The builder of America’s next bomber faces a challenge as daunting as enemy missiles. The way America buys and builds its most important weapons is badly broken, busting budgets and endangering national security.
Barring an unlikely reversal of the Air Force’s decision, Northrop Grumman will build the Long Range Strike Bomber. It’s a significant hit to Boeing’s defense unit, but the story doesn’t end there.
The bomber, or LRS-B as it’s called, will offer a window into America’s troubled defense-procurement system.
Will it fly into the same fate as recent, notorious weapons such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, with cost overruns, delays and embarrassing setbacks? Or will it mark a departure for the better?
The answer will affect the entire defense industry, as well as taxpayers and the armed forces. It will be important, too, as the national- security environment is undergoing a tectonic shift.
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As part of last week’s budget deal, the Defense Department will receive $548 billion in fiscal 2016 and $551 billion in fiscal 2017, as Congress lifted austerity caps.
This is only part of the ledger. Harvard’s Linda Bilmes, a top expert in public finance, has calculated that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will end up costing $4 trillion. In addition, the Pentagon has assorted slush funds and the secret “black budget.”
But even with the baseline budget, the United States spends more on defense than the next seven nations combined. It is also the world’s largest arms exporter, followed by Russia and China.
This is actually something relatively new in the history of the nation, why so much civilian manufacturing was retooled to become the Arsenal of Democracy in World War II.
Things changed with the Cold War and America keeping large standing armed forces. It provoked President Eisenhower’s famous warning in his 1961 farewell address:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
But the influence has only increased since then, and to that pair can be added ”congressional.” In other words, members of Congress lobbying to retain or gain defense industry jobs in their districts and states. Spending received a huge boost after 9/11.
The Military Industrial Congressional complex is a self-reinforcing mechanism that may or may not serve the national interest. It is highly profitable for companies partaking from what we might call ”military Keynesianism.”
In recent years, however, the fundamental process of buying major weapons has spun so far out of control that it makes the Reagan-era $600 toilet seat seem tightfisted by comparison.
Exhibit A is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from Lockheed Martin (Boeing’s junior partner in the bomber bid). Intended to be a relatively lower-cost airplane to replace most of the nation’s aging fighter force, it has turned into a budget-busting nightmare. Depending on how one calculates it, the F-35 is about $200 billion over budget. It is also operationally troubled.
The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is a much better fighter but it was canceled in 2009. The Air Force received only 187 production aircraft instead of the 750 originally intended. The reason, again, was runaway costs.
On a much grander scale, the next-generation supercarrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, will cost at least $12.8 billion, along with an estimated $4.7 billion in development costs for the entire class of carriers.
By comparison, the USS George H.W. Bush, last of the Nimitz-class supercarriers, was completed in 2009 costing $6.2 billion.
Yet it’s far from clear that the Ford class is twice as good. The Ford’s electromagnetic catapult, replacing the venerable but trusty steam catapult for launching aircraft, is unreliable. Indeed, with Chinese “carrier killer” missiles, some analysts wonder if the age of the aircraft carrier is fading.
And these are the big procurement outrages. Earlier this year, Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, cited a study showing the Pentagon spent $46 billion from 2001 through 2011 on programs that never became operational.
The headwaters of these disasters share some common territory. First is fielding complex, highly advanced weapons such as the stealth F-35 and F-22, so called fifth-generation fighters that leapfrog off-the-shelf technology.
Second is a disconnect when contractors see costs rise, Congress cuts funding, and this makes unit costs rise even more.
Unrealistic expectations are another factor, especially with the F-35. The Pentagon demanded a single airframe that could meet the needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marines. The requirement to turn the F-35 into a jump jet for the Marines is a root of many of the cost overruns and operational woes.
Also on display with the F-35 are programs with such sunk costs and congressional support that they become too big to kill. Lockheed helpfully offers an interactive map online of every state’s benefits from the airplane (1,800 jobs in Washington).
Yet another root of setbacks is “concurrency,” the relatively new demand that these expensive projects be put into production while still being tested, or even still in design.
The result is essential weapons of questionable reliability precisely as the quarter-century pause after the Cold War may be winding down. In other words, when America’s future conflicts won’t be with small, relatively weak nations but with well-armed peers, or near peers. In such a fight, where the ”other guy gets a vote,” our small number of high-tech weapons might be quickly eliminated (as happens in the novel Ghost Fleet).
It also comes when, for all their power in Congress, the Pentagon and its contractors face budget limitations and fresh demands. For example, the fleet is aging and shrinking. The Navy must soon replace the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines (many based nearby in Bangor). The cost, along with that for the Fords, could crowd out the ability to pay for other needed ships.
The only comfort is the allegation that China hacked classified information on the F-35 to make a copycat. Don’t change a thing.