It is entirely fitting and proper that we scrape together $85 billion by defunding federal programs that “show no results” — such as Meals on Wheels, school lunch programs and health care for poor people — and give it to the defense department. Because unlike these loser programs, the defense department always gets results. If you have any doubts at all about this, three examples should suffice to set you straight:
I. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program has already made America proud by achieving the rank of most expensive military program in the history of the world. At one trillion dollars, this project accounts for fully one-twentieth of the U.S. national debt. But thanks to the Pentagon managers and the defense contractors who refused to pinch pennies when it comes to national defense, the F-35 is a shining example of what money can do:
- The F-35 has 276 critical deficiencies that must be fixed before the craft can be considered ready for duty, and an average of 20 more such deficiencies are being discovered every month.
- The software package that controls the plane’s functions in combat is not yet capable of a few things, such as tracking moving objects on the ground, detecting incoming enemy radar signals, or firing the 25mm machine guns. (Which may be a good thing — when the doors open so the machine guns can fire, the aircraft yaws to the left, making it unlikely the gun will hit what it was aimed at.)
- The aircraft is capable of carrying and deploying two air-to-air missiles (long range, useless in a dogfight) and two bombs. This is about as much armament as a Piper Cub could carry.
- The aircraft’s helmet, which features the world’s most advanced heads-up display and aiming controller, often displays more targets than exist and often can’t hit what the pilot is aiming at.
- Despite all this and more, the Air Force declared the aircraft ready for deployment last year. The Marines activated a squadron of them and sent them to Japan, where they are trying grimly to get them airborne once in a while. One month later the Air Force grounded all its F-35s pending further developments.
II. The USS Zumwalt is to the sea what the F-35 is to the air — a fabulously expensive tribute to military intelligence. The promise was that this super-sized, hard-to-detect destroyer with a tiny crew would give the United States dominance of the world’s oceans at a bargain price. So far we have learned:
- Forget the bargain price. Initial estimates were that the ships would cost $1.34 billion each and we would build 32 of them. The first one cost $7 billion (about what we spent for our last aircraft carrier) and we can only afford three of them.
- Of the eleven critical technologies required to make this vessel work, only three are “mature.”
- The promise that this “smart ship” would require a crew of only 95, compared with the usual 500 or so, was never studied. Or realized. The present vessel has 147 hands on deck, and everyone is praying nothing goes wrong with the ship and that it never has to do any fighting.
- The ship’s Advanced Gun System delivers 24 pounds of explosive in a 155mm shell to a target 60-80 miles away (NOT another ship, it can’t do that) for $800,000 per round. It is so expensive that practice is unthinkable, and combat may be unaffordable. The round it replaced, which delivered the same 24 pounds of explosive with slightly less range and accuracy, costs $700.
- Launched last October in Maine, the ship sprang a leak trying to get to nearby Norfolk, Virginia. And, heading for its new home port in California, the ship lost power — both of its propeller-drive shafts seized up entirely — in the Panama Canal and had to be towed to safety.
III. Littoral Combat Ships — fast, shallow-draft vessels for close-to-shore fighting — are a dream at which the Navy has been throwing money for more than a decade. Half a billion dollars later. one prototype vessel, launched in 2006, rides at anchor, unused and unusable. [“Lesson on How Not to Build a Navy Ship,” The New York Times.]
Obviously, the solution to all these problems is to throw more money at them. Which, apparently, is what we are going to do.
[POST SCRIPT — If you want a complete, factual briefing on how the Pentagon screws these things up so magnificently, watch the movie The Pentagon Wars, starring Kelsey Grammer. Funny as hell, until you realize it’s not a comedy. Written by James Burton, who lived it, and whom I got to know in his later life as a supervisor in Loudoun County, Virginia.]