Gen. Odierno Breaks The Code On Why Weapons Cost So Much

Army insiders are worried about the fate of their modernization program. The gifted Gen. Martin Dempsey was unexpectedly elevated to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs after a brief run as the Army’s senior officer, and now his respected deputy, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli, is preparing to retire. Chiarelli is credited with bringing more discipline and imagination to the modernization challenge than any other Army leader in recent times. So now the service will be run by two warfighters who are less tested in the ways of Washington.

However, newly-minted Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno signaled earlier this month that he may understand what’s wrong with military acquisition better than anyone expected. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on November 2 (reported by insidedefense.com), Odierno opined that it might be time “to look at all we do in redundant and overlapping testing.” He went on,

Do we need to take a review of our testing requirements? Sometimes we have tests that are done by the private industry and yet we redo the tests because we have to meet certain regulations and requirements. And I think those are areas that we could look at that could reduce those costs significantly.

Praise the Lord! A leader who sees the truth and speaks it! Gen. Odierno may not realize what a self-serving bureaucracy the Pentagon’s operational testing and evaluation community has become, but just about everybody is irritated by the way it slows down programs and adds to costs. There’s a story that has been making the rounds for the last year that one tester told a program officer, ‘I don’t want this program to ever get out of testing — I have kids to put through college.’ The story is probably apocryphal, but it captures the mindset that many acquisition personnel and contractors detect in the testing community. Like the attitude Soviet leaders used to have about their nuclear weapons, the view among testers seems to be that too much is not enough.

This problem is not confined to the testing community. It infects the requirements community that loads up new weapons with unaffordable features, and the cost estimators who throw in so many pessimistic assumptions about the price of manufacturing and maintaining weapons that Congress ends up wanting to kill the programs and start over. The Army and Marine Corps right now are straining to save a next-generation jeep that is near death due to a lack of discipline in specifying performance requirements (projected cost: over $350,000 per vehicle before the Army started trimming specs). Meanwhile the Air Force and Navy are getting ready to challenge the assumptions used to generate the latest official cost estimates for the F-35 fighter.

But almost no one has taken on the testing community, and it’s about time they did. Gen. Odierno’s November 2 remarks indicate that he realizes it isn’t just contractors who drive up the cost of programs. The cost overruns are often baked in at the beginning by the baroque demands that the acquisition system imposes on developers. These demands result in long schedule delays, unaffordable unit costs, and weapons features that can’t meet the expectations of appropriators. More importantly, they slow the delivery of better combat systems to warfighters. Thank you General Odierno for saying in public what many observers already know — that some of the “reforms” introduced into the weapons acquisition process in recent decades have made it worse, rather than better.