The U.S. military wants the best. It spends tens of billions of dollars each year developing new weapons systems, but the quest for the best is not an endeavor without obstacles. My fellow contributor Matt Fay pointed to the MEADS system the other day, a system that has little strategic benefit beyond placating allies in Europe and basically duplicates a better system, the Patriot PAC-3.
There are multiple other programs with a history of problems, but none as big in terms of budget or ambition as the F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter. A new article in the Star-Telegram sums it up nicely: “the F-35 program is five to six years behind schedule. The estimated cost to taxpayers has nearly doubled.”
Tom Christie, a retired Pentagon director of operational testing, says the program started with a “recipe for big problems,” because the Pentagon wanted to appease the Navy, Air Force, and the Marine Corps. by building one fighter in three versions, each one tailored to fit the specific requirements of the three services. The decision to develop a short-takeoff-vertical-landing version for the Marines has been a particular source of problems, according to Christie. To illustrate how problematic the Marines’ version has been, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently put the jet on a two-year “probation.” Contractor Lockheed Martin now has that time to prove the fighter’s reliability. Given the recent pressure on Gates to reel in defense spending, it is not a foregone conclusion that the Marines will get their new fighter (the Marines’ next-generation amphibious landing vehicle, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, has already been proposed cut).
Looking through the list of systems that have been under development over the past decade, and even longer, the F-35 is not alone. Persistent technical difficulties, massive budget overruns, and questionable assumptions about tactical and strategic utility are some of the problems associated with procurement programs running into the billions.
Perhaps the most famous of these programs, besides the F-35, is the V-22 Osprey. The tilt-rotor aircraft has long been symbolic of the difficulties associated with creating new, revolutionary fighting machines. It can lift off as a helicopter, and when in the air, the rotors tilt, making it capable of flying like an airplane. The concept is almost awe-inspiring. But the very thing that made the Osprey different, has also been its source of problems. 30 lives were lost in crashes during its development (read this comprehensive 2007 Time Magazine article for background), and four more people died in a crash in Afghanistan in 2010. The aircraft is now operational in Afghanistan after serving for a brief period in Iraq, but several technical problems have not been resolved.
The Government Accountability Office reported in 2010 that the Osprey had failed to meet the minimum acceptable rate of mission capability (page 132). Simply put, the aircraft was too often not ready to perform its mission. On top of the technical difficulties, the program has become significantly more expensive than when it first was conceived in the 1980s. According to the latest Selected Acquisition Report available (June 2010), $29 billion has been spent on the program, with a remaining balance of almost $18 billion. With a total procurement of 458 aircrafts, that leaves a per-unit cost of $115.5 (2010 dollars). In the early 1980s, the anticipated per-unit cost was $40 million (roughly $90 in 2010 dollars).
The Marine Corps. remains confident that the V-22 will prove to be a key aircraft, and that might very well turn out to be true. However, it has not been an easy ride. The Osprey program is now in its fourth decade and it still does not perform the way you would expect of a $53 billion project.
In some respects, the ambition and stubbornness behind the V-22 program is symbolic of the Pentagon’s drive for innovation, at times disregarding cost or seemingly insurmountable problems. For fiscal year 2011 alone, the Pentagon is spending almost $78 billions on research, development, testing and evaluation (RDT&E, table 1-5, page 10 in DoD Greenbook) in the hopes of sustaining its not inconsiderably technological advantage on the field, in the air, at sea and wherever else threats might surface. This part of the budget has grown in real terms by 60 percent since 2001. In total, the Pentagon is spending a total of $219 billion on RDT&E, procurement, and construction (table 6-12, page 138) this fiscal year.
While this prolific spending wields real results, it has also produced some duds. At the graveyard of cancelled programs lie the F-22 Raptor (which was cut after 187 deliveries), the EFV, large parts of the Army’s Future Combat Systems and others. One can only guess which one will be next.