The Pentagon continues to brace for severe budget cuts despite being given a two-month reprieve in the fiscal cliff deal. Yet two recent reports from the military should set off alarms about how America continues to unlearn the practice of governing. In this case, it’s gambling a large chunk of the military’s future on risky weapons programs that government makes worse by its meddling. In fact, taken in the broadest sense, the problems plaguing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Littoral Combat Ship raise the question of governing incompetence. Yet the issue is broader, for it really expands the idea of “unlearning” to our larger defense industry and, by extension, to society as a whole.
The F-35, as many know, is not merely the single fighter all three services (Air Force, Navy, and Marines) eventually will use, but is the largest procurement program in the Pentagon’s history ($400 billion and growing). Once the Obama Administration killed the stealthy F-22, the Joint Strike Fighter went from complement to replacement, it’s large numbers (approximately 2,400) meant to make up in quantity what it lacked in quality compared to the F-22. Yet the program has been hobbled by repeated and numerous delays. Last week, the Pentagon’s chief test and evaluation officer sent a report to Congress underscoring the program’s “lack of maturity,” and noting problems with the plane’s stealthy coating (peels off when the plane is pushed to the max), weapons bay doors, lift fan on the Marines’ version, cracks in the Marines’ version, radar tracking for weapons use, the refueling system, and flight helmet (which is supposed to integrate much of the data and avionics in a revolutionary manner). In addition, software development and testing is running behind schedule, which is a worry since the plane will have millions of lines of computer code.
This isn’t the first time the Pentagon’s top tester has warned about the program’s weaknesses. Exactly a year ago, the same office in its annual report noted the “mixed results” of testing, which was an improvement over the previous years, when test flights, for example, fell far behind schedule. The program has seen its Pentagon head removed and new officials put in charge. The same thing has happened at Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the F-35, and at whose doorstep the government lays much of the blame for the program’s problems. These delays have led to cost increases, which the Defense Department has responded to by reducing the number of planes it is buying each year. That, in turn, drives the price of each individual unit even higher (around $100 million for the Air Force version currently, but over $200 million for the early production models for the Navy and Marines). That has led some international partners to rethink their plans to buy the F-35, the most recent country being Canada.
Why all the problems? The biggest reason, as Reuters notes in its news story, is the “overlap between development, production and testing. The Pentagon planned that overlap from the start, but its top weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, has said that in retrospect, that approach amounted to ‘acquisition malpractice.’” Basically, the government thought it could save money by building three variants of one plane, but do the three key elements of designing, building, and working out bugs all at the same time. There is no longer one person in Washington or the defense industry who can now defend that decision back in the 1990s. Some say it should have been obvious, but in an era of defense budget cuts and consolidation of the defense industry during the days of Bill Clinton, the government sought the cheap way out, and threw out decades of learning how to build complex planes. Of course, it was also dealing at the time with delays in the F-22 program, which was run on more traditional lines, and there is no question that building a next generation stealth fighter was a technological and industrial challenge. Yet all the wrong choices were made, and left to fester. Today, at $400 billion, the program is clearly too big to fail, despite deep reservations on the part of numerous observers, and a poisoned relationship between the Department of Defense and Lockheed Martin.