Saturday, January 21, 2012

Taking on the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex

Albert Einstein once noted that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.  If this definition is in fact true, then count the procurement of military fighter aircraft as insane.

When I was a wide-eyed and optimistic college senior, my honors thesis compared the procurement process of the F-22 Raptor with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  I was naive enough to believe the latter would be better conducted than the former.  My beliefs were rooted in nothing more than vague government studies littered with various "data" and Lockheed promises of keeping on schedule and timeline.

Looking through this paper is rather amusing in 2012, particularly the JSF timeline, as outlined by the Government Accountability Office in 2004:
2008: First Operational Aircraft Delivered to USAF and USMC
2010: Navy receives first delivery of aircraft carrier capable JSF's
As those of us in aviation know, these dates have come and past, and still there is no firm promise as to when our new planes will be delivered.  The best estimate is 2016 for the Navy and 2015 for the USAF.  The Marine Corps Short Take-Off, Vertical Lift (STOVL) version may never actually be procured.  Appallingly, the carrier version of the JSF suffers from a rather significant engineering oversight:  the thing can't actually land on an aircraft carrier.   And despite the Marine Corps touting the ability for the STOVL version to operate from austere locations, they ignore the fact that stealth material doesn't hold up well in sandstorms (or even rain for that matter). 

I'm too sexy for...actual combat.
The projected flyaway cost in 2001 for the JSF was $69 million per aircraft.  This number is now $133 million -- and if you include the research and development costs, $156 million.  A doubling in one decade.  Furthermore, in 2004, over 2,900 planes were to be purchased -- the number has now declined to just a tad over 2,400.

This pretty much mirrors the F-22 Raptor glideslope.  Initially conceived of in April 1991, the program called for 880 planes being built at a cost of $45 million each.  By the end of its production run in 2009, only 187 had actually been built, at a per unit cost of $411 million. And according to the acolytes of John Boyd (the father of modern fighter tactics and design), a platform that failed to meet its ambitious promise. 

Fighter procurement was nicely summed up by Norman Augustine, the former chairman of Martin Marietta when he outlined his 16th law:
In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. The aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy three and a half days each per week, except for the leap year, when it will be made available to the Marine Corps for the extra day.
Hyperbole to be sure, but sadly, derived from the trendline in decreasing overall acquisition numbers and rapidly increasing per unit cost. 

It would be nice if these over-promised, under-delivered platforms were relegated to aviation.  Alas, ship building (Littoral Combat Ship), Army kit (Future Combat System [FCS] and Comanche Helicopter), and space programs have all far exceed initial Congressional authorization timelines and budgetary constraints.  In many of these cases, promised technological advances have rarely been achieved.

So what is driving our accelerating defense outlays, reduced inventory and poor procurement record?  Established defense firms with strong Congressional backers and a bureaucratic acquisition process that inhibits innovative upstarts from making their mark.

Part of this goes to overall strategic aims: Organizations tend to gravitate towards things they do well.  The US military does state vs state warfare, with a defined adversary, incredibly competently:  look at Desert One and the March to Baghdad in 2003.   So the services want to buy whiz-bang gizmos that enable us to preserve this advantage.

In doing so, however, we neglect the fact that our enemies have adapted to neutralizing our technological and strategic advantages.  All but two of our conflicts over the past 50 years (the aforementioned ones...) were very different:  Insurgencies and police actions against sometimes hard to define foes.  The tools required in this type of fighting are 180 out from the massive land and sea battles Generals and Admirals salivate over.  They are usually less expensive, more singularly focused and definitely not sexy. 

Ugly, but Useful
But they work.  The Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle was fielded in a matter of months at a cost of $500,000 per vehicle, to adapt to a foe that we hadn't anticipated: the Improvised Explosive Device (IED).  Initially, it was innovative young Marines and soldiers bolting steel plates to their Humvees.  Eventually, industry caught on and created a suitable product.  Contrast this with the FCS, which was initially conceived of in 2000 and projected to cost $340 billion.  It prevented no losses to IED's and was cancelled in 2009.

Similarly, private industry has come up with effective, inexpensive solutions for providing Close Air Support.  The US military currently deploys $60 million F-18s, F-15s and F-16s into the skies over Afghanistan at a cost well above $20,000 per flight hour.  A more capable CAS platform, the Brazilian Super Tucano, can carry nearly the same weapons load, provide more on station time (4+ hours vs. 1 hour), and can operate from rugged, short, dirt strips. It costs about $15 million fully loaded, but more significantly, costs only $1,000 per flight hour.  Permissive airspace is required, but since that is what we find in most counter-insurgency situations, it is a great solution.  The US military just bought some for the Afghan military -- but refuses to do the same for our own warfighters. 

The Future?
In a professional aside, many of my fighter aviation peers, knowing what CAS looks like from above, would prefer to fly a Super Tucano type aircraft in Afghanistan.  Many ground controllers would prefer to have the on station time and weapon variety afforded by the Super Tucano, but not provided by traditional fighters.  Unfortunately, most of the procurement officials are so far removed from the battlefield, they don't understand this.

These rapid, adaptable procurement decisions are more in line with the evolution that occurred during WWII.  The United States created one of the most successful fighters in warfare, the P-51, in four months.  When the JSF finally comes online (still projected, of course), it will have been 20+ years since its initial inception.

We have a bloated defense budget that has been given free reign to expand as much as "needed" over the past decade.  This inhibits discipline, and fosters complacency.  Only well established firms know how to navigate the procurement labyrinth, and are wedded to maintaining the status quo of billions in profit each year from antiquated strategic visions.  This is not sustainable, and should not be acceptable to the American electorate.

There is a tendency to dismiss as unpatriotic anybody who questions the need for unlimited military funding.  Indeed, many of the same people who decry throwing good money after bad in education turn a blind eye to the same in the defense budget.  This must end.

We should hold companies and Congressmen accountable for their budgetary blunders.  The F-22 may bring tens of thousands of jobs to Georgia, but it has done nothing in fighting the War on Terror. Defense procurement is not a jobs program -- and anybody who thinks it is needs to spend more time on actual battlefields.

There is small progress that has been made on this front.  The Chief of Naval Operations has instituted a speed-to-fleet program, but it only applies to small procurement decisions.  More must be done. 

Until our country takes a good, hard look at the pernicious relationships between members of Congress, established defense firms and what it is we want our country to do in the realm of military responsibilities, we can expect the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex to continue unabated.  We need technologically capable kit; but we must also have a procurement system that reacts to reality, not Goliath's fed by Uncle Sam.


  1. I like the cut of your jib. I shake my head every time I drive to San Diego and see the Navy's LCAC (hovercraft) base on the coast there at Camp Pendleton. The LCAC was perceived, funded, and built and sucks taxpayer dollars as we speak based on some silly notion that we need a quick way to land men and tanks on hostile shores in an opposed landing. You mean like Germans hunkered down in bunkers and stuff?

    I heard McCain the other day deriding the administrations decision citing North Korea's invasion in the 50's. Are you freaking kidding me? Where on the planet is any invasion force going to be built that we won't know about weeks ahead of time? Ever heard of satellites? Two NK regulars couldn't go out for a smoke that a drone couldn't put a Hellfire between them.

    Today we have the ability to actually target the head of the snake, and it's successor, and so on. Why use a dozen shotguns when a .22 will do?

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