Considering the immense deficit-reduction work that lies ahead to help restore U.S. economic strength—which underwrites the nation’s military power—the aerospace industry ought to have breathed a sigh of relief when Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently unveiled the Pentagon’s Fiscal 2012 budget. Even with $78 billion stripped from future spending and another $100 million reallocated internally, government suppliers for the most part still dodged the proverbial bullet.
One that did not was General Dynamics and its Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. The Marine Corps program was the poster child for paying more to get less. The same holds true for the intractable problems of other programs canceled over the past few years, such as the Army’s Future Combat Systems and the Navy’s DDG-1000 destroyer, among others. Whether they are actually gone is another matter. Most live on as declared goals of the U.S. military.
Ironically, by eliminating programs that were hopelessly over budget and behind schedule, Gates removed some of the anchors around the collective necks of industry and the Pentagon, while at the same time encouraging them to pursue more affordable systems that still satisfy the mission. Of course, the budget in which they must work will be incrementally smaller, but it is still gargantuan; what else would you call a spending plan of at least $553 billion and growing? In short, Gates effectively handed the Pentagon and industry a second chance to get it right.
That is not to say the challenge facing them will be easy. Underlying all the heated debates about how much money the U.S. really needs to spend to maintain robust national security are some inconvenient truths:
•Budget decisions made now will dictate what the force structure looks like in 2020. Yet increasingly those decisions are heavily influenced by the conflict in Afghanistan, undercutting the ability to build militaries prepared for different conflicts. In the U.K., for example, a question being asked is whether that country’s capabilities are overly skewed to land warfare as a result of its experience in south-central Asia. Many camps in the U.S. believe American forces must look very different in 2020.
•Too much emphasis has been placed on unit costs, with less and less consideration to the value that a new weapon system offers the warfighter. As long as Congress insists on funding weapon systems year-to-year, relying almost exclusively on metrics such as unit costs, we will continue to see program death spirals, virtually assuring truncated purchases of advanced capabilities that will be vital in the future such as active, electronically scanned array radar and imbedded sensors.
•Smarter purchasing practices by government customers and greater efficiency by industry have to go well beyond the usual arguments over whether one system or another makes sense in the global threat environment of the future. The competitive process dominates the front end of a program. The more complex and less frequent the new programs, the greater the incentive to underbid and overpromise. Result: a culture that suppresses reality until it is too late to fix a troubled program, and so it rolls on.
•It should not take 20 years to develop a tiltrotor aircraft or an F-35. Even the F-111 program, hardly a model of management oversight in the 1960s, delivered the first workable aircraft, the F-111E, in seven years from contract award.
•The Defense Department is long past the point where it needs to make tradeoffs in roles and missions. To put it another way, every armed service does not need to fulfill its own organic capability in all areas. For example, why couldn’t the Navy or Air Force be tasked with providing the Marines Corps with the air support it needs? Congress—which itself has failed in its duties lately—must stop allowing turf wars to block reforms.
•Industry has a credibility problem with its dubious record on program performance. The best strategy that contractors have in a severely fiscally constrained environment is to keep their promises, and fess up if they can’t. The Air Force may need a new bomber, and the Navy may want a new unmanned combat aircraft, but neither will be built on the unrealistic cost estimation process of the past.
Given the financial abyss in which this country finds itself, no one is going to support granting the defense community a special dispensation from responsible cuts in military spending. Nor should they. That means suppliers and customers alike better get it right going forward; a new generation of affordable weapon systems will be needed, and taking any longer than absolutely necessary to field them is not an option.