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Holding the Government Accountable

The Complexity Vortex

Unless it changes course, the Pentagon will spend itself into unilateral disarmament

There’s no doubt the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex has an obsession with whiz-bang gadgetry. Hardly a day passes without someone from the defense “intelligentsia” braying about the need for increased taxpayer investments so the United States can maintain its technological overmatch or create stronger partnerships with Silicon Valley to achieve a third offset strategy. These often sound like weighty concepts, worthy of the taxpayers’ money. In the end, however, they are little more than slick sales pitches. The Pentagon’s predilection for choosing needlessly complex and expensive weapons not only threatens to bankrupt the nation’s treasury, it also imperils the national defense by producing a diminishing and far more fragile military force.

The character of American military spending comports quite well with the law of diminishing returns.

The Project On Government Oversight first delved into this problem by publishing a report by retired Air Force Colonel Everest Riccioni titled, Is the Air Force Spending Itself into Unilateral Disarmament? in August 2001. He noted that the F-22, billed as a supersonic fighter capable of flying undetected deep into Soviet airspace to intercept nuclear bombers, had even then already fallen short of the lavish promises used to sell the program. He also predicted the program’s complexity would continue to drive up the costs to a point where the United States would never be able to afford the aircraft in the numbers originally envisioned. “The F-22 fleet initially was projected at 800 aircraft and a total cost of $40 billion. The idea of this fleet was that it would provide the air superiority previously guaranteed by 1600 fighters—400 F-15s and 1200 F-16s, all of which were acknowledged to be wearing out,” he wrote. The lessons and recommendations detailed in the report were soon eclipsed by the September 11 attacks and the subsequent War on Terror. While Colonel Riccioni’s work focused on the Air Force, his basic thesis can be applied across all the services. The character of American military spending comports quite well with the law of diminishing returns. We keep spending more and more on the military and get less and less in return. Nearly two decades of constant war have served only to exacerbate many of these problems, and the United States is, if anything, in an even worse position today.

F-22 cost history
(Source: POGO Report: Is the Air Force Spending Itself into Unilateral Disarmament?)

Colonel Riccioni’s predictions turned out to be prophetic, especially in the case of the F-22. Designed to be a replacement for the F-15 air superiority fighter, the Air Force originally planned to purchase 648 F-22s at a program acquisition unit cost of $133.6 million each. The F-15 program had ultimately delivered more than 1,100 aircraft of all variants to the Air Force. Even from the initial planning stages of the F-22 program, the fleet of air superiority fighters began to shrink. Development costs quickly began their inevitable climb because Air Force leaders and contractors sold the program to Congress by overstating the ease of the development process and underestimating the expected costs. This prompted officials to slash the planned production figures in an attempt to offset the rising costs. First came the Bottom-Up Review in 1993, when the planned fleet shrank to 442. Next came the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, when officials slashed planned production to 339. In the end, F-22 production totaled just 187 aircraft at an average cost of $350 million each. When the costs for the 10 separate F-22 upgrade programs (read: programs to complete the development that should have happened in the original program) are divided across the fleet, the cost of each rises to over $377 million.

It is easy to see why government officials became so nervous about the costs. In 2001, the Congressional Budget Office anticipated the Air Force would only be able to afford 100 to 175 F-22s and predicted the cost of each would balloon to $350 million a full 10 years before that nearly exact estimate became manifest. Using that information, Colonel Riccioni created a chart showing the cost history of the F-22. He listed the $200 million per aircraft cost threshold that the program was at the time about to breach as “OBSCENE,” with $300 million as “INSANE."

The architects of the F-35 program did learn some lessons from their F-22 experience, even if they were the wrong lessons from an effectiveness and affordability standpoint.

Only time will tell what will take place with the F-35 program, but there are gathering storm clouds that suggest it could suffer a similar fate. The spiraling costs to maintain the F-35 have already prompted Air Force leaders to consider cutting the planned production run by a third. The service currently expects to buy 1,763 F-35s but may end up cutting 590 because leaders are unsure of their ability to operate and maintain the originally planned fleet.

The architects of the F-35 program did learn some lessons from their F-22 experience, even if they were the wrong lessons from an effectiveness and affordability standpoint. Program leaders are working to buy as many F-35s as possible before anyone has an opportunity to cut short production as then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates did with the F-22 program. At the current rate, the taxpayers will be on the hook for upwards of 600 F-35s before the design can be proven effective through realistic combat testing.

Techno-Centric Warfare Increases Costs but Not Effectiveness

At the very root of this problem is the U.S. military’s techno-centric approach to warfare. This is based on the assumption that victory in warfare can be achieved only when one side in a conflict possesses more technologically advanced weapons than the other side. This is an incorrect assumption. The ideas a force wields in battle matter far more than any other factor. Weapons are simply tools used to implement tactics, which ultimately achieve the operational and strategic goals. Our military needs quality tools to be successful, but it is important to understand what actually constitutes quality in a weapon system. Conventional wisdom holds that the more complex a weapon is, the higher its quality is. This is the view the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex (MICC) continually pushes when in reality, simpler systems are almost always more effective.

Complex weapons serve the MICC’s interests well. They require numerous subcontracts, which satisfy Congressional interests, as they can be spread into districts all across the country. The representatives of these districts can then campaign on the number of jobs they “created.”

Complex weapons also require a great deal of time to develop. The defense contractors like this because it allows them to milk the development process for profits as long as possible, particularly in a cost-plus contract. They can confidently run up expenses knowing that the government will eventually reimburse them. For example, costs for the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier have increased by at least 22 percent, from $10.5 billion to $12.9 billion. The program just recently breached this $12.9 billion figure by $120 million to repair the ship’s propulsion system and correct design deficiencies on its weapons elevators.

The Services, or rather, the Services’ senior leaders, like complex weapons because they help justify larger budgets. And by convincing Congress to authorize the purchase of these systems, military officials help funnel taxpayer money into the coffers of their future employers in the defense industry.

The losers in this arrangement are obviously the taxpayers, who continually pay more and more while receiving a smaller and less capable military force for their money, and the people who have to take these systems into battle. The impact on the men and women actually doing the fighting is of great importance.

Many dismiss the diminishing number of weapons as not mattering since technology makes up the difference. The character of warfare has certainly changed in the years since World War II. Then, massive military forces were needed to confront other state-controlled military forces. With the advent of nuclear weapons, conflicts of a similar scale are unlikely to occur again. But this does not mean that numbers no longer matter in warfare. The United States needs to have a force large enough to meet its national security priorities and commitments. Having a smaller force puts a greater strain on the people and machines that remain. The Navy inadvertently staged a demonstration of this phenomenon in 2017 with a series of deadly incidents in the Pacific. Seven sailors died when the destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan in June. Ten sailors died two months later when the USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker in the Straits of Malacca. These incidents occurred in part because the 7th Fleet, with its current complement of personnel and ships, had difficulty meeting all of its assigned missions, according to a Navy review.

The authors of the Air Force’s Air Superiority 2030 report also acknowledged this problem and at least verbalized the need to pursue low-cost systems in order to be able to field larger forces. Only time will tell if any defense officials, civilian or military, actually act on this.

The Simplicity Virtue Versus the Complexity Vortex

C-17 controls
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Bryan Segrist, 452nd Maintenance Squadron, checks post flight controls on a C-17 Globemaster III. (Photo: U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Caroline Hayworth)

As a general rule, weapons should be of the simplest possible design while meeting the needs of their intended use. This serves several functions. First, it has a quantitative effect: it keeps the costs under control, which means they can be purchased in numbers large enough to be useful on the battlefield. The more complex a weapon system is, the longer it takes to educate and train troops to operate the weapon. Unit training suffers as well because the force spends an inordinate amount of time on basic maintenance rather than going out and training to use the weapon in the field. And the effects of complexity are cumulative: every extra component added to a weapon system is one more potential failure point. This increases the maintenance burden and increases the chances that the weapon will not be available when it is needed most.

Murphy’s Law looms large in all military operations. The author experienced this numerous times while serving in the Marine Corps. As fearsome as main battle tanks are, they are notorious for breaking down. Every time a tank breaks down in the field, operations are disrupted. Depending on the circumstances and the logistics plan, the effects of these breakdowns can be overcome, but the tempo of the mission will be disrupted and battlefield opportunities, which are always fleeting, can be missed. With this elemental knowledge in place, Service leaders signing off on a new weapon system should opt for the simplest possible designs to minimize potential maintenance problems to greatest extent possible. Doing so will provide Murphy with far fewer opportunities to wreak havoc.

The F-35 provides another excellent example of excess complexity creating debilitating maintenance burdens. Due in large part to the overall complexity of the system, the F-35 had an abysmal 26 percent average fully mission-capable rate in 2017. That means that at any given time, only a quarter of the fleet could be expected to perform all the tasks the F-35 has been designed to perform. There haven’t been many signs of improvement. The availability rates of the F-35 have remained relatively unchanged for the past four years. This complexity vortex actually magnifies the effects of unilateral disarmament. As the complexity of weapon systems increases, costs skyrocket and we can afford to buy fewer and fewer of them. At the same time, the increased complexity makes them more difficult to maintain, so the available fleet shrinks even more. The MICC has trapped itself in a vicious circle of the highest order.

Complexity Vortex Case Studies

Colonel Riccioni’s work in 2001 focused exclusively on aircraft and aerial weapons. But the problem of spiraling costs causing a shrinking force is not confined to military aviation. This is a systemic problem across the elements and Services. Here is a sampling of new weapons programs with a cost comparison to the system they are intended to replace. The dollar amounts have been adjusted to 2018 figures for comparison’s sake.

The USS Gerald R. Ford Aircraft Carrier

USS Ford repairman
A fire controlman aboard the pre-commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) installs a pump in the Dual Band Radar cooling system during routine maintenance. (Photo: U.S. Navy / Electronics Technician 3rd Class Elisa Grauberger)

The USS Ford is the first of the Navy’s newest class of super carriers to replace the older Nimitz-class ships. Its function remains exactly the same as the current ships, but Navy and Pentagon leaders decided to add more than a dozen new technologies, including an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and Advanced Arresting Gear to perform the basic function of an aircraft carrier: launch and recover aircraft. Navy leaders promised the new design would reduce acquisition and life-cycle costs. So far, the Ford has cost at least $12.9 billion, $2.4 billion over the originally estimated price tag. The last of the Nimitz-class ships, the USS George H. W. Bush, would cost $7.33 billion today. That is a 76 percent increase for the exact same-sized fleet that does exactly the same thing.

While new ship designs are expected to have some teething problems, the USS Ford has already developed a reputation for being more delicate than its predecessor. The ship’s new electrical aircraft catapult, EMALS, is an example of this. Previous aircraft carriers used steam-powered catapult systems. These needed a larger crew to operate and required miles of piping to move the steam generated by the ship’s reactors, but they have also been proven reliable and robust through the years. The previous system also has a great advantage over the EMALS: crews can repair them without disrupting flight operations for the entire ship. The EMALS requires a massive electrical charge to operate, enough to power 12,000 homes. If one of the Ford’s four catapults breaks down, crews can’t perform maintenance on one catapult without shutting down the rest because the ship’s designers did not include a way to electrically isolate them individually.

This might not seem like a serious flaw, but it is, because the individual catapults have so far demonstrated poor reliability. As of 2017, EMALS has a demonstrated reliability rate nearly 10 times worse than the contracted specifications. Testing officials have reported that because of this, the USS Ford has only a 9 percent chance of completing a four-day surge, which would be expected at the beginning of a war, without a major disruption.

CH-53 Heavy-Lift Helicopters

Marines perform maintenance on a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island. (Photo: U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Alan Gragg)

The Marine Corps is currently upgrading its fleet of CH-53 heavy-lift helicopters. The CH-53 has gone through several versions since it first entered service in the 1960s. The Marine Corps currently operates the CH-53E “Super Stallion.” These helicopters would each cost approximately $41 million today. The Marine Corps plans to replace CH-53Es, of which 172 were originally purchased, with 200 CH-53K “King Stallions,” according to the latest plans. This new version is capable of lifting nearly three times the weight its predecessor can. But as should be expected, this capability comes at three times the cost. Each CH-53K costs $131 million. If the Marine Corps actually purchases all 200 CH-53Ks, the fleet will increase by 16 percent, but it will cost 219 percent more to do so.

The sheer expense of each helicopter creates an efficacy problem for the entire program. Since the Korean War, helicopters have been used by the military to insert troops close to their objectives, deliver supplies, evacuate casualties, and attack targets. Military commanders carefully consider how and when they employ all forces, but they become even more cautious as the price tag of the weapon systems involved increases. The author witnessed this firsthand in Afghanistan when commanders were considering the use of $41 million CH-53Es. Lucrative targets for raids were dismissed in favor of less-valuable targets because commanders were unwilling to take the chance that some of the helicopters used to insert forces would be hit by ground fire. It is not hard to imagine how much less willing they might be to accept responsibility for placing a $131 million CH-53K in a situation where it might be shot down. If a system is too expensive to lose, then it becomes too expensive to use. In that case, the reasonable person would be correct in questioning why the Pentagon bothered with the program in the first place.

Zumwalt-Class Destroyers

Zumwalt crew
Pre-commissioning crew of the future USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) train to use the common display system console and engineering control system screen navigation (Photo: U.S. Navy / Joseph Battista)

The Navy’s Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer program suffered massive cost overruns, which resulted in its curtailment. The original plans called for the construction of 32 ships, but, in another example of the shrinking force, only 3 will actually be produced. The Zumwalts were meant to replace the Arleigh Burke-class ships, of which 65 are still active, with another 9 yet to be added to the fleet, for a total of 77. An Arleigh Burke-class ship costs approximately $1.76 billion. Each Zumwalt-class ship costs approximately $7.5 billion. That is a 326 percent increase in cost per ship, for 96 percent fewer destroyers.

Little information exists about the potential fragility of the Zumwalt design because the ship can’t actually do anything at this point. The ship’s designers originally intended to use it to strike targets onshore with a futuristic advanced gun system. Officials shelved this idea shortly after it emerged that the Long Range Land-Attack Projectiles cost $800,000 apiece.


Colonel Riccioni provided lists of the causes of and solutions to the unilateral disarmament problem. Most are just as valid today as they were 17 years ago. Chief among them are that Department of Defense leadership misrepresents facts to a credulous Congress, and that the contractors that are best able to overstate what they can deliver and understate the expected costs get rewarded when their bid wins. And this entire process is enabled by what Colonel Riccioni called the “Iron Triangle”—the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex. These three actors are intended to be checks and balances on one another, but instead collude for their own benefit, with the American taxpayers and troops suffering the consequences.

The problem is not rooted in a lack of understanding by those in power. At the 2010 Acquisition Community Symposium, Frank Kendall, then-Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, delivered a briefing in which he echoed many of the concerns Colonel Riccioni raised nine years earlier. Most telling, he included a list of behaviors that contribute to inefficiency in the acquisitions process. These include setting unrealistic goals for programs, creating “optimistic” delivery schedules, and “rewarding high risk bidding practices.” He told the gathering of officials that these behaviors could be changed.

The question remains whether anyone will actually take the necessary steps to correct any of these bad practices. If the current process remains unchanged, within a generation the United States military will consume $2 trillion a year but will not be able to do much because the few weapons that are purchased will be too precious to place in harm’s way. That last point will probably be academic because the one fighter plane we could afford will be down for maintenance anyway.