Pentagon Resource Wars: Why They Can’t Be Avoided
Command, in Justice Holmes’ time, was represented by brigades, regiments, divisions, corps and armies. The Navy equivalents were task forces, battle groups and fleets. Today, it seems that the historic focus on command has been supplemented by obsession with the acquisition of tens of billions of dollars. The resource war, described in This War Really Matters by George C. Wilson (2000), dominates the thinking of flag officers and senior Pentagon officials alike, just as fund raising and reelection dominate the thinking of politicians.
Because of the persistent competition among the services for resources, the pattern of service spending behavior has not changed over time, and it’s there for all to see. The spending of the last decade was not unexpected or uncharacteristic because, like the rotation of the four seasons, it followed a predictable pattern. When war came the services followed former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s motto of “not letting a good crisis go to waste.”
But even in a time of crisis, the services yielded to their identities, culture and virtually unchangeable plans and programs, into which they had invested much time, political capital and energy.
In any given era, the relative priorities of readiness and modernization go back and forth. The highest priority varies among the areas of manning, training, recapitalization, retrofitting, upgrading, buying new, reorganizing, or developing and acquiring next-generation systems. Whatever is the highest priority follows the bank robber Willie Sutton’s logic — it’s where the money is.
Only when identities are validated and existing plans and programs are realized do the services concern themselves with the exogenous environment. Even war itself must not divert attention from unmet needs, no matter how old or outdated they are.
During fearful times and war, the need to change course becomes more compelling and the services’ dissonance collapses. Then they relent and embrace plans to allocate funds to emerging needs, particularly in cases where the pursuit of additional capability preserves or increases funding.
As the budget expands, money becomes less an object (an independent variable), raising the specter of moral hazard, mismanagement and complacency. The services then scramble to spend more money than they are prepared to absorb, propping up weak programs that should have been allowed to die and launching dubious science experiments that never should have been green-lighted. Refusing funds is rare.
When crises fade and wars end, the services, ever focused on the resource war, fight to ensure the inevitable budget reductions are minimized to preserve readiness and modernization accounts, or whatever is the highest priority at the time. The drums of outrage and indignation beat loudly as each service warns of catastrophe if their budgets are reduced too much or at all. The services eventually shed people, infrastructure, systems, and capabilities they do not deem critical to their futures. What is left is, to a large extent, what is already in their plans, and what is in their plans is whatever is critical to their identities and helps them win the resource war.
It has been said that money doesn’t change people, it only exposes them (Pakistani proverb). Following this premise, the spending behavior of the military services can be traced to their respective cultural predilections and historical expectations for funding, relative to their sister services. There is indeed a nexus among the size of procurement accounts, service identities, and the nature of their modernization approaches.
If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail (Abraham Maslow). The Army, lacking the need for many big ticket items, tried to pump up its procurement accounts with a scheme to develop and acquire the Future Combat Systems. It succeeded in the resource war but failed to deliver new capability. It finally threw in the towel, recapped its tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, and bought thousands of armored tactical vehicles. To win its share of future dollars it also doubled down on, but failed to procure, the Crusader howitzer, non-line-of-sight cannon and the Comanche attack helicopter.
Air Force leaders, who see the world through the eyes of a well-trained pilot flying the world’s best aircraft, chose to procure the most advanced fighters even though suitable aircraft existed in its inventory. The Navy, fresh from nearly 20 years of declining fleet size and facing a massive tab for aircraft, chose to preserve its fleet and recapitalize large numbers of aircraft to equip its carrier battle groups. Pursuit of next-generation submarines and the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) kept it competitive in the resource war.
Finally, the Marine Corps, which must contend with Navy planners as well as those from other services, leveraged economies of scale to buy armored tactical vehicles with the Army. Still, the Marine Corps clung stubbornly to the expensive and unwieldy Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the operationally marginal V-22 Osprey, and the unaffordable F-35B vertical takeoff fighter to help it survive the resource war. The pursuit of these systems is perhaps the only uncharacteristic behavior that occurred in the past decade, because equipping efficiently and doing more with less is central to Marine Corps identity.
Let’s consider in more detail how the services approached modernization during wartime.
It is impossible to step into the same river twice (Heraclitus). Or, You can’t go home again (Thomas Wolfe). But these are exactly what the services did. They bought the items already on their shopping lists. They realized their 1990s dreams.
The Army as an institution doesn’t qualify as an army if it cannot project sufficient military manpower that is mobile, lethal, protected, sustainable and networked.
The Army’s procurement suffers from its tendency to reach beyond its grasp in an effort to keep up in the resource war with the other, more big-ticket oriented services. A Henry L. Stimson Center study, “What We Bought: Defense Procurement from FY01 to FY10,” reveals that the Army gets only about 20 percent of the procurement pie compared to about 40 percent for the other two departments. In its desperate attempts to keep up with the Joneses, the Army spent $1 billion per year on canceled systems since 1996. This continued a pattern of the Army persistently chasing next-generation programs of dubious merit and extraordinary cost. In the 2000s the most prominent failures were the Crusader howitzer, the NLOS cannon, the Comanche attack helicopter and the Future Combat Systems. Many cognoscenti believe the Ground Combat Vehicle will soon join these systems in the graveyard of procurement dreams. The Army has either trouble convincing others of the merit of its programs, has a terrible mismanagement problem, or can’t focus on a strategic plan that integrates doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel and facilities.
The squeaky wheel gets the grease (American idiom). Despite its many development failures, the Army employed a clever marketing strategy in which it played the victim, asked for the Moon, then settled for less but still substantial resources. For example, before the wars the Army’s Bradley infantry fighting vehicle and Abrams tank modernizations were ongoing but uncompleted recapitalizations. Both were completed when the funding trough opened. Echoing the past, these Cold-War systems were designed to close with and destroy comparable systems of near-peer opponents and peer competitors.
The Army aggressively increased its purchase of Stryker vehicles from 2,000 to 4,000. Yet it only grudgingly procured the mine resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs) starting in 2006. Why the difference? One was in the Army’s original plan and the other compelled by war. Later, in an instance of the tail wagging the dog, the Army got MRAP fever and spent $20 billion on more than 15,000 MRAPs.
The Army’s procurement practices can safely be characterized as opportunistic. The Army used war supplemental funds to get well, mostly in recapitalization of Abrams and Bradley vehicles, but also in the procurement of new systems such as the M4 carbine and thousands of tactical vehicles. It didn’t waste any time filling the “holes in the yard,” a marketing concept it used to convince the Defense Department and Congress that many of its needs, going back to the middle 1990s, were still unmet. Its primary need required equipping its brigade combat teams, which are considered the heart of the Army’s identity and capability, and are analogous to the divisional structure of 20 years ago.
The Air Force, for its part, ensures air and space superiority, global attack, rapid global mobility, precision engagement, information superiority and agile combat support. The disproportionate resources the Air Force put into air superiority in the last decade calls into question its commitment to these mission areas; to its three core competencies — developing airmen, technology for war fighting, and integrating operations — and to its domains: air, space and cyberspace.
The Air Force was in a more fortunate posture than the other services at the start of the wars. According to the Stimson study, the Air Force had already achieved its key next-generation procurement goals. Yet, like the Army, the Air Force played the victim, too. It characterizes the Air Force’s engagement with Congress as warning of “impending disaster.” After spending $347 billion during the 2000s – acquiring C17s and F-22s in the process – the Air Force says its fleet is in bad shape. How can this be?
The Air Force, following its motto, “aim high,” appeared to chase next-generation systems exclusively. Regardless the strategic and operational implications, it pursued the most expensive watches in the jewelry case, so to speak, when less expensive ones would have allowed greater distribution of time pieces.
According to its 2008 Modernization Plan Assessment, the Air Force is most likely to conduct low- to medium-duration “air support missions in low-threat environments. The current need to respond immediately to on-call tasking from small ground units engaged in counterterrorism or counter-insurgency missions is likely to be an enduring need.”
Despite this requirement, we have not witnessed dedicated effort to find a replacement for the venerable A-10 Warthog. This comes as no surprise because since the creation of the Air Force, the service has only grudgingly performed the close-air support mission.
Plainly speaking, the Air Force suffers from an institutional form of “gadgetitis.” It must have the slickest, most high-tech systems, regardless how many it can afford or how many modestly endowed systems are available to perform the mission. It made a strategic decision in the early 2000s to put the acquisition of the most advanced equipment above its human capital development and force structure. In the process the Air Force got miserably poor bang for the buck, bringing the service closer to the Norm Augustine affordability limit.
The Air Force’s pursuit of excellence applies mainly to manned aircraft in general and specifically fighters, bombers, airlift and support aircraft, in that order. Coincidentally, the next-generation air-refueling tanker was scheduled for procurement in 2004, but because of mismanagement, corruption and poor handling of the contracting process, it was delayed. Timing matters.
The Air Force slowly has embraced unmanned aircraft. Realizing that UAVs are the ticket to future procurement dollars, the Air Force is getting with the program and trying to find ways to ensure that manned aircraft complement UAVs and that rated pilots play a prominent role in the operation of unmanned aircraft.
For the Navy, its identity is about conducting surface warfare against other ships, deploying naval aviation via aircraft carriers, silently patrolling the seas, conducting special operations from submarines, and supporting the Marine Corps.
The Navy’s pursuit of the DDG-1000 destroyer (formerly DDX, cost $3.7 billion per ship), and the Marine Corps’ bid for the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (formerly AAAV, cost $24 million per vehicle), are examples of how old habits die hard, and how no expense is to be spared when the essence of the service’s identity is at stake.
According to the Stimson white paper, the Navy expended about 10 percent of the decade’s largess on next-generation systems such as the DDG-1000, an advanced cruiser, and the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). Much of this was wasted because both the DDG-1000 and the next-generation cruiser were canceled in favor of increasing procurement of existing destroyers, DDG-51s. Like the Air Force’s refueling tanker, the LCS missed the window of plenty and continues under development.
The Navy’s dream systems were canceled as senior leaders had the foresight and decisiveness to jettison nice-to-have systems, which were clearly unaffordable even during a time of plenty. The Navy, a very traditional but practical service, regrouped and decided to systematically modernize and build out its seagoing fleets. The budget windfall also enabled the Navy to mitigate program delays and cost growth, masking its mismanagement of several programs.
The carrier battle groups are arguably central to the Navy’s modern identity. Maintaining 11 carrier battle groups requires large numbers of aircraft, support vessels, and concomitant procurement and sustainment costs. Realizing this, the Navy more evenly distributed its procurement funds to modernize its aircraft fleet. It procured the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, electronic warfare planes and aerial refuelers. Concurrently, it consolidated its utility and attack helicopter fleets.
The Marine Corps must be able to conduct over-the-horizon deployments and support troops from the sea, air, and land as they face fusillades from a capable defending enemy. This forced-entry capability is central to Marine Corps identity and drives its procurement.
To enhance over-the-horizon capability, the Marines pursued the Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC), the EFV, and the V-22 Osprey. Of the 91 LCACs delivered since 1987, 74 will undergo a service life extension program, scheduled for completion in 2015. The EFV was canceled, leaving the V-22 to soak up a $14 billion procurement for 155 systems. This was a questionable use of funds for four reasons. First, spending tens of millions of dollars in unit costs for what is essentially a fast medium–sized helicopter is an unaffordable price to pay. Second, its sustainment costs are high as well. Third, the system is operating at its performance margins, even under perfect conditions. Therefore, it is too dangerous. And finally, over-the-horizon forcible entry operations are unlikely. What else could the Marines have bought or upgraded for $14 billion? Or what could the other services have purchased with that amount?
It is clear that when the government provides more funding, the services buy what they already want, not necessarily what is needed for war.
If Congress reduces the services’ procurement top lines as expected, they will probably circle their wagons to protect planned or traditional programs. Unless there is tough leadership exercised outside the services, the new era of austerity will result in retrenchment and only serve to amplify the services’ inherent proclivities.
Nathaniel H. Sledge Jr., PhD, is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served as acquisition program manager in four project management offices, and worked at the Army Budget Office in the Directorate of Investment.