Military expert Anthony Cordesman claims the Bush Administration has fielded “the worst wartime national security team in United States history.” That’s pretty harsh. LBJ and Nixon managed to squander over ten times as many American lives on a much less important piece of real estate, while destroying much of Indochina in the bargain. In the end America simply gave up, delivering millions of innocent lives into the hands of murderous dictators like Pol Pot. Nothing like that is likely to happen while Bush and Cheney are in charge.
But I come not to praise Caesar. The paradox of military coverage during the last eight years is that the Bush team has been continually attacked over its conduct of war policies for which critics had no clear alternative, while chronic incompetence in the performance of routine management chores at the Pentagon has gone largely unnoticed. That is especially true in the case of weapons purchases, where the real scandal isn’t rising costs but a never-ending litany of dumb decisions. Here are some examples.
Littoral Combat Ship. The Navy decided in 2001 that it needed an agile, versatile replacement of cold war frigates that could counter mines, submarines and speedboats in the shallow waters along enemy coastlines. Its answer was a low-cost, modular vessel called the Littoral Combat Ship that made a lot of sense. But it tried to develop the cutting-edge warship in record time using smaller shipyards that had never built complex surface combatants before, and then failed to finalize construction standards until well after metal bending had begun. End result: canceled contracts, slipping schedules, and a promising program now in jeopardy.
Space Radar. Air Force radar planes have repeatedly demonstrated their value in tracking hostile aircraft and ground vehicles. But the cold war airframes on which the radars are carried have become hard to maintain, and aren’t big enough for sensor arrays that can see very stealthy cruise missiles. The service wanted to buy a replacement plane dubbed the E-10, but Rumsfeld’s gurus said the mission should be done with a hyper-expensive Space Radar that had already been rejected several times by Congress. End result: Space Radar is about to be canceled and there is no plan to replace the aging radar planes.
Transformational Satellite Communications. This leap-ahead approach to communications would have enabled warfighters anywhere in the world to stay connected using foot-wide receiver dishes connected to a high-capacity “internet in the sky.” But policymakers insisted on pushing the program forward at breakneck speed, even though a more modest successor to the existing Milstar constellation was already facing delays. A skeptical Congress refused to fully fund budget requests. End result: the program is undergoing yet another restructure, and probably won’t survive despite serving a vital need.
Presidential Helicopter. When 9-11 raised awareness of threats to the President, the White House demanded quick replacement of its antiquated presidential helicopters. The only airframe that could carry necessary equipment and passengers to the desired range while still landing in tight spaces like the White House lawn was the US101. But White House urgency collided with the unbending construction standards of the Naval Air Systems Command, producing an overly aggressive development schedule. End result: more time and money required to build the final version of the helicopter, which should have been obvious from day one.
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