Despite a two-month reprieve from sequestration, the Pentagon is still bracing for severe budget cuts of up to half a trillion dollars, which will come on top of $487 billion already cut from its planned spending over the next ten years.
But money woes are not the only challenges facing the Department of Defense. A recent report from the military’s chief evaluation officer should set off alarms about how America buys complex weapons systems. In fact, the Pentagon is gambling a large chunk of the military’s future on weapons programs that are struggling. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was designed to replace the current fighters used by the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. For the first time, all three major air arms of the U.S. military would share a common platform, each using its own variant. Once the Obama administration had killed the stealthy F-22, the Joint Strike Fighter went from being its complement to being its replacement. The large number of F-35s expected to be built — approximately 2,400 across all three services — is meant to make up in quantity what the fighter lacked in quality compared with the F-22. Development of the F-35 has become the costliest procurement program in the Pentagon’s history, at $400 billion and growing.
The program has been hobbled by numerous delays. Last week, the Pentagon’s chief test and evaluation officer, David Gilmore, sent his annual report to Congress. In it, he underscored the program’s “lack of maturity” and noted numerous problems with the plane’s development. Among them were failures of its stealthy coating (which peels off during high-speed, high-altitude flights), problems with the weapons-bay doors, continuing difficulties with the lift fan on the Marines’ version, cracks in the Marines’ version, problems with radar-tracking for weapons use, issues with the refueling system, and ongoing delays in development of the flight helmet (which is supposed to integrate much of the data and avionics in a revolutionary manner). In addition, software development and testing is running behind schedule — for a plane that will have over 8 million lines of computer code.
This isn’t the first time the Pentagon’s top tester has warned about the program’s weaknesses. Exactly a year ago, the same office in its annual report noted the “mixed results” of F-35 testing, which were nonetheless an improvement over those of the previous years, when test flights, for example, had fallen far behind schedule. The program has seen its Pentagon manager removed and new officials put in charge. These delays have led to cost increases, which the Defense Department has responded to by reducing the number of planes it is buying each year. That, in turn, drives the price of each plane even higher (around $100 million for the current Air Force version, but over $200 million for the early production models for the Navy and Marines). These problems have led some international partners in the program, most recently Canada, to rethink their plans to buy the F-35.
While the Pentagon would like to blame the plane’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, the real issue is the way the government went about the program. As Reuters notes, there has been “overlap between development, production and testing. The Pentagon planned that overlap from the start, but its top weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, has said that, in retrospect, that approach amounted to ‘acquisition malpractice.’”
Basically, the government thought it could save money by designing three variants of one plane for three different services while doing the three key activities of designing, building, and working out bugs all at the same time. There is not a single person in Washington or the defense industry who now defends that decision, made back in the 1990s. Some say the problems should have been predictable, but in the Clinton era of defense-budget cuts and consolidation, the Pentagon had an incentive to seek the cheap way out, and it gambled on a radically new way to build a fighter. Of course, at the time, the F-22, developed along more traditional lines, was also running into delays, and the technological and industrial challenges of building a next-generation stealth fighter were well known. The same Pentagon testing office also has judged that the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is “not expected to be survivable” in combat. Civilians may wonder why the Navy would build a ship knowing it can’t survive in a fight. The Navy’s answer is that the ship is designed for missions along coastlines (the littoral), such as anti-piracy operations and counter-narcotics work. It thus is not meant to face advanced navies. Yet one of the hottest topics at defense conclaves in Washington is the spread around the world of precision guided weapons, which will make non-state actors’ capabilities much more like those of mature national navies.
The ability of terrorist groups or small nations to use satellite imagery, advanced radars and tracking systems, and new weapons means that the military edge America has enjoyed across the spectrum of warfare since the 1990s is rapidly eroding. Hezbollah showed what the future of warfare will look like back in 2006, when it successfully hit an Israeli naval ship with an Iranian missile. The LCS will be heading into trouble spots where a variety of actors will have the ability to use precision weapons against it — and the Pentagon knows the ship can’t survive such attacks. That’s not the only problem with the LCS. Its cost has more than doubled, from a base of around $250 million per ship to more than $670 million (and that’s for the cheaper of two variants). Indeed, the Pentagon doesn’t have a figure for the complete program, but it is expected to be in the neighborhood of $40 billion for 55 of the ships.
And even if the ship doesn’t come under attack, it may not perform nearly as well as expected. The Pentagon testing office noted that the vessel’s guns don’t fire properly, that its planned onboard helicopter can’t tow the sensors needed for anti-mining operations, that its radars can’t track objects, and that the Navy has already had to deal with corrosion problems and cracks in its hull.
All complex weapons systems take years to develop and face numerous production problems. Delays and system failures are common, and are usually overcome. Lessons learned in development make diagnosing follow-on problems that much easier. Most weapons systems eventually turn the corner and see a dramatic improvement in efficiency and effectiveness. But this process seems to be taking a worryingly long time with both the F-35 and the LCS.
Their problems seem to be different and more significant than usual, but they are also representative of a disturbing trend: the government’s failure to align strategic planning, operational requirements, and the design and development process. Especially with gold-plated weapons systems such as these, the U.S. seems to be losing the ability to plan rationally, leading to troubled development processes and potentially catastrophic failures. Now that the F-22 program has been terminated, the F-35, for example, is expected to do things it was not initially designed to do, such as take on larger advanced enemy fighters or break through integrated air defenses. The LCS was built without sufficient protection from increasingly lethal and affordable technology that is spreading throughout the world. The development of the F-35 will become a classic case of how not to build an airplane, while the confusion surrounding the abilities of the LCS will become fully known only when it has been deployed and is put to use in complex missions.
These uncertainties are made all the more worrisome by the fact that America’s future military force structure will rely on these systems to a significant degree, with the F-35 eventually being the only American fighter in the sky, and the LCS making up a key part of our shrinking navy. Problems with these systems mean the potential failure of military missions and great risk to American servicemen and -women. Meanwhile, the American taxpayer will spend over $500 billion building them, and billions more maintaining them over decades.
This is a manifestation of a trend we might call “unlearning,” in which experience is ignored, realistic plans are rejected in favor of silver-bullet solutions, and no one is ultimately held accountable, since there are too many people and bureaucracies involved for anyone or any department to be singled out. A rational procurement process is desperately needed, but there is little hope that one will emerge from the chaos of today’s system. As a consequence, the Air Force and Navy in particular are starving themselves of funds owing to the enormous costs of building planes and ships. Yet the two behemoth programs continue to be cobbled together like Frankenstein’s monster, with no one sure how the creature will act when brought to life.
— Michael Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington