The Iraq war has revealed grave deficiencies in America’s Army. The active-duty force is too small to sustain a protracted counter-insurgency campaign. The service lacks vital language skills and cultural knowledge. Its tactical intelligence capabilities are mediocre at best. Inadequate force-protection measures leave soldiers vulnerable to roadside bombs and snipers.
You could have learned all that by reading the New York Times. But there is one other defect of the modern Army that you might not have heard about from the general media. America’s Army has an amateurish, ingrown acquisition bureaucracy that often seems more interested in protecting its own power than protecting troops or taxpayers. That bureaucracy wastes billions of dollars, often without delivering anything useful into the field.
Too harsh? Look at the record in the four years since the Iraq conflict began. In 2004, the service canceled its next-generation Comanche armed reconnaissance helicopter after spending $8 billion. In 2005 it drastically downsized a joint tactical radio program on which it was developing software for all the services, probably dooming the program. In 2006, it canceled another joint program it was leading to build an airplane that could find hostile emitters on future battlefields. Meanwhile, it dragged its feet on fielding a survivable small truck for troops in Iraq, and delayed deploying a warfighter information network that was its only practical option for assuring communications to troops on the move.
Now, in 2007, this dysfunctional bureaucracy has found another candidate for termination: the new armed reconnaissance helicopter it began developing after Comanche was killed three years ago. The program has satisfied every one of the “key performance parameters” established at its inception, from survivability to sustainability to transportability to lethality, but Army executives say it is taking too long and will cost too much money. So there is a move afoot to cancel the program and start over.
Maybe I’m just dense, but isn’t canceling the program and starting over likely to require a lot more time and money than just fixing it? The Army seems to feel that would send the wrong signal, rewarding the contractor for doing a bad job. Of course, that ignores the fact that the program has met all its performance goals, and that the delays are largely traceable to actions the service itself took — like awarding a contract for a “commercial off-the-shelf” purchase, and then continuously tinkering with the on-board equipment.
When a service keeps killing programs because of the supposed incompetence of the world’s greatest technology enterprises — Boeing, United Technologies, Lockheed Martin — after a while you begin to suspect that the problem isn’t just the contractors. Maybe part of the problem is an undisciplined, shallow Army customer that cares more about punishing suppliers than the punishment its soldiers will take by having to rely on Vietnam-era scout helicopters for another generation. If the Army acquisition community can’t get this latest screw-up back on track, it’s time to rethink how the service buys weapons and who should be doing that job.
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