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Should the US Remilitarize Military Procurement?

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Photo Credit: Trish Harris/Wikimedia Commons

Another unsuccessful reform effort was the disastrous concept of the “Lead System Integrator,” promoted in by Bill Clinton’s first Secretary of Defense and former McNamara whiz kid, Les Aspin, in 1993. As the concept was implemented, the Pentagon’s cadre of civilian engineers and scientists, which had been built up and trained during the 1980s explicitly to supervise and hold accountable the big defense contractors, were let go.

Supposedly, these civil service scientists and engineers, who had accumulated years of experience working with uniformed armed service members and who understood their needs, could be laid off because their work would be done by the defense industry itself –- exactly as happened. These experienced men and women were replaced by the “Lead System Integrator,” which gave near total design and development authority for new weapons and equipment to the major defense contractors. Left without close and expert supervision from Defense Department scientists and engineers, programs developed under this concept have unsurprisingly experienced spectacularly large cost overruns and delays. For example, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), which provides early warning of missile launches, and had an estimated cost of $3.68 billion in 1995 dollars, will end up costing more than $10 billion in 2012 dollars.

Despite all the small scale changes that have been made, the essence of the McNamara procurement system has survived. Since experienced military officers have been removed from the system, the only people who now judge whether or not a weapon or a piece of equipment is ready to go into service are the Pentagon’s lawyers, accountants, and political appointees.

As these lawyers, accountants and political appointees lack the judgment based on military experience that the uniformed servicemen and servicewoman have, they insist on unnecessary extensive design reviews and test procedures, which, although perhaps occasionally beneficial, add considerably to the price of any weapon or piece of equipment procured. Excessive, repetitive testing can not only add to the overall expense of the weapon or item being bought, but also mislead the Defense Department into thinking that an item is ready to go into service when its parts may have been tested repeatedly, but the whole weapon has not been properly tested — a problem that recently occurred in the F-22 when the oxygen system for the pilot was found not to work properly with the pilot’s flight vest.

Often a program is begun which is beyond today’s technological state of the art. Sometimes this is due to excessive optimism — but sometimes because the leaders of the Defense Department foresee the need for something and imagine that if they begin a new program, the military eventually will get what it needs. Sometimes this kind of gamble pays off, more often it fails.

The Army’s RAH-66 Comanche reconnaissance and attack helicopter, for example, would have combined stealth with extremely advanced electronic sensors and communications systems. In the mid 1980′s, when the program began, no one had ever tried to apply stealth technology to a helicopter. No one even knew if it could be done. While the Comanche fulfilled some of its promise, it failed to live up to all of its original requirements. So the RAH-66 was cancelled in 2004 after the Army had spent $6.9 billion on the program.

Had a soldier, rather than a politician, made the decision, the Comanche, if it had fulfilled 80 or 90 percent of its requirements, might have gone into production. Because it was cancelled, the Army had to keep its old light reconnaissance helicopters in service. The needs of the lawyers, accountants and political appointees were fulfilled, but the needs of the soldiers were not.

Today, control over all major military spending decisions remain exclusively in the hands of political appointees, and soldiers, sailors and airmen are left with the job of trying to defend their country and themselves with the inferior results of decisions made by politicians. Even worse, due to the long time frames involved in building today’s extremely complex weapons, military officers may find themselves responsible for implementing programs which were devised by politicians who long ago disappeared from the scene.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for instance, which is now in the early stages of production and deployment, was designed to fulfill a requirement formulated by the aforementioned Les Aspin. If anyone ought to be held accountable for the cost overruns, delays and other problems with the program, it is he; but in1995, he died.

About the Author: Taylor Dinerman is an expert on the Military and National Security affairs.


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