“The Biggest Loser”? Our Dangerous Defense Policy Addiction

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

June 30, 2009

From the Super Big Gulps that we love to slurp down to the gargantuan sport utility vehicles that we park in our McMansions, we are a nation that loves to go “big” in all the meanings of the term. Indeed, this “bigger is better” mentality even permeates all aspects of our defense acquisitions.

Take the size of our weapons. We specialize in buying systems that aren’t just big, but supersized, from the Navy’s Ford class aircraft carrier that weighs 112,000 tons and is staffed by a crew half the size of our nation’s diplomatic corps to the Marines’ planned Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, tasked to nimbly navigate urban combat zones, even though it’s bigger than a city bus.

We certainly don’t think small when it comes to cost either. On the ground, the Army’s signature Future Combat Systems program was officially priced at $160 billion, but projected to reach as much as $300 billion. But this is peanuts compared with the F-35 fighter program, which is currently projected to reach almost $1 trillion over its lifetime.

But it is not just the systems themselves where bigger is seemingly better; it’s also the companies that make them. Over the last 20 years, the number of Pentagon prime contractors that could compete on major programs went from 20 to six. The result is that we now have mega-sized defense oligopolies and are trending toward monopolies in areas like jet fighter production and shipbuilding.

Declining competition has helped expand another “big” area, cost overruns. The Government Accountability Office found that overall Pentagon weapons purchasing is $295 billion over budget. The F-22 fighter jet, for instance, started out as a program to buy 648 aircraft for $149 million each. We ended up getting 187 aircraft for about $350 million each.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recently committed to buying a supposedly more “affordable” alternative, the F-35. That aircraft was originally planned to cost $79 million apiece, but is already up to $153 million for the next buy — before flight testing is even completed.

The bloat also covers the time required to take these systems from concept to reality. For instance, the Joint Tactical Radio System was planned to give our troops a “next generation” communications system. It was conceived in 1997, the very same year Apple conceived its iMac initiative. Twelve years and $1.2 billion later, JTRS is still several years from fielding, while Apple produced everything from several generations of Powerbook computers to more than 175 million iPods. Indeed, while soldiers in Afghanistan are still waiting for JTRS, their kids at home can buy an iPhone, which took Apple just 30 months and $150 million to develop.

Just as we have come to learn that our gargantuan eating habits helped lead to two-thirds of Americans being overweight and that our obsession with McMansions left many with McMortgages they couldn’t pay, we must now come to grips with the national security consequences of this “bigger is better” mentality.

Our national obsession with bigness has arguably not made us more secure, but instead made our options smaller. In every key area of defense we are locking ourselves into a smaller number of larger, highly expensive weapons platforms. Unless we are comfortable with a Navy of fewer than 200 ships, an Air Force with just 20 strategic stealthy bombers, and ground forces stuck with declining numbers of vehicles and communications from the 1980s, it is time for our defense strategy to break this cycle.

As part of this, the Pentagon must redirect its defense industrial strategy, so that our goal is to transform bloated Beltway Bandits into a more svelte Silicon Valley. We should encourage fierce competition, opening up the marketplace wherever possible. Indeed, imagine how different our situation would look if the Pentagon had a system that emphasized tight production cycles that took years, not decades, to turn ideas into reality and refused to commit to systems until they were ready.

We have some tough choices in the years ahead, but perhaps the most important is to take a hard look in the mirror and question where our “bigger is better” mentality is taking us. Otherwise I fear the same thing that happened at Disney World may happen to our national defense: The “It’s a Small World” ride ground to a halt because the average rider had gotten too fat.