It seems defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld got a chance to do some reading over the holidays, because on his first day back at work he sent military leaders one of his signature “snowflake” memo’s alerting them to an important fact. Calling their attention to a chart comparing the defense expenditures of various countries, Rumsfeld noted: “Apparently, the US spends more per year than the next 15 countries combined. It is useful to keep this in mind.”
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Wow, didn’t Rumsfeld already know that?” Or maybe you’re thinking, “Jeepers, couldn’t we let Osama get away for less money?” But if you track the way the Pentagon purchases weapons, what’s amazing is that the military manages to make ends meet on only half a trillion dollars a year. After five years of Rumsfeld at the helm, the acquisition system may not be broke, but it certainly is baroque. Here are some examples of how we manage to beat the fiscal pants off all those other military powers.
Tankers. About the time Rumsfeld arrived, the Air Force decided it had better get going on replacing its 500 Eisenhower-era aerial refueling tankers, and it opted to save time and money by converting airliners for the mission. Simple, right? Today, with Rumsfeld’s tenure beginning to wind down, no contract has been signed and a recently completed analysis of alternatives is over 2,000 pages long. The tankers now average 46 years of age — four times the age of the commercial airline fleet.
Satellites. After being repeatedly rebuffed by Congress over proposals to build a “transformational communications satellite,” policymakers had two options left: they could evolve the capabilities out of existing programs or just give up. What did they do? They proposed yet another restructure of the rejected program, assuring billions will be wasted to produce nothing.
Helicopters. Since the global war on terror began, there have been 7,000 rescues of military personnel from hostile environments. So it isn’t surprising that the Air Force wants to replace its aging search-and-rescue helicopters. In fact, it stated a requirement to do so in 1999. But Rumsfeld’s advisors have delayed the effort for years, and now they are kicking off a “portfolio review” that will lead to further wrangling over how to meet the requirement.
Rockets. Policymakers say they need two different families of launch vehicles to assure access to space. But there isn’t enough demand to profitably sustain two families, so the leading suppliers have proposed merging their operations to save money. The Pentagon has been reviewing the idea for the better part of year, but can’t seem to render a decision because its internal process and players are so disorganized.
Is it any wonder that weapons costs look out of control? You can understand why military personnel costs are zooming higher, because that’s what is happening in the rest of the economy. But the reason the cost of new technology is rising for the military at the same time it’s declining in the commercial world is that Pentagon acquisition processes are utterly mismanaged.
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