Every time a military tragedy occurs, a politician will inevitably rush to blame it on the “gutted” Pentagon budget. After 15 Marines were seriously injured when an Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV) burst into flames on September 13, it was only a matter of time before someone attempted to capitalize on the tragedy by screaming for more defense dollars.
For those keeping score, it took less than 48 hours for Representative Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, to issue a press statement linking the incident to other “accidents related to readiness challenges.”
The chairman appears to be implying that the aging vehicle should have been replaced or that the Marines lacked funds to properly maintain the vehicle. But this accident happened as a result of the vehicle striking an underground natural gas line, not because Congress couldn’t pass the budget Representative Thornberry wants.
This is a pattern that is repeated over and over again. After two U.S. Navy destroyers suffered collisions with commercial ships this summer, politicians and military leaders were quick to blame shrinking budgets and continuing resolutions. Certain members seize upon each of these incidents to insist the only way to prevent future accidents is with vast Pentagon spending increases. This is a ghoulish spectacle that trivializes the sacrifices of the young men and women involved.
Opinion is very much divided over whether the services are actually facing a readiness crisis. It is true that many of the military’s vehicles are beginning to show their age. Many should have been replaced years ago. But the Pentagon keeps asking for, and Congress keeps approving, unrealistic programs that take far longer to produce and far more money than the defense contractors promise.
A case in point is the Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV). These vehicles have been in service for more than 40 years now. The reason they have been in service for so long is not due to Congressional stinginess, but rather because the Marine Corps spent years developing the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (Emphasis added—Ed.) (EFV) before the Secretary of Defense rightfully cancelled the program in 2011.
The EFV was meant to combine the capabilities of a speed boat and a tank into the same vehicle. Engineers designed it to be able to glide on top of the water at 28 miles per hour and then transform into an armored personnel carrier and speed along the ground at 45 miles per hour. The vehicle also sported a 30 mm Bushmaster cannon in the turret and a suite of sophisticated communications equipment.
At least that is what it was supposed to do. The Marine Corps and General Dynamics spent more than 15 years attempting to develop the EFV but they kept running into technical and engineering problems. The main computer system repeatedly failed. The bow flap, a folding metal panel mounted to the front of the vehicle to allow it to glide on the water’s surface, also repeatedly failed. The complex vehicle suffered so many leaks, hydraulics failures, and pressure problems that the program’s contract requirement for a 70-hour-between-failure rate had to be changed to 43.5 hours just so the program could have any hope of meeting contract specifications.
Because of these problems, the program had a series of cost and schedule overruns. The Marine Corps originally planned to purchase 1,025 for a total cost of $8.5 billion, approximately $8.2 million per vehicle. By March 2010, the program cost had increased to $11.163 billion while the number of vehicles to be purchased dropped to 573. Each vehicle was expected to cost more than $24 million. It was at that point the Secretary of Defense pulled the plug.
About the only thing that makes the EFV example different from most other Pentagon weapon program boondoggles is that sanity finally prevailed and the program was cancelled. The Marine Corps returned to the drawing board and is now developing a different replacement program, the Amphibious Combat Vehicle. This program is expected to cost $6.2 billion with individual vehicles being delivered in 2020 for $8.67 million each.
The EFV saga is not an isolated incident.
The F-35 program has dragged on for 16 years and the initial development and procurement costs have doubled. The Air Force originally expected to field their F-35s in 2008, the Marine Corps in 2010, and the Navy in 2012. All the services are still years away from having a fully developed and tested aircraft. Meanwhile they are forced to take extraordinary measures to keep the aircraft the F-35 was supposed to replace flying. In the case of the Marine Corps’ F-18s, this includes pulling spare parts from museum-piece aircraft because the factories producing spare parts for it were shut down in 2000.
The services made that decision because everyone expected the F-35 to be ready just a few years later. It is now 2017, and it will likely be another five years before we will know if the F-35 will actually be able to perform in combat.
Had Pentagon and Congressional leaders made better decisions, namely not deciding to build an overly complex aircraft and then compound that bad decision by making subsequent decisions based on what they should have understood to be wildly optimistic schedule estimates, then the Services would have newer aircraft now. To stress the point, this problem is not the result of stingy budgets—it is the result of poor decisions and a lack of leadership.
On the subject of ships, many people like to claim that paltry defense budgets are shrinking the size of the fleet. They call for larger budgets so we can buy more ships. They seem to ignore the fact that the Navy keeps contracting to buy more ships, but because leaders repeatedly make poor decisions, the programs rarely deliver on their promises.
The Littoral Combat Ship is an excellent example. Leaders conceived the program as a multi-mission ship in which crews and ship systems would be swapped out as the situation dictated. This overly complex scheme led to massive cost and schedule overruns, and now the program has been severely curtailed by the Secretary of Defense and Congress.
In like manner, the Ford-class aircraft carrier program has faced many problems of its own. Pentagon leaders decided the fleet needed a radical new design for the next-generation ship. The Navy scrapped the reliable steam-powered catapult in favor of the unproven Electromagnetic Launch System. Problems developing this and other vital systems necessary for an effective aircraft carrier have resulted in a three-year delay and a 25 percent budget increase.
The American people spent $13 billion for the USS Ford, more than twice what was spent on the previous aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush. The difficulties in getting new ships to the fleet are not the result of constrained budgets, but a lack of leadership in both the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Had the same people now rushing to the microphones to demand a larger budget every time a service member is hurt or killed in training made better decisions about the kind of weapons to be purchased, perhaps some of the problems related to aging equipment could have be ameliorated.
Sometimes accidents happen due to negligence or simple human error. While the Navy is still investigating the separate instances when the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain collided with merchant ships in the Pacific this summer, some details are beginning to emerge. The Navy fired the commander, executive officer, and command master chief of the Fitzgerald based on the results of a preliminary investigation.
“The collision was avoidable and both ships demonstrated poor seamanship. Within Fitzgerald, flawed watch stander teamwork and inadequate leadership contributed to the collision that claimed the lives of seven Fitzgerald sailors, injured three more and damaged both ships,” said Admiral Bill Moran, the Navy’s vice chief of naval operations on August 17, 2017.
Despite statements like that, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), the son and grandson of the namesakes for the USS John S. McCain, still took to the Senate Floor on September 13, 2017, to claim these accidents are “self-inflicted” because of a lack of funding.
Firing individuals in this case sends the message that the problem originated with the people involved not with a systemic failure related to funding. But even if the issue is rooted in training deficiencies, then perhaps Congress should stop robbing funds from operations and maintenance to pay for new weapons of dubious value.
Those “leaders” who rush to television cameras to bray for more money in the wake of military tragedy should be ashamed of themselves. The military does face many challenges, but with Congress preparing to pass nearly $1 trillion in national defense spending, lack of funds isn’t one of them. Perhaps if these same individuals who use the deaths of young Americans for their own political purposes took better care of the resources entrusted to them, then a few of these tragedies could be avoided.
(Ret.) Marine Corps Capt. Dan Grazier is an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran. He currently serves as a national security and military analyst for the Center for Defense Information’s Straus Military Reform Project in Washington, D.C.