The Bunker: Why Pentagon Procurement Putrefies

This week in The Bunker: Independent U.S. government experts reveal bad news about two major Pentagon programs. They highlight a big problem when it comes to getting more bang for the buck: the Military-Insular Complex; and more. 

The Bunker logo, done in military stencil, in front of the Pentagon building

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This week in The Bunker: Independent U.S. government experts reveal bad news about two major Pentagon programs. They highlight a big problem when it comes to getting more bang for the buck: the Military-Insular Complex; and more.


Over-promising and under-delivering

“I’m getting tired of over-promising and under-delivering,” the three-star Air Force general running the F-35 program said April 16. He was speaking only about his $2 trilliontrillion! — program, the most costly weapon system in the history of the planet. But it was refreshing to hear someone on the inside say it for a change. Yet what about U.S. taxpayers, who have been over-promised and under-delivered all kinds of military hardware ever since The Bunker first set foot inside the Pentagon more than 45 years ago? There’s only a handful of weapons that would rate a Consumer Reports’ “Smart Buy” recommendation, including the Air Force’s F-16 fighter, the Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and the Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. What’s at the root of the rot among the rest?

A recent double-barreled blast blew holes in the limping F-35 program, as well as a yet-to-be-built class of Navy landing ships. We’re going to examine those pus-filled wounds this week, and — more importantly — highlight the insidious infection ravaging Pentagon procurement.


More F-35 turbulence

You might think the Pentagon is buying Lockheed’s F-35 fighter for possible wars with China, Iran and/or Russia. After all, its latest price tag — $442 billion for 2,470 aircraft, and $1.58 trillion to keep them flying through 2088 — suggests it’s primed to fight and win. But those are only possible wars. There are three real wars the F-35 is actually now waging: a “War on Readiness” (its ability to fly falls far short of the Pentagon’s goal [PDF]), a “War on Cost” (it costs far too much to buy and fly [PDF]), and a “War on Cyber” (the Pentagon thinks it’s too vulnerable to cyber attack [PDF]).

These and other woes frustrate Air Force Lieutenant General Mike Schmidt, the F-35 program manager. “I’m getting tired of over-promising and under-delivering,” he told a House Armed Services subcommittee. “I need to change that narrative.” He’s got his work cut out for him, based on his own April 16 testimony(PDF) and a Government Accountability Office report released a day earlier:

  • Only 1 in 3 Air Force F-35 fighters were fully mission capable last year; the Marines and Navy could muster fewer than 1 in 5, the GAO says. Even as the plane’s cost rises, “DOD plans to fly the F-35 less than originally estimated, partly because of reliability issues with the aircraft,” the GAO adds. In 2020, the Pentagon estimated F-35s would be flying 382,376 hours per year by the mid-2030s; now the estimate is 300,524 hours, a reduction of 21%.
  • The F-35 is making progress on hitting its per-plane annual flying cost “due in part to the reduction in planned flight hours, and because the Air Force increased the amount of money it projects it can afford to spend,” the GAO says.
  • The F-35 program office “does not generally consider risk and uncertainty in its sustainment estimate for the program,” the GAO says. That’s one reason why “sustainment cost estimates have increased 44%, from about $1.1 trillion in 2018 to about $1.58 trillion in 2023,” it adds (plus, the Pentagon has extended its operating life from 2077 to 2088).
  • The Pentagon has ignored 30 of the 43 recommendations made by the GAO to improve the F-35 program since 2014 — about 70%.
  • A major F-35 upgrade has been delayed by what Schmidt calls problems with “technical complexity, software efficiency, human and financial resourcing, flight test capacity, lab quality and capacity, and lack of defined requirements.” While the Pentagon stopped accepting new F-35s last summer because they lack the upgrade, Schmidt said they may begin accepting partly-upgraded ones in hopes of “decreasing the time that F-35s are parked in long term storage.”
  • That cut-rate “reimagined” upgrade “must consist of what industry can actually deliver,” Schmidt said.

Hey, this program is 22 years old. Why start now?


Rough seas for a new Navy ship

While the F-35 may be two decades old, the Navy’s new Medium Landing Ship, designed to put Marine units ashore, is brand new. But whatever lessons the F-35 may have taught the Pentagon, they apparently haven’t been shared with its ship-builders, according to an April 11 report from the Congressional Budget Office.

“CBO estimates that construction of 18 medium landing ships would cost between $6.2 billion and $7.8 billion,” it says. “CBO’s estimates range from two to roughly three times the Navy’s current estimates.” Of course, there are lots of variables at the start of any program when five companies(PDF) are vying to build it. But CBO projects the cost of future naval ships by comparing them, on a per-pound basis, with those built before. The Navy, on the other hand, is notorious for estimating weapons costs on a best-case, fingers-crossed, basis.


Chalk it up to the Military-Insular Complex

When it comes to ship-building, the Navy engages in a lot of navel-gazing — contemplation of one’s skills that lacks bracing outside perspectives (as do the other services). Daniel Kahneman, who shared a 2002 Nobel Prize in economic science, dubbed this tendency the “planning fallacy.” A planning fallacy requires two things: the planner(s) believe that the best case is the most likely outcome, and they ignore the history of prior, similar endeavors.

“Most people overrate their own abilities and exaggerate their capacity to shape the future,” David Brooks wrote of Kahneman’s insight in 2011. “The problem comes when these optimists don’t look at themselves objectively from the outside.” That is why Pentagon procurement is perpetually botched up, pureeing dollops of Industrial Age shibboleths with gobs of threat inflation and scoops of optimism. We end up with the world’s most costly military that can’t defeat ragtag insurgents. If the U.S. military were more honest with itself when launching new programs, it wouldn’t have agencies like the GAO and CBO coming down on them “objectively from the outside” like a ton of bricks.

Unfortunately, the Defense Department has been ignoring their concerns for decades. And Dan Kahneman, who identified the problem nearly 50 years ago, died last month.


Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently

Sky high

Global military spending reached a record $2.4 trillion in 2023, up 6.8% from the year before, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported April 22.

A taxing question…

Colonel Patrick Sullivan, director of the Modern War Institute at West Point, asked April 15 (Tax Day!) why audits are far more punitive for U.S. taxpayers than they are for the Defense Department.

Fewer atheists in foxholes

U.S. men drafted into the Vietnam War “are at least 20% more likely to have religious gravestones” than those of the same age who weren’t, researchers said in an April 17 paper published by the University of Maryland. “War-time military service,” they concluded, “induces religiosity.”

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