It was also Aspin, however, who brilliantly insisted that a single aircraft be designed for the Air Force, Navy and Marines and that it incorporate stealth technology, advanced electronics, and that the Navy version be aircraft carrier capable and the the Marine version be a “Jump Jet” with the ability to operate from extremely small carriers or short runways. He also insisted that the airplane be “affordable” and that international partners be brought into the development process.
Given this set of requirements it’s a miracle that the F-35 can actually get off the ground, let alone the fact that it is probably the deadliest all around aircraft flying today. Of course the one thing that the F-35 is not, is cheap. Now, unfortunately, the F-35 is in danger either of being canceled or being purchased in ridiculously small numbers.
Similar results were obtained by the Air Force with both the B-2 bomber and the F-22 air superiority fighter. The USAF originally wanted more than 200 B-2 bombers to replace the B-52s and more than 700 F-22s to replace the F-15s. In the end, due to the high costs of both programs, the USAF got 21 B-2s and 187 F-22s.
Similar problems exist with almost every major Defense Department procurement program, the significant exception being the Navy’s new anti-submarine warfare, reconnaissance and patrol aircraft, the P-8. One of the main reasons the P-8 program has not had the usual cost problems is that the plane itself is based on the Boeing 737 airliner which has been in production since the mid-1960s. Any problems with the airplane were solved long ago, and since the Navy and the Air Force have previously bought versions of the 737 for training and transport, the military was already familiar with the aircraft.
Another failed program is the Medium Air Defense System (MEADS), which started as a international US, German, and Italian program that aimed to develop and deploy a more advanced version of the Patriot anti-aircraft and missile defense weapon system. Even though MEADS uses the existing PAC 3 Patriot missile, the system’s new radar and new command and control system turned out to be far more expensive and harder to develop than expected.
Both Germany and Italy were reluctant to go ahead with the program, but instead of figuring out a graceful way to unwind the program, the US unilaterally announced that it would not buy any systems for the US Army, even though the Defense Department would fulfill its obligations by spending more than $100 million to complete the development of the system.
Congress, of course, is having had a hard time understanding why so much money was going to be spent on something that would never be deployed. The House of Representatives has balked at appropriating the money needed to finish the development phase of the program. This has given Germany and Italy solid grounds on which to complain that the US is breaking the promises it made.
MEADS is a perfect illustration of the way the US procurement system combines the worst of our adversarial political and legal culture with a highly regulated, slow moving bureaucracy. Worse, it shows that promises the US Defense Department makes to foreign governments are worthless when weighed against the need to conform to the latest twists and turns of “inside the beltway” budget politics.
Designing, developing and building weapons systems which not only have to survive on the battlefield, and overcome enemy effort to neutralize them and kill the men and women operating them is never going to be either easy or cheap. Why then should US government regulations and procedures make it so hard for both the military and US industry to perform this essential task?
The role of industry lobbyists is also part of the political and legal complexity of the procurement system, but the power of the lobbyists grows directly out of the system’s lack of direct military involvement. Experience has shown that active duty military officers, while not perfect by any means, are far less vulnerable to lobbyist influence than the executive branch or congressional civilians.
The case of Darleen Druyan, the Air Force Undersecretary who was caught taking illegal favors from Boeing for which bribe she served five months in jail in 2005, has, at least in recent decades never been matched by anything uniformed service members ever did. A corrupt civilian, it seems, can do far more harm to the military procurement system than servicemen, who is under far stricter supervision.