Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Defense politics: a lot of the time, what ought to matter most doesn't matter at all

First read this from a Politico story (mentioned by Charles Hoskinson today in Morning Defense) about Mitt Romney making calls to voters on Monday in advance of the New Hampshire primary:
[Romney] also secured the support of the second voter he reached, who was apparently a defense industry worker.

"I was a little disappointed to see the president pull back on the F-35 program," Romney said, talking on a cellphone and with a list of printed out list of [sic] names and numbers in front of him.
Now read the entirety of this article by Chuck Spinney, Thomas Christie, Pierre Sprey, and Winslow Wheeler. Here's the most important bit on the subject of the F-35:
Moreover, if the F-35 lived up to 100% of its depressingly modest design specifications, it would still be a complete failure in combat utility: a bomber of shorter range, lower payload and far higher vulnerability than the Vietnam War’s appallingly flammable, underperforming F-105 Lead Sled; an air-to-air fighter so unmaneuverable and sluggish in acceleration that any ancient MiG-21 will tear it to shreds; and a close support fighter that is a menace to our troops on any battlefield, unable to hit camouflaged tactical targets and incapable of distinguishing friendly soldiers from enemies. Individually and collectively, we often fretted with Boyd on the irresponsibility of equipping our people with such foolishly complex weapons designs, so bereft of practical combat effectiveness—and on the deep corruption of acquisition programs, such as the F-35’s, that deliberately plan to buy a thousand or more units long before user testing has fully probed combat utility.
The authors of this piece are experts in defense acquisition, weapon system design and testing, and the politics of national security. Mitt Romney seems to have a fair grasp of the latter, though he is not an expert in the other areas (and presumably neither is the voter that he spoke to).

The F-35 is a failed program. Mitt Romney doesn't care. Neither do any of the other candidates, which is primarily a reflection of the fact that most Americans – most voters – don't care, and the ones that do care are much less interested in the program's combat effectiveness than its function as a source of jobs and economic stimulus.

American taxpayers are pouring outrageous amounts of money into weapon systems that don't work as advertised, aren't delivered on schedule, and cost more than expected—but the costs are diffuse, spread over many years and several budget lines, and are unlikely to have a negative impact on the welfare of individual voters that is even remotely comparable to the effects of program termination. In short, to the people who matter to the political process – candidates and voters – all weapon spending is essentially good spending.

But what about our business? What about the so-called "defense intellectuals," the military analysts and journalists and budget wonks and policy writers and bloggers? Don't we have a bigger responsibility? That's where Spinney, Christie, Sprey, and Wheeler come in again—and they're at their excoriating best:
Here [citing uncritical advocacy for F-22 and F-35 by one think-tanker] is a paradigm of the moral decay so visible among contemporary Washington defense “intellectuals.” These dabblers in defense pretend to serve seriously the real needs of our national defense and our people in uniform—when, in fact, they are serving the needs of foundations, universities, non-profits or politicians funded by defense mega-corporations seeking to expand their sources of government largesse. And, even in a shrinking economy, these dabblers easily find comfortable home bases and plenty of venues to publish or broadcast their paeans to big ticket programs and budgets.
Here are the facts:

1) The F-35 has already cost a fortune and seems unlikely to perform adequately in the range of missions for which it is meant to be suited (though this is still uncertain, as the aircraft was rushed into large-scale production before sufficient operational testing could be completed).

2) Notwithstanding the above, Mitt Romney and Jim Carafano still are "a little disappointed to see the president pull back on the F-35 program." (I get the feeling Carafano's phrasing would be less delicate; again, those are the candidate's words.)

Somebody ought to say something, huh?

But really: how does this ever change? How can the incentive structures of American politics be altered to ensure that parochial concerns entirely peripheral to military effectiveness aren't permitted to dominate entirely the weapon system development and acquisition process?

I wish I knew the answer to this. But after several years of raging against the machine, I'm disappointed to tell you that I don't. Spinney et al. have some ideas, but one can't help but think that their collective decades of experience in the game and relative failure to enact meaningful change suggests that a sense of hopelessness is not only justified, but entirely appropriate.

UPDATE: In case you're not feeling melancholy enough, I should also have mentioned this excellent and topical piece by David Axe on the failures of another acquisition program, the Joint Tactical Radio System—headlined "Army seeks 'perfect' radio, creates boondoggle."


  1. Boyd's acolytes have a lot of good points about the defense industry, but they're prone to "sky-is-falling" arguments. Despite all the controversy over the M2 Bradley, it still proved itself effective in Desert Storm, as did many of the so-called "gold plated" systems Boyd railed against.

    That's not to say that the F-35 isn't a massive boondoggle (A lot of "Tri-Service" planes don't always work out the way we'd like). But, sadly, it's one of those "too big to fail" projects. We can't seem to bring another aircraft on line in the foreseeable future.

  2. Starbuck — Appreciate your point, but I don't think they're saying "the JSF program will make us lose wars" so much as they are "there's a better way to do this," and arguing that the systemic flaws and unconstrained bloat that have taken over defense acquisition threaten the future of the republic more than even poor battlefield performance. (Or at least that's MY spin on the whole thing.)

    1. The paragraph you quoted regarding the F-35 is classic Boyd acolyte (Spinney, Sprey, etc). Though they have many good points, they're often prone to hyperbole. Yes, the F-35 is a colossal boondoggle, but is it really "more vulnerable" than an old F-105? Is it really an easy target for a MiG-21? Maybe they have the data the rest of us don't, but I'm finding some of the criticism hard to swallow.

      I recall similar rhetoric from this crowd regarding the Bradley (remember "The Pentagon Wars"?), the F-15, F-111, you name it. Though none of those systems were flawless, they wound up doing all right in combat.

      They could make their points without hyperbole and alarmism.

  3. Fantastic article. I have been saying this for years (hopefully not engaging in groupthink here).

    -Deus Ex

  4. Hi Gulliver,

    "But really: how does this ever change? How can the incentive structures of American politics be altered to ensure that parochial concerns entirely peripheral to military effectiveness aren't permitted to dominate entirely the weapon system development and acquisition process?"

    Henry Mintzberg's 3 agents of Real Change in a Big Bureaucracy- transformational leaders, outside stakeholders, mid-level managers

    Also, for the Anti-Boy, we published on what Billy Mitchell might say today

    1. Mike, I think it's all shouting in the wind while the large vested bureaucracy is vested. In other words the puzzle palace has to go. Most of our problems begin and are rendered intractable because of the Pentagon/Beltway complex. Now's the perfect time for YOUR FIRED. No, not President Trump. Maybe SECDEF Trump. But I'm vindictive.

      Replace with: Buy off the shelf and fly the Hell out of them- practice. I'm not USAF, but there must be a modern equivalent of the F-5 around. I am [was] Army and was Signal, and I do it for my civilian career, and I recommend the same off the shelf purchases for communications. In the case of voice/data communications and networking the battlefield, no PM could possibly keep pace with the speed of technology and the market. The very concept of JTRS is mad.

    2. Nancy Roberts is probably the smartest woman that I know, and I am proud to call her my mentor. She wrote this in 2000 AFTER attempting to facilitate negotiations between the UN and the Taliban in the post-conflict phase (1998?).

      It should be noted that the International Community (IC) chose NOT to assist Afghanistan in the 1990s at the conclusion of the Civil War primarily because of the Taliban, the winner of the internal conflict, policy towards women.

      by Nancy Roberts

      Collaboration for Relief and Recovery in Afghanistan$FILE/IPMR_1_1_WICKED.pdf

      International Public Management Review · electronic Journal at
      Volume 1 · Issue 1 · 2000 · © International Public Management Network

  5. Mike — Henry Mintzberg's 3 agents of Real Change in a Big Bureaucracy- transformational leaders, outside stakeholders, mid-level managers

    You've gotten right to the problem here: the "outside stakeholders" for the defense acquisition bureaucracy nearly all have a vested interest in perpetuating the current system and producing the same results: Congress, the defense industry, and the voters who are employed by those companies.

    Until the incentive structure is different, Congress will not hold either the Defense Department and the military services or the defense industry accountable for failures... for the simple reason that by their criteria – jobs, pork, campaign contributions, continued membership on preferred committees for Members; profits for industry; unimpeded flow of resources for the Services – these programs are not failures.

  6. Time to take the power back?

    "The masses, enlightened by propaganda yet left scattered, do not constitute a force and are not able to cope with the enemies. That is why, side by side with the masses propaganda, one should think of organizing the masses, gathering them into numerous and strong forces to oppose the enemies."- -Vietnamese Communist Party Vietnamese Communist Directive 75

  7. Welcome to the Revolution Gulliver :)

  8. I spent 25 years in the RAF so have a little experience of fast-jet ops. The quoted authors have one opinion of air combat and seemingly ignore all others. A WW1 Sopwith Pup would easily out turn a Spitfire or P-51 Mustang, now step forward all those who would want to fight in the Pup... thought so...


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