but merely about a strategy of warfare—a strategy that drives the choices that we must make about how best to prepare our total forces for the future," Rumsfeld said. A Crusader prototype now is on display at the Fort Sill Field Artillery Museum.

Millions in Crusader funding was diverted to the Army’s Future Combat Systems (plural for the FCS’s eight different vehicles, as is the Army’s wont). With a price tag as high as $200 billion, the program could use every penny it could find. But in 2009, Defense Secretary Bob Gates killed the FCS, using words echoing Rumsfeld’s justification for scrapping the Crusader. “I have concluded that there are significant unanswered questions concerning the FCS vehicle design strategy,” Gates said. “I am also concerned that, despite some adjustments, the FCS vehicles—where lower weight, higher fuel efficiency, and greater informational awareness are expected to compensate for less armor—do not adequately reflect the lessons of counterinsurgency and close-quarters combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

With cheap roadside bombs killing more U.S. troops there than any other kind of enemy weapon, Gates pushed to buy 24,000 Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles for nearly $50 billion despite Pentagon foot-dragging. Many MRAPs have been scrapped, while others have been given to local police departments across the U.S.

In addition to the FCS ($20.7 billion down the drain), other big programs killed since I arrived at the Pentagon in 1979 have included the Comanche attack chopper ($9.8 billion), and the Air Force’s YAL-1 Airborne Laser, crammed into a 747 designed to shoot down enemy missiles shortly after their launch. “Right now the ABL would have to orbit inside the borders of Iran in order to be able to try and use its laser to shoot down that missile in the boost phase,” Gates complained when he grounded it for good in 2009 after a $5 billion investment. “There's nobody in uniform that I know who believes that this is a workable concept.”

Two years later, Gates also terminated the Marines Expeditionary Fight Vehicle—basically a swimming tank—with extreme prejudice after spending $3 billion on it. “If fully executed, the EFV–which costs far more to operate and maintain than its predecessor–would essentially swallow the entire Marine vehicle budget and most of its total procurement budget for the foreseeable future,” Gates said. Cheney killed the A-12 after the Navy spent $5 billion on it. But that’s small potatoes compared to the sea service’s new destroyer. The Navy said back in 1999 that it would buy 32 DDG-1000s for $46 billion, less than $1.5 billion a pop. But after cost growth put the program into a death spiral (the buy was cut to 24, and then to seven), the Navy ended up buying only three of them—for an eyewatering $7.5 billion each—before it was put out of its misery in 2009.

This isn’t a new problem: Erik Simonsen wrote a book called Project Terminated in 2013 that focused on the carcasses of the Pentagon’s Cold War aircraft programs that never flew.

Here’s the key to ending this waste. Last year, Todd Harrison, the defense-budget dweeb at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, published an interesting chart:

Pentagon pipe dreams.
Pentagon pipe dreams. The dotted lines indicate the future funding the Defense Department was betting on getting. The solid line shows what it actually got. (Source: CSIS)

It’s a tad complicated, but it shows the Pentagon’s annual optimism overdose when it presents its annual budget request to Congress for the coming year, and the four years after that. They call it the Future Years Defense Plan, or FYDP (pronounced FID-dip). What’s notable about the chart is how the Pentagon’s estimate of its budget growth over the coming five years (those dotted lines aiming to the high heavens on Harrison’s chart) generally falls far short of the money it actually got (that’s the flatter, more realistic, solid line).

“Senior leaders in the Department of Defense keep thinking things will surely turn around in a couple of years, so they plan for higher budgets,” Harrison said last week. “And then fiscal pressures end up pushing the budget down.” Back in 2011, for example, the Pentagon was developing weapons as if it were going to have a $641 billion budget in 2015—18 percent more than it actually got that year. When you have to jettison nearly two dimes out of every dollar, lots of programs are going to have to be killed.

When J. Michael Gilmore was the Pentagon’s top weapons tester in 2011, he called the Defense Department “the Department of Wishful Thinking.” That’s why Pentagon budget forecasts have “traditionally been a lagging indicator of the budget’s trajectory, particularly during drawdown,” Harrison said in his report. After President Reagan’s defense buildup began shrinking in 1986, it took the Pentagon a full six years—an eternity in Washington—to reflect declining budgets in its future spending projections.

It happened again after 9/11. That’s when the Pentagon had a cash gusher that allowed it to launch too many high-tech programs that would never fit into future budgets. “Pentagon leadership prepared for the future by putting far too much stock in rosy notions of transformation and technological relief that mistook changes in the character of warfare for a shift in the nature of war,” Mackenize Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute said in a report earlier this month. “In some cases, this led to cost overruns and schedule slips in major weapons acquisition programs, rendering them easy targets for future cancelation.”

According to a recent report, the Pentagon killed 28 weapons programs after spending $75 billion on them in the decade following 9/11.
According to a recent report, the Pentagon killed 28 weapons programs after spending $75 billion on them in the decade following 9/11. (Source: AEI)

Whether its warplanes or interstate highways, there’s a human tendency that favors buying new over maintaining old. A 2011 Pentagon report faulted the uniformed military services responsible for this sad state of affairs.

The Pentagon’s top civilians “sought to mitigate this problem—and hence lower weapon systems costs—by encouraging the services to prioritize their major programs, cancel marginal ones before they grew too large to stop, and restrict the number of new program starts still on the drawing board,” J. Ronald Fox wrote in the authorized Pentagon read called Defense Acquisition Reform, 1960–2009: An Elusive Goal. “The services, however, opposed this strategy, because, in their view, it required trade-offs that reduced managerial control and operational flexibility in their own backyards and reduced the number of acquisition programs under way.”

Did you catch that? You have now entered the Pentagon’s hall of mirrors. The services opposed killing weapons because that “reduced the number of acquisition programs underway”? Sure enough, that’s what happens when you order programs scrapped.

“Rather than cut programs outright,” Fox added, “the Army, Navy, and Air Force favored maintaining the same number of programs but proceeding at a lower rate, increasing unit cost, and placing much of the blame for structural problems in the weapons acquisition process on [Pentagon civilians] and Congress.” So much for civilian control of the military. (Of course, Fox has served as a Pentagon civilian, so you might have to take his assessment with a grain of salt).

In any event, as Eaglen says, spending $75 billion for unfielded weapons in the decade after 9/11 is a terrible way to spend taxpayer bucks.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that by killing those 28 weapons systems, taxpayers pocketed $371 billion in savings not spent on hardware the Pentagon deemed vital to national security not so long ago.