A couple of weeks ago, the WaPo had an interesting enough article on cancelled military programs:
The Army’s Comanche helicopter was envisioned as “the quarterback of the digital battlefield,” a technologically superior aircraft that could hide from enemies, operate at night and in bad weather, and travel farther than any other helicopter.
Gen. Richard Cody, a former vice chief of staff of the Army, called it the “most flexible, most agile” aircraft the country had ever produced.
In 2000, it ranked as the most important planned buy for the Army. Four years later, the program — which had consumed close to 20 years of work and nearly $6 billion — was abruptly shuttered.
It is one of 22 major Army weapons programs canceled since 1995, ringing up a price tag of more than $32 billion for equipment that was never built. A new study, commissioned by the Army and obtained by The Washington Post, condemns the service’s efforts as “unacceptable.”
The study is the latest indication that the Pentagon — and the defense industry, in turn — is undergoing a seismic shift in its approach to new programs. As pressures mounted in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military retreated from its ambitions for multibillion-dollar, technologically superior systems. Instead, it was forced to make better use of tried-and-true equipment.
I think that the article’s implication (that money spent on abandoned systems has been wasted) is a touch misleading. In general terms, it’s not at all surprising that the military has spent billions of dollars on cancelled weapons programs. Some systems never pan out, others reach a certain degree of maturity before we determine that they’re impractical, some plans are rendered obsolete by technology, others by shifts in doctrine and interest. Any healthy system of procurement designed to support a modern, capable military is going to have a lot of cancelled systems. Indeed, while I understand the political necessity of denouncing the $32 billion in cancelled systems, I’m not at all convinced that the report uncovers actual problems in Army procurement, or at least I’m not convinced that the problems are correctly identified.
Most of the system identified in the article are associated with the end of the Cold War, the shift to Future Combat Systems, and the Counter-Insurgency turn. The end of the Cold War (which saw substantial real reductions in US defense spending) ensured that billions of dollars would be wasted through the abandonment of programs that were no longer strategically sound. Indeed, I suspect that most readers of this blog would believe that more dollars should have been so wasted. Regarding Future Combat Systems, it’s certainly fair to critique the operational and tactical logic behind the development of a new concept of ground operations, but the cancellation of many FCS systems is primarily a result of the COIN turn; if we had never invaded Iraq or Afghanistan, we’d probably have something very similar to FCS as originally envisioned (a system of systems designed to conduct highly efficient, networked warfare across the combat spectrum). Indeed, one of the primary arguments against FCS is that it wouldn’t improve the COIN capabilities of the Army. This is probably true, but if you don’t think that the Army should have turned to COIN in the first place, then criticism of FCS needs to be modified accordingly.
See also this nifty CAP chart about historical defense budgeting. It’s a little misleading to suggest that deficits forced Eisenhower and Bush to cut defense; in both cases post-war demobilization accounts for a big part of the cut. I do think it’s interesting, however, that elements of the right seem to be trying very hard to prevent any future Republican presidents from doing even the modest cutting that we saw from Bush, Eisenhower et al.