I t’s an all-too-familiar story in the history of weapons-development programs. Somebody hatches a bright new idea for keeping the U.S. military on the cutting edge. The program promises to soar, until everyone in the Pentagon demands a piece of the action, piling so many bells and whistles on the bright idea that it begins to assume all the sleekness, stealth and war fighting aptitude of Santa’s sleigh. Soon, what once soared to the clouds is having a hard time getting off the ground. Presto: The bright idea has become another over-budget, behind-schedule, underperforming boondoggle.
Perhaps the unmanned aerial vehicle called Global Hawk will soon be soaring to promised heights. But it might also be headed for a fall, following the precise avenue just described. Such pilotless drones have by many accounts proven their value in Iraq and Afghanistan. But early success often brings such systems crashing to the ground, as the extras get added on.
Program costs have soared much faster and higher than the plane does, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. The system’s per-unit price has risen 44 percent in recent years, meaning fewer aircraft can be purchased.
The Air Force is seeking $750 million for the program in 2006, roughly triple what was originally planned — even as the add-ons have “led to space, weight and power constraints for the advanced model,” according to one published report.
“Overall, the new plan has increased risks significantly,” the GAO warned. A prototype for the most advanced variant has not worked, according to the report, and many of the technologies involved are still “immature.”
Not to worry, Defense Department officials say. Their goal is to rapidly deploy such new technologies by focusing on “risk management, as opposed to risk avoidance.”
We’re not sure what that means. But we understand this: The risks involved in this and other high-flying weapons programs fall hardest not on the Pentagon procurement officers managing them, but on taxpayers who pay for the boondoggles.
Also at risk are the soldiers in the field who are counting on the help of a “Global Hawk,” but could find themselves stuck with a turkey.