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.
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. (Emphasis added—Ed.)
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. (end of excerpt)
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