March 30, 2020

A Billion Here, A Billion There ...

By Stephen Tuttle | May 19, 2018


The Department of Defense got a big raise for 2018 and 2019. Their budget, now beyond $700 billion annually, means our defense budget is larger than that of the next seven countries ... combined. 

Maybe that will make us stronger. Maybe taxpayers will be on the hook for billions in cost overruns. Again.  

The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford is a case in point. The first of a new generation of carriers, it has every bell and whistle imaginable. It was supposed to be ready for service last May but didn't quite make it. Maybe next year. It's already $1 billion over budget and still needs at least $100 million in additional costs for an automated ammunition elevator system that doesn't work and some navigation glitches. Total projected cost now? $13.2 billion. For one ship. And they plan to build three more.

That's more than the entire state budgets of 15 states. The total cost of the four new carriers will exceed Michigan's annual budget. It seems a trifle excessive. 

Some would argue carriers are already nearly obsolete, vulnerable as they are from the air, water, and below the water. There isn't likely to be another Battle of Midway anytime soon, so the primary duty of carriers today is deterrence, to serve as a platform for our endless combat sorties in the Middle East, and to deploy based on the president's whims. The current carrier fleet, old though it might be, already serves those purposes.

But the world's most expensive ship is just a symptom of a much larger problem in the military procurement and spending system: Wirtually every weapons program involves delays and cost overruns.

The billion-dollar Virginia class submarines actually cost about $2.3 billion apiece. The $800 million B-2 stealth bomber? About $1.3 billion each. Our new class of $220 million littoral ships, designed to operate in shallower waters closer to shore, are now $478 million apiece and don't really work. 

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, supposedly the world's most advanced aircraft — and with capabilities for the Navy, Marines and Air Force — is now projected to cost more than $400 billion for the planes themselves and more than $1 trillion to keep them operational. The aircraft has been in development for 17 years and has yet to complete combat testing, which it will not do until next year.

The F-35 was supposed to be fully operational by July 2015, then was declared ready a year later, and then again a year after that. Still, the F-35 has never flown a combat mission for the U.S. military.  

(The Israelis, who have received nine F-35s, managed to get theirs operational in a year. with some upgrades. It is believed their pilots recently flew the first real combat missions in the F-35 against Russian aircraft over Syria. As always, the Israeli government would not comment.) 

Sometimes costs actually prevent us from using the weapon we spent billions creating. The USS Zumwalt, the first in its class of spiffy new stealth destroyers, has a cannon that can fire GPS-guided projectiles up to 60 miles. Unfortunately, those projectiles cost $800,000 apiece — so expensive that the Navy canceled future orders and is searching for a cheaper alternative. Even the practice shells cost nearly $400,000 each, so we don't even practice. We're pretty sure it will work if needed, though, because, after all, it's state of the art. 

Then there are the programs on which we spent billions for absolutely nothing. 

The Army's Future Combat System, an amorphous blob of a program created to answer future threats by establishing a magical and lightning-quick network allowing manned and unmanned vehicles to communicate, got off the ground in 2003. It was canceled in 2009, after spending $6.1 billion. There is no network or program. 

Nobody wants a weak military — or at least nobody will say so publicly. But there is now a huge disconnect between needs/costs and some semblance of fiscal responsibility. Congress doesn't even listen to the military when it comes to combat-system needs because canceling an unnecessary program might cost their district jobs and them votes and contributions.  

There certainly are needs beyond fancy new killing machines. The Navy is short of personnel to the point that they have severely curtailed some training. The result is untrained and sleep-deprived sailors, the cause of at least two recent deadly collisions.

And one hopes the newfound budget increases will be used for some serious upgrades to our country's cyber security. The Russians interfere in our elections with abandon and, allegedly, China uses hackers to steal intellectual property. We can safely assume neither country stops there. Fancy new ships and jets aren't likely to stop them.

Having a strong military isn't really a question; we have one. Wasting tens of billions on cost overruns and program delays doesn't help. Neither do priorities marooned in the Cold War. 






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