The Government Accountability Office has issued yet another study documenting gross overspending and underproduction in Pentagon weapons systems.
The GAO has been doing these studies and making recommendations for the past six years, followed by promises from the Pentagon and defense contractors to improve.
But the problems have not gotten better. If anything, they have gotten worse.
The GAO found, for example, that, as the Washington Post news story put it, “95 major weapons systems have exceeded their original budgets by a total of $295 billion, bringing their total cost to $1.6 trillion, and are delivered almost two years late on average.”
This comes at a time when the Pentagon has doubled the amount committed to new weapons systems, from $790 billion in 2000 to $1.6 trillion last year. In 2000, 75 weapons systems came in at an average of 6 percent over original budget, but in 2007 the increase was 26 percent.
Development costs for Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter and Boeing’s Future Combat Systems, for example, designed to connect vehicles (generally tanks) and unmanned aircraft, have risen 36 percent and 40 percent respectively — in part, the GAO says, because the government orders “new and unproven technologies” that might not even be feasible to produce.
This gross waste on weapons systems is distressing enough at a time when U.S. service people have had to cope with a lack of simple but potentially life-saving equipment like better-armored vehicles and body armor. Even more troubling is that most of these weapons systems are of little use for the kinds of conflicts the United States is likely to face in the near future. Many systems are relics of the Cold War, when the thinking was the United States might have to face the massed military might, including impressive sea power and airpower, of another superpower.
The challenge today, however, comes from jihadist terrorists and extremists who are not sustained by nation-states. Although these modern terrorists adapt some high-tech technologies like the Internet to their purposes, they generally rely on low-tech weapons like roadside bombs and suicide vests.
“It’s an overstatement, but only slightly so, to suggest that we would be better off to scrap all these fancy weapons systems and put it all into Special Forces, better human intelligence and Predator drones,” said Ivan Eland, director of the Center for Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute. Eland’s background includes being a weapons analyst for the GAO.
The military procurement system is mired in Cold War thinking because it is so heavily politicized. Expensive weapons systems might not help much against Osama bin Laden, but subcontracts for them are spread out among key congressional districts, where they allow members of Congress to boast that they are bringing home the federal bacon. If the system is not drastically reformed, cost overruns and delays on useless systems will be an ongoing burden on taxpayers.