After a recent chat with a friend who is working on the F-22 program, I've decided that it's time for me to unleash my rant about the biggest problems I've observed with the way that the Pentagon and Congress deal with military acquisition. I make my case from the perspective that I hope we'll get smarter about the way we spend defense dollars, getting a good value for the taxpayer and ensuring that our fighting forces get the weapon systems that they need.
I think the poster-children for all the problems with military acquisition are the Seawolf-class and Virginia-class submarine programs. The Seawolf-class was designed during the 80's as a class of subs that could autonomously track and destroy Soviet ballistic missile subs. When the Soviet Union fell, the Seawolf-class was seen as a relic, and dropped after only three boats were authorized. But there was a problem; namely, how do you replace all the aging Los Angeles-class subs in the US Navy fleet? Rather than building more Seawolf-class boats, the Navy authorized the Virginia-class submarines. In comparison, the Virginia-class was smaller and slower than the Seawolf-class, with fewer torpedo tubes. After a lengthy and costly development program, the Virginia class proved to be only marginally cheaper per boat than the Seawolf-class.
Another case-in-point is the F-22 fighter program. I will be the first to admit that it would have been wise to cancel the F-22 back in 1992 when the Soviet Union dissolved. But that didn't happen, and the F-22 development program slogged on, logging its first flight in 1997 and Initial Operational Capability by late 2005. Now it appears that F-22 production will soon end at 187 airframes. While the F-22 is undoubtedly an expensive plane, much of that can be attributed to its protracted and expensive development. Now that the development costs have been sunk, the marginal cost of each F-22 is a steal compared to what the F-35 will cost early in its production run. By comparison, the F-22 is faster, stealthier, and more maneuverable than the F-35. Even the F-35's touted advantages in attack capabilities are largely moot, because the F-22 can also carry two Joint Direct Attack Munitions internally. The F-35's only advantage is the novel lift fan which allows the Marine Corps' variant to land vertically.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is another example of a program that has pressed on in spite of its questionable value to the taxpayers. It's supposed to replace the Air Force F-16 and A-10, Navy F/A-18 (and the A-6 long-range strike plane, which has been retired for the last 12 years,) and Marine Corps AV-8 Harrier. But is it really necessary to build an all-new fighter possessing "an affordable degree of stealth"? Stealth is overrated after the enemy's air defenses have been wiped out, and it constrains how much ordinance you can carry. The F-16 and F/A-18 are still very capable airplanes, and will remain on-top with avionics upgrades and integration of the newest weapon systems. Even the venerable A-10 is becoming less relevant, with F-15E Strike Eagles performing much of the close air support work in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the Harrier brings some very unique capabilities to the battlefield with its ability to operate from short airstrips and amphibious assault ships, it's worth asking whether the costs of Harrier acquisition and operations were superior compared to using Marine AH-1 Cobra attack choppers to meet the mission requirements.
So the F-22 production will soon end, while troubled programs like Global Hawk are kept on life support. Global Hawk is five years behind schedule, while the Predator series of tactical unmanned aerial vehicles continues pressing on at a remarkable pace. Originally used for recon in the Balkans, the baseline Predator has become a vital weapon for taking out high-value terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The bigger Predator-B was re-christened as the "Reaper," and it's living up to its name in dishing out laser-guided death to Jihad Joe. The new Predator-C introduces stealth and higher speeds to the successful Predator formula. While Global Hawk is more of a strategic intelligence asset than the tactical Predator, its myriad delays have motivated the defense department to find interim solutions that get results.
The big lesson for Congress and the military acquisition bureaucracy is that major development programs may take a decade or more and will require billions of dollars. They should never be undertaken lightly. And once we commit to them, we have a duty to see them through to production and build as many weapon systems from that program as we can to meet our mission requirements. It is a complete waste of taxpayer dollars and a dangerous disservice to our fighting men and women if we go back to the drawing board every time that we balk at the unit cost of a major weapon system.