The perils of positive thinking

America’s optimism aside, Pentagon's track record of buying arms has been spotty since WWII

An F-35 zips past the Capitol dome during a flyover in Washington on June 12. In the decades since World War II, the Pentagon’s track record of buying the weapons and equipment needed to execute its mission to protect America and its interests has become spotty. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — Americans like optimism. It goes hand in hand with the can-do spirit that saw industry transform itself into the juggernaut that powered the Allied victory in the Second World War.

But in the decades since, the Pentagon’s track record of buying the weapons and equipment needed to execute its mission to protect America and its interests has become, well, spotty.

The Defense Department’s overly optimistic approach to acquisition is a major factor behind that checkered performance. In part, that’s a reflection of military culture, where it is hard to tell a superior, especially one wearing stars on his or her shoulders, that a goal won’t be met.

“Find a way to bring this in under budget and ahead of schedule” is not an order anyone with a modicum of ambition ignores, even if it’s next to impossible to obey.

In turn, military officials routinely sell Congress on overly aggressive timelines and unrealistic funding projections as they justify each year’s budget request.

But overpromising to Congress is a self-defeating cycle. When the previous program cost more and took longer than expected, it creates extra pressure to exceed expectations on the current project in order to justify the inevitably huge budget request. And it just gets worse and worse, and goes on and on.

[The Army’s Ryan McCarthy Pulls the Plug on Bad Acquisitions]

Another problem: the risk-averse culture that permeates the procurement process. Every product must be as close to perfect as possible, because anything less could cost lives.

As my colleague John M. Donnelly reported in the Dec. 2 issue of CQ Magazine, Congress has given the Defense Department a new set of rules to try to drive more efficient, and much faster, weapons buying.

But critics warn that a full-speed-ahead, “Ready! Shoot! Aim!” approach to developing complex weapons could perpetuate the problems that come with starting to build before the blueprints are complete.

In the Pentagon, that’s called committing to immature technologies. One of the fastest ways to blow a hole in your budget and schedule is to get to the “insert cutting-edge technology here” phase of your plan only to find the cutting-edge technology isn’t ready.

“Traditionally, the military personnel who champion a weapons program are less realistic than outside observers about its cost and schedule, studies have shown,” Donnelly writes. Clear-eyed observation and common sense show the same.

The Pentagon tends to be overly ambitious when it comes to new technologies, going for a great leap forward rather than incremental progress, said Mark Thompson, who spent decades covering defense as a journalist before becoming a national security analyst for the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.

Instead of an exquisite solution that accomplishes 95 percent of the desired capabilities, accept something less risky that meets 80 percent of the criteria, Thompson recommends. The results will be vastly cheaper and still get most jobs done.

“That’s where the Congress, increasingly bereft of veterans, doesn’t have the gumption, the courage or the knowledge, to say, ‘OK, that’s good enough.’ That’s how we end up with these boondoggles,” he said.

It has become increasingly hard for Congress to conduct oversight of the way the Defense Department buys weapons, Thompson said. “You cannot say anything against military procurement without being viewed as either a defeatist or someone who doesn’t care about the troops.”

And what happens on those rare occasions when Congress calls upon the Defense Department to account for itself?

We got a pretty good look in October when Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat who spent 20 years in the Navy on combat ships, had the temerity to ask Navy officials about cost overruns and delays on the USS Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s first-in-class aircraft carrier.

Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, whom President Donald Trump fired in November, seemed miffed at having to defend a program that is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, in large part because the Pentagon wanted to include a bunch of unproven technologies, like an electromagnetic launching system for aircraft.

Spencer ran to a Washington think tank to say that Luria’s comments weren’t helpful and suggested that Congress, having wasted $4 billion of Navy funds by passing continuing resolutions to fund the government, shouldn’t point fingers.

Note to defense officials: “Hey, you waste scads of money too!” is not a compelling argument.

But such hands-on oversight is becoming increasingly rare in Congress, particularly after the death of Sen. John McCain, the prickly Arizona Republican who delighted in making Pentagon officials squirm as chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

And it’s hard to see how that trend changes, especially as Congress is giving the Pentagon avenues less encumbered by rules and requirements, as Donnelly reports.

No one gets voted out of Congress for giving the Pentagon too much money or leeway.

“For lawmakers and military officers and military industrialists,” Thompson said, “there’s no downside to spending more.”

How will the new approach work out? Let’s just say I’m not overly optimistic.

For more on defense procurement, please read CQ.com.

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