It is common for defense acquisition programs to have significant cost overruns and schedule delays. One need only look at the much-maligned F-35 fighter program to find an example of these problems. Not all major defense programs have been overbudget and behind schedule, however. The U.S. Navy’s Polaris Fleet Ballistic Missile program, which began development in the 1950s, is an example of a large defense acquisition that did not exceed estimated costs. The Navy today is trying to develop, in partnership with Lockheed Martin, a new missile called the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). When trying to understand to what extent the LRASM will meet cost, performance, and introduction estimates, it may be useful to compare it to a weapon system meeting its development expectations.

In his book evaluating the Polaris, political scientist and Niskanen Center adjunct scholar Harvey Sapolsky discusses why the program was successful. While he acknowledges that the reasons for the success of the Polaris system are manyand some unique to that programseveral aspects of the program stand out. The first is the need for a favorable environment for the weapons program. A program needs to have technological opportunities and political support. In the case of the Polaris, the increasing nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union, particularly its missiles, spurred a desire to improve America’s nuclear deterrent. Stealthy submarines capable of launching nuclear missiles from the sea were a promising way to improve America’s deterrent.


In the 21st century, the U.S. has been wary of China’s increasing military capabilities, particularly its precise long-range strike capability in the West Pacific. Improving America’s own long-range strike capabilities through programs like the LRASM is a way technology could help the U.S. Navy contend with the threat. The new missile is a way to improve these capabilities, allowing the U.S. to destroy Chinese ships and possibly targets on land while keeping the Navy’s expensive ships at relatively safe distances. In addition, the weapon’s sensors, which can guide the missile to a target over long distances without the aid of satellites, which may be vulnerable to Chinese anti-satellite weapons—thus making this capability resilient in high-intensity conflict. Ultimately, the LRASM could therefore help deter Chinese aggression against U.S. allies by making it more dangerous for the People’s Liberation Army Navy to project force.

Although political circumstances and technological opportunities have dovetailed to some extent, it is not the same as the Polaris program. Strategic deterrence and a second-strike capability had nearly unanimous political support. Preparing for a regional conflict in the West Pacific by improving long-range strike options may have support, but not likely to the same degree. While most agree that China’s rise poses an important political and military challenge for the United States, it is not the singular focus of American foreign policy that the Soviet Union was at the time Polaris was being developed. The mission to deter Chinese aggression in the Western Pacific must therefore compete with other potential missions such as counterterrorism and deterring a resurgent Russia in Eastern Europe.

Defense programs must also compete with each other for funding while responding to criticism. The programs need skill in bureaucratic politics to navigate these challenges. A project’s political challenges must often be addressed before the technological development can be approached effectively. In the case of the Polaris missile, it had to compete for funding with nuclear delivery systems from the other service branches. According to Sapolsky, Polaris program managers emphasized the use of new and supposedly more efficient set of management skills to win political support. With established funding, the Polaris program applied bureaucratic strategies such as co-opting scientists by funding their research to protect the program from potential criticism.

Like the Polaris program, the LRASM will need to compete with other weapons producers supplying similar missiles. LRASM program managers have emphasized their technologically sophisticated product, as compared to an upgraded version of the Tomahawk missile and other competitors. To a military that wants the most effective weapons and a belief in the power of technology, such advertising could be appealing. So far, the LRASM program has managed to maintain funding, despite competing defense firms like Raytheon questioning the merits of the weapon and the Pentagon’s support for it.

Though the initial order was for a relatively small number of missiles as a stop-gap measure, the Navy plans to hold an open competition for a contract to produce more long-range missiles. So far, Lockheed Martin’s progress with LRASM has won over the Navy, which awarded it a contract worth over $321 million dollars. This contract will allow it to put the funds toward solving technical issues in the program and improving the missile with some security from outside interference. Despite some concern about the technological maturity of the guidance systems, the LRASM could enter production by 2017, possibly entering service in 2018.

It is important to note that the scale of the LRASM program compared to the Navy’s budget has been and will likely be smaller than for Polaris. For a sense of scale, one Government Accountability Office report says the total program for low-rate initial production of 110 missiles is $1.42 billion for the years 2013-2019, out of the Navy’s projected annual budgets of over $150 billion dollars. Sapolsky cites a source saying that for 6 of 11 program years, the annual costs of Polaris development were 10 percent of the Navy’s budget.

A combination of a favorable environment and the ability to compete in bureaucratic politics has helped both programs. According to Sapolsky, these two conditions were necessary but insufficient for successful military procurement. The technology must still be developed, though he said the Polaris program used fairly conventional management techniques to do so—such as decentralization and internal competition. However, the inherent secrecy in the LRASM program limits the comparisons that can be made between it and Polaris in terms of the development process.

The major similarity between the two weapons programs is the ability to compete in bureaucratic politics and maintain political support in an environment influenced by international military developments. Yet the breadth of the political support for and scale of the program are major differences. Sapolsky warns that there is uncertainty about how generalizable the factors leading to the success of the Polaris program are. However, if the LRASM enters the service on time and without exceeding budget projections, it can provide further evidence of the necessary conditions for programmatic success—something that more often than not proves illusory.