A March 31, 2008 GAO report found continued and worsening problems in the Pentagon’s acquisition programs. In 2000 the Department of Defense (DOD) had 75 systems in its acquisition program representing a commitment of $790 billion. In 2007, this had increased to 95 systems worth $1.6 trillion. In 2000, the difference between the total acquisition cost and the initial estimate was 6% ($42 billion). By 2007, it was 26% ($295 billion). Of current programs, 14% are more than 4 years late. 15% are 2-4 years behind schedule. 38% are up to 2 years late, and 33% are on schedule. The average delay is 21 months.
The report looked at 72 individual programs including the largest in greater detail. It found that none of them had proceeded through system development adhering to best practices standards. 88% began without having critical technologies ready and developed for them. 96% still did not have them or a stable design later when they moved into the demonstration phase. And no program as it entered into production had good controls for monitoring the manufacturing process, and most were not even collecting the data necessary to do so.
There were other problems. 63% had changes in requirements after development began causing cost increases of 72%. Programs that did not experience such changes had cost grow by an average of 11%. There was also significant turnover in program managers so that the average time on the job was 17 months, less than half what the Pentagon’s own policy prescribes. As elsewhere, the DOD relies heavily on contractors (48% of acquisitions staff) to do the work that government employees used to do with all the blurring of management and control that this represents. Finally, in about half the projects using software there was an increase of more than 25% in the lines of expected code, an important indicator of cost and scheduling problems.
For 2008, the top 10 (out of 95) defense acquisition programs accounted for $39.1 billion out of a budget of $72.3 billion or 54% of it. What were these programs? The biggest at $8.9 billion is Bush’s ballistic missile defense shield, you know the one that doesn’t work (see item 73). Then there are the Joint Strike Fighter ($6.7 billion) and the F-22A ($4.4 billion). The Navy has even more goodies: the Virginia Class Submarine ($2.9 billion), another aircraft carrier ($3.1 billion), the DDG 1000 destroyer ($3.5 billion), an F/A-18 upgrade ($2.1 billion), and the P-8A an anti-submarine plane ($0.9 billion). The Marines continue to get funding for the V-22 Osprey, a plane that crashes a lot ($3 billion). The US Army which has been doing most of the heavy lifting in Iraq for the last 5 years really gets the short end of the stick in this military industrial lovefest but does have a suite of programs called Future Combat Systems ($3.6 billion).
In short, the Pentagon continues to spend huge amounts of money on acquisition of new weapons systems and manages to waste most of it. It does so by having no clear idea what it wants and then adding on capabilities later when it is much more expensive to do so. It does so by having no one in charge who knows the program or by passing these functions on to outside contractors who have little or no interest in containing costs. It does so by fostering inter-service rivalries which lead to individual services defending systems that contribute more to the nation’s deficit than to its defense. It does so by tying individual careers to the continuance of programs and so creates vested interests that will protect them for reasons that are more personal than professional. It does so by spreading program spending around to many states and Congressional districts so that there will be built in political support for a program even if it is overbudget, behind schedule, and works poorly or not at all.
Looking at the 10 biggest programs, we should ask ourselves if these programs really represent the military we need. Most of them are gold-plated anachronisms left over from the Cold War. Our biggest military operations during the Bush years have been in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet almost all these systems are irrelevant to such engagements. Indeed while we have been in these countries several years, our experiences in them are not reflected at all in the acquisition budget, a likely legacy of Donald Rumsfeld.
Finally, the 2008 US defense budget is estimated to be $623 billion. This is substantially more than the rest of the world combined. China is second at $65 billion, and Russia third at $50 billion. Whom are we defending ourselves from, and how? Yes, we need an adequate defense both for ourselves and to help defend our allies, but do we truly need to spend 10 times more than our nearest rival and to spend it so poorly? And what are the costs here at home? How many roads and schools are not being built? How much healthcare isn’t being purchased? How much science and technology are not being funded? How much of what makes this country worth defending is being passed over?