President Obama could be in for a tough reelection bid in part because he can’t prove a negative: In the face of opponents who derided his “stimulus” as a failure for the U.S. economy, how can Obama argue how much worse things would’ve been without it?
It’s a national, big-picture version of a very familiar storyline in the defense game: The Army spends $7 billion on its Comanche helicopter and then kills it. How much did it “save” by abandoning the program? Would it have ultimately gotten better “value” by knuckling down, building and fielding new helicopters? These are the questions defense commentator Loren Thompson raised in a column on Monday, and they’re only going to get more pressing as we continue forward into the teeth of the big crunch.
Thompson cited the Marines’ late, lamented Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, which its advocates said was just turning the corner right as former Secretary Gates was getting ready to cancel it. Thompson thinks that was a mistake and criticized the Navy Department in the gravest terms:
It also ganged up on the Marine Corps with Secretary Gates to kill a desperately needed Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle that would have delivered warfighters through the surf onto hostile beaches. After spending $3 billion and nearly two decades perfecting the system, political appointees decided it cost too much per vehicle and terminated it — even though that would keep Marines in slow, vulnerable vehicles for many years to come and there was no proof that whatever followed the canceled vehicle would be cheaper or better. This particular termination starkly illustrates how killing programs to “save” money often means risking the lives of warfighters.
Not the full story, of course: The EFV’s problems were significant and its existence was predicated upon the assumption that the Marines would mount a Hollywood blockbuster-level amphibious assault, which even the Marine brass admits hasn’t happened since Inchon. The whole Navy v. Marines and the Future of Expeditionary Warfare debate is a worthwhile and probably inexhaustible topic, but let’s leave it aside for now. The point is: Would it ultimately have been better for the Marines to tough out the EFV and get something, rather than wind up $3 billion lighter and have nothing?
Thompson seems to think so, and he blames the sharklike failures of American governance — a political system that only swims forward and cannot stop for serious thought. Short-term political considerations trump everything, he argues, so you get the double whammy of a system that remembers nothing and never learns not to throw good money after bad.
If you add up all the money spent on military systems that got funded but not fielded since the Cold War ended, it probably tops $100 billion. We’ll never know the full amount, because some of the biggest projects are hidden in secret spy-agency accounts. Defense contractors are reflexively blamed for the waste because politicians and policymakers are even less interested in accountability than they are in precise accounting
What the record shows, though, is that weapons makers aren’t the real cause of the waste. They only have one customer — the government — so they will do pretty much whatever that customer pays them to do. The real problem lies with the limited attention span of a political system that barely notices the sacrifices and assumptions of past administrations and cares only about the fiscal run-up to the next election. Because the system is so indifferent to expenditures it cannot control, it devalues past investments and squanders billions of dollars every year in the guise of pursuing “savings.”
Definitely — but defense firms are certainly not blameless, either. The whole system has never really worked that well. But the military services somehow still wound up with classic weapons, ships and aircraft. Much of today’s 1980s-vintage arsenal isn’t going to last forever, though: What the brass would probably argue today is that no matter how tempting it seems for Congress to go after the F-35, the Littoral Combat Ship much of the the rest of what Senator McCain hates, the services need to press ahead or they’ll have nothing to hand down to their next generations of service members.
By Philip Ewing
December 20th, 2011