In a recent post, I pushed back on the notion, which former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates raised during congressional testimony, that political turbulence is the greatest threat to the U.S. military. Gates is not necessarily wrong. He is simply misguided, because some degree of turbulence is baked into large democracies. As long as budgets are finite and rival factions compete over the allocation of funds, the military will always face some uncertainty about appropriations. That’s not a threat. That’s a fact of life. Nevertheless, Gates did provide several solid insights during his time before the Senate Armed Services Committee. One in particular warrants further comment.
During a discussion of potential fixes to the Pentagon’s ever-inefficient acquisition system, Gates highlighted the need for buy weapon systems in bulk. The idea is that buying more copies of certain weapon systems, without necessarily loading them with exquisite capabilities, will cost less due to simplified manufacturing and economies of scale. Bigger orders of slightly simpler hardware will help the military stock up and fill gaps in its operational capacity. As the Government Accountability Office has argued, cost overruns and schedule delays in weapons acquisition are often the product of demands for systems with capabilities that push the technological envelope. Acquisition programs using “off-the-shelf” technology tend to be more successful.
The problem is that the military prefers to load its weapons with cutting edge technology. Despite a well-earned reputation for conservatism, the military services exhibit far more technophilia than technophobia. This predilection contributes to skyrocketing per-unit costs on major weapon systems, obliterates economies of scale in production, and leads to requests for even bigger defense budgets to ensure that the number of expensive weapons systems produced does not fall short of strategic needs.
The solution Gates recommends is not necessarily new. As Jerry Hendrix, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, notes in a recent opinion piece,
In the early 1970s a new series of aircraft and ships were introduced in response to new Soviet threats that were both highly technical and very expensive. The Air Force’s F-15 Eagle and the Navy’s F-14 Tomcat were procured as air dominance fighters to go up against the new Soviet MiG-25 Foxbat, but their cost per unit did not allow for them to replace previous aircraft in a one for one ratio.
Both the Navy and the Air Force elected to simultaneously procure a “lightweight fighter” at a cheaper price per unit. This “hi-lo” mix procurement plan led to the acquisition of the F-16 Falcon and the FA-18 Hornet which helped to keep aircraft inventory numbers up in both services at a lower cost. It was well understood that quantity had a quality all its own.
Hendrix is right, but the Air Force’s decision to pursue the F-16 was not just a matter of keeping inventories up and maintenance costs down. The Air Force worried that the high cost and overspecialization of the F-15 would lead Congress to cancel the program and force the service to purchase F-14s, which were further along in development. The Air Force—a service that owes its existence to the airplane—did not want to be saddled with a Navy plane, as it had been the previous decade.
As I’ve discussed before, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara tried to develop a joint Air Force-Navy fighter program, known as the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX)—later dubbed the F-111. When the Navy pulled out of the TFX program, it proved too expensive as a single-service Air Force program. Instead, McNamara ordered the service to accept an adapted version an existing Navy fighter, the F-4. Fearing a similar result in the 1970s, a group of Air Force officers and Pentagon officials led by Colonel John Boyd, known as the “Fighter Mafia,” designed a fast, “austere” aircraft that became the F-16.
During his testimony, Gates ticked off the usual litany of recommendations to fix acquisitions. The leadership and accountability he recommends would be welcome improvements to the process. But the “great man theory” of acquisition reform is not going to be enough to provide the services with incentives to pursue lower-cost solutions to their programmatic needs. The origins of the F-16 suggest competition provides at least some incentive.