The Pentagon’s Frankensteins
The F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship are increasingly troubled, according to a new report.

An F-35B at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma


Michael Auslin

The same Pentagon testing office also has judged that the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is “not expected to be survivable” in combat. Civilians may wonder why the Navy would build a ship knowing it can’t survive in a fight. The Navy’s answer is that the ship is designed for missions along coastlines (the littoral), such as anti-piracy operations and counter-narcotics work. It thus is not meant to face advanced navies. Yet one of the hottest topics at defense conclaves in Washington is the spread around the world of precision guided weapons, which will make non-state actors’ capabilities much more like those of mature national navies.

The ability of terrorist groups or small nations to use satellite imagery, advanced radars and tracking systems, and new weapons means that the military edge America has enjoyed across the spectrum of warfare since the 1990s is rapidly eroding. Hezbollah showed what the future of warfare will look like back in 2006, when it successfully hit an Israeli naval ship with an Iranian missile. The LCS will be heading into trouble spots where a variety of actors will have the ability to use precision weapons against it — and the Pentagon knows the ship can’t survive such attacks.

That’s not the only problem with the LCS. Its cost has more than doubled, from a base of around $250 million per ship to more than $670 million (and that’s for the cheaper of two variants). Indeed, the Pentagon doesn’t have a figure for the complete program, but it is expected to be in the neighborhood of $40 billion for 55 of the ships.

And even if the ship doesn’t come under attack, it may not perform nearly as well as expected. The Pentagon testing office noted that the vessel’s guns don’t fire properly, that its planned onboard helicopter can’t tow the sensors needed for anti-mining operations, that its radars can’t track objects, and that the Navy has already had to deal with corrosion problems and cracks in its hull.

All complex weapons systems take years to develop and face numerous production problems. Delays and system failures are common, and are usually overcome. Lessons learned in development make diagnosing follow-on problems that much easier. Most weapons systems eventually turn the corner and see a dramatic improvement in efficiency and effectiveness. But this process seems to be taking a worryingly long time with both the F-35 and the LCS.

Their problems seem to be different and more significant than usual, but they are also representative of a disturbing trend: the government’s failure to align strategic planning, operational requirements, and the design and development process. Especially with gold-plated weapons systems such as these, the U.S. seems to be losing the ability to plan rationally, leading to troubled development processes and potentially catastrophic failures. Now that the F-22 program has been terminated, the F-35, for example, is expected to do things it was not initially designed to do, such as take on larger advanced enemy fighters or break through integrated air defenses. The LCS was built without sufficient protection from increasingly lethal and affordable technology that is spreading throughout the world. The development of the F-35 will become a classic case of how not to build an airplane, while the confusion surrounding the abilities of the LCS will become fully known only when it has been deployed and is put to use in complex missions.

These uncertainties are made all the more worrisome by the fact that America’s future military force structure will rely on these systems to a significant degree, with the F-35 eventually being the only American fighter in the sky, and the LCS making up a key part of our shrinking navy. Problems with these systems mean the potential failure of military missions and great risk to American servicemen and -women. Meanwhile, the American taxpayer will spend over $500 billion building them, and billions more maintaining them over decades.

This is a manifestation of a trend we might call “unlearning,” in which experience is ignored, realistic plans are rejected in favor of silver-bullet solutions, and no one is ultimately held accountable, since there are too many people and bureaucracies involved for anyone or any department to be singled out. A rational procurement process is desperately needed, but there is little hope that one will emerge from the chaos of today’s system. As a consequence, the Air Force and Navy in particular are starving themselves of funds owing to the enormous costs of building planes and ships. Yet the two behemoth programs continue to be cobbled together like Frankenstein’s monster, with no one sure how the creature will act when brought to life.

— Michael Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.