Subscribe via RSS Feed

What Does it Mean to Waste Money?

[ 49 ] July 7, 2011 |

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.

 

 

 

Share with Sociable

Comments (49)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Oscar Leroy says:

    “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.”

    The problem, though, is that after the USSR disintegrated we left in place far too many programs that were conceived to oppose it. Those programs were sure to be wastes.

    Who was a “a technologically superior aircraft that could hide from enemies” going to help us against, looking ahead in 1993 or 1996? Muslim terrorists? Somali pirates? Narcotraffickers? Canada, France, Australia?

    • rea says:

      You forget that as recently as 2003 or so, people in this country were talking about a possible war with France. If you want to be world hegemon, you’ve got to expect to fight . . . everyone.

  2. Jncc says:

    Any healthy system of procurement designed to support a modern, capable military is going to have a lot of cancelled systems

    Evidence?

    • Malaclypse says:

      The preceding sentence.

      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.

      Keeping everything going no matter what would be quite wasteful

      • Murc says:

        Also, you have to ask yourself ‘Cui bono?’

        Defense contractors LOVE mature weapons systems. So does the Pentagon. There are two magical words that are almost guaranteed to get the DoD to open its wallet: ‘proven technology.’

        A cancelled weapons system doesn’t profit ANYONE except maybe the taxpayers. Defense contractors and R&D firms and Generals who have spent a decade plus shepherding these things through the pipeline want them to come to fruition and then be bought, in massive numbers, for years and years to come.

        Theoretically the money has been wasted in that we can’t USE things that don’t pan out, but my point is that the defense industry never intentionally tries to produce useless and/or shitty hardware. It often does so anyway, but nobody sets out with the plan ‘Hey! I’ll build something useless that nobody will want to buy.’ These are legitimate failures of ideas to pan out, and as Robert said, that’s HEALTHY. It means the system is working. If we never cancelled anything ever, I wouldn’t think ‘wow, we’re amazing, we only fund awesome weapons!’ I’d think ‘there’s some graft in there.’

        • firefall says:

          yes … if you criticize these cancellations hard enough, you might stop the Pentagon from cancelling projects – whether they are needed, wanted, or appropriate, or not.

  3. Some Guy says:

    Shout out to the panzerschiffs! Obsolete plans, represent!

    The Comanche always seemed exceptionally silly, to me, as radar stealthyness and being able to fly upside down, won’t help you against guys shooting you with AK-47s. And you WILL be shot at by guys with AK-47s, because you are a helicopter.
    It really feels like design under the theory of “if everything works perfectly for us, this will be awesome to have” warfare.

    • ajay says:

      Good luck trying to bring down a helicopter with an AK-47.

      • BigHank53 says:

        ….you do know that your average helicopter is about as bulletproof as a hollow-core closet door, right? And that helicopters are usually used for close ground support, where lots of people have small arms, and not much to shoot at?

        The Comanche would have been cool in a scenario where the Army had to engage in dogfights against other attack helicopters. The number of coutries capable of fielding appreciable numbers of attack helicopter that aren’t allies of ours: zero.

        • ajay says:

          you do know that your average helicopter is about as bulletproof as a hollow-core closet door, right? And that helicopters are usually used for close ground support, where lots of people have small arms, and not much to shoot at?

          Are you aware that the sort of helicopters used for ground support are armoured? The crew of an Apache sit in what’s best described as an armoured box. Kevlar, titanium, and bullet-proof glass are all over the airframe, and are designed to stop anything up to .50 calibre rounds. The engines can’t be damaged by anything less than a 20mm cannon shell. A Mi-24D Hind is similarly armoured, and the cockpit can take anything up to a 37mm shell.

          You must have some fascinating closet doors in your house.

          • soullite says:

            One person thinks gunships are worthless and made of plywood and the others believes they’ve been built out of hardened adamantium and can deny the laws of physics.

            I’m sure the crew of that Apache will be very pleased to know that it’s engine is undamaged as the kinetic force from the 20mm shell is sending them hurtling toward the ground.

            • Robert Farley says:

              This is a nice demonstration of the principle “soullite is incapable of making a positive contribution to any comment thread.”

              • rhino says:

                Does anyone have any links to rational discussions of the battle hardening of helicopters?

                I remember being told by a viet nam era pilot that they were essentially flying deathtraps, and that enough bullets sprayed into the rotors would bring you down even if they hit nothing but the blades.

                But then, he flew jets, so maybe it was just snobbery.

                • I don’t have a link, but the hardening of helicopters has changed quite a bit since Vietnam.

                • asdfsdf says:

                  I have a link. Start on page 3, near the end.

                  Basically, nobody really denies that helicopters in Vietnam were kinda shitty. They relied on speed and low altitude to avoid being hit, and were flying death traps if pinned down by fire- their only protection were the door guns. Hence Apocalypse Now massed assaults, not one chopper at a time.

                  Modern helicopters are much better, and are essentially bulletproof to small arms fire. Numerous defensive and survivability measures have been introduced. For instance, the UH-60 lands on massive shock absorbers, not skids, and the cockpit seats are on their own shock absorbers. The helicopter is armored. The control systems are redundant. The UH-60 fills the same role as the UH-1 at twice the weight, because the airframe is larger and stronger and the engines even more so. The Blackhawks that were brought down in Somalia were hit by antitank weapons, remember. You can read about some of the measures on the wikipedia pages of the UH-60 and AH-64.

                  Still, the best defense is speed. Imagine how hard it is to hit a chopper moving this quickly.

          • Some Guy says:

            The only* Allied plane that got shot down in Bosnia was an F-117.
            And armor wouldn’t help much as bullets chip and scratch away at the pretty anti-radar paint.
            What range is the armor rated to? Will it stop a 7.62 round at 300 feet? 200? 50? What if they got their hands on AP rounds? Military test results are notorious for painting a rosy picture.
            How armored are your rotor assemblies?
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_aviation_shootdowns_and_accidents_during_the_Iraq_War#Helicopters
            Lotta armored Apaches on that list.

            Regardless, my point is that it was an stupid amount of tech and money to put into front-line unit, where quantity easily trumps quality.

            *as I recall, ‘only’.

            • Ed Marshall says:

              I know that I’ve been told by Afghanistan veterans that the presence of a helicopter appeared to be a guarantee that the Taliban was going to retreat from their patrol. They would see snipers setting up positions and when the helicopters got there, they would just pack up and leave.

  4. wengler says:

    The military doesn’t want Camrys. They want Lamborghinis. They also don’t want to fight imperial wars of oppression(known popularly among American elites as COIN), because mine detectors, MRAPs, and compensating some mountain herder for a blown up goat is about as far away from a Lamborghini military as you can get.

    • Murc says:

      They SHOULDN’T want to do occupations. That’s not in their job description. Armies are ARMIES. They exist to conquer, not keep the peace. Their portfolio is sort of the exact opposite of keeping the piece and they aren’t trained for it.

      People tend to forget this, and COPS tend to forget it, but modern civil peacekeeping forces are CIVILIAN OPERATIONS.

      • The Italians have the idea with the Carabinieri.

      • soullite says:

        The Army’s job is whatever the President says it is.

        • Murc says:

          Technically accurate but completely wrong as a practical matter.

          Sure, the President could order the Army to provide personal clown shows for all Americans. That doesn’t really mean its a job they’re competent, equipped, trained, or suitable for.

      • Asteele says:

        The US tried to conquer Iraq in 2003, and then the Iraqis started an insurgency, in an attempt to force us out of their country. Assuming you wanted to succeed in the whole conquer the country/permanent bases/control of Iraq’s foreign policy thing/(I didn’t). Did you have some other organisation in mind that the US government could of used to do that, cause I think we only have the one.

    • The military doesn’t want Camrys. They want Lamborghinis.

      Until they actually end up in a fight, and then they start screaming for as many Camrys as they can get, but whoops! they shut down all the Camry production to put their money into Lamboghinis.

      It happens over and over and over again, especially with aircraft.

  5. ajay says:

    Armies are ARMIES. They exist to conquer, not keep the peace.

    Some people might say that an army should exist to defend, and that having conquest as the main aim of your army is immoral and counterproductive lunacy, but those people would of course be hippies.

    • dave says:

      Armies should exist to win wars. They and their leaders are doing right when they put forward their professional opinions about how to win wars.

      What those wars are, and whether it’s right to fight them, are questions for civilians. Or perhaps ‘citizens’.

    • The equipment, doctrine, and organization necessary to drive the Germans out of France (or the Soviets out of West Germany) is exactly the same as that necessary for the conquest of France by the Germans, or of Eastern Europe by the USSR.

      Heck, let’s take that last one, the USSR rolling through Eastern Europe: driving out the Germans, or a war of imperial conquest? How would the army they put together be any different if it was entirely one or entirely the other?

    • rea says:

      The notion that occupation/peacekeeping/maintaining domestic order isn’t the proper role of an army is a little odd, when you consider what armies have spent the last 3000 years doing.

      • ajay says:

        rea: I think you are consuming descriptive (“what armies have spent the last 3000 years doing”) with normative (“an army should exist to defend”) statements.

        • rea says:

          A nation-state is a territorial monopoly of legitimate violence. An army is the nation-state’s primary tool for maintaining that monopoly. I’m not sure the normative/descriptive distinction applies to that, any more than it applies to gravity. But to the extent that we’re talking norms, I can’t think it was wrong to sent the 82nd Airborne to Little Rock to enforce desegregation.

          • ajay says:

            But that wasn’t an act of conquest, though, was it? I’m taking issue with the assertion that armies are supposed to be for conquering.

          • ajay says:

            A nation-state is a territorial monopoly of legitimate violence. An army is the nation-state’s primary tool for maintaining that monopoly.

            Also, this is a real Economics 101, atoms-are-little-billiard-balls simplification, which is not only wrong but tends to be wrongest exactly when it is most useful.

            • dave says:

              Actually, I think it’s just wrong. The military’s job isn’t to maintain the MofV – that’s for the police. Armies are best used, to paraphrase Patton, to fuck up some other sonofabitch’s MofV…

    • but those people would of course be hippies.

      Indeed. Profoundly ignorant hippies, who think “defend” is an inherently moral category, while “attack” is inherently immoral.

      Some of the most oppressive, murderous militaries in the modern world had absolutely no capacity to project power outside the country, and were able only to “defend” the regime or dominant ethnic/religious/racial group against dissidents. See Burma, or Cambodia, or Gadhaffi’s Libya, or the antebellum militias in soon-to-be Confederate states, or Enver Hoxha’s Albania with it’s zillion concrete pill boxes facing east.

      While armies capable of conducting offensive operations outside of their country – the Vietnamese army that overthrew the Khmer Rouge, the Anglo-American forces that drove the Nazis out of Western Europe – have conducted some of the most morally beneficial actions in history.

    • Uncle Kvetch says:

      Some people might say that an army should exist to defend, and that having conquest as the main aim of your army is immoral and counterproductive lunacy, but those people would of course be hippies.

      I would take it a step further, ajay, and put it to you that in today’s United States, “What is the army for?” is a question that only a DFH would ask. Very Serious people know that the proper question is “What are wars for?”, and the proper Very Serious answer is “To give the army something to do.”

      Or, as Madeleine Albright (who is Very Serious indeed) so eloquently put it, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

      • That’s a misrepresentation of Albright’s statement.

        She asked Powell if it would be possible to use Apaches instead of jets to hit columns in Serbia, to minimize civilian casualties. He said they’d need to fly from bases in Bosnia instead of in Italy, so they’d need to put tanks in country to protect them. She asked how quickly that could be done, and he said it would take months.

        She wasn’t making a statement about the military’s use, but about its capabilities. Not “if you don’t use it,” but “if you can’t use it.” Meaning, why are we spending all this money on the military if it isn’t able to do its job?

        I’m not a big fan of Albright – she of “my touch stone is always Munich” – but she gets a bum rap for this quote.

  6. clever screen name says:

    Eightneen thousand jobs today. Do you know that means at this rate the jobs will NEVER return? They’re all in China, India, and Brazil now, and this is BEFORE the Obama Austerity Budget.

  7. fronobulax says:

    The Comanche/LHX was pretty messed up design due to overly ambitious and conflicting requirements.

    Fred Brooks (a CS professor) writes about his personal experience with this in his book “The Design of Design”. When sitting on an advisory board reviewing the LHX he was horrified to learn that in addition to all the usual attack helicopter stuff, the LHX was supposed to be able to ferry itself across the Atlantic. Given the tradeoffs in design, a system can’t be all things to all people.

    • rea says:

      We always seem to want to build Swiss Army knives, rather than tools for particular purposes.

      • Murc says:

        Loading down soldiers with a massive amount of specialized tools has proven to be problematic. And maintaining a whole lot of specialized vehicles in the field, each of which has a completely different logistical chain attached to it, has ALSO proven problematic. So it’s an understandable impulse.

      • DocAmazing says:

        Notice, please, that the knife in question is intended for the Swiss Army, not for Swiss watchmakers. Soldiers in the field need multipurpose, robust tools and gear that allow for improvisation. The more specialized the tools provided, the more tools will need to be carried. That’s why bayonet sheaths have wire cutters built into them, or rifle buttstocks might sport bottle openers.

      • We always seem to want to build Swiss Army knives, rather than tools for particular purposes.

        Disagree. Look at the F-22. Oh, boy, two whole bombs!

  8. asdfsdf says:

    The Commanche was dumb. Any helicopter can cross oceans. You fold the rotors and put it in a plane.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.