October 24, 2009:
One encouraging post Cold War trend has been an increased willingness to cancel weapons projects that, well, become too expensive. This also includes weapons that were judged to be not worth the budgeted amount, at least not compared to cheaper alternatives. Thus since the Cold War ended, the Airborne Laser, B-2 bomber, Comanche helicopter, Combat search and rescue helicopter, Crusader artillery system, DDG-1000 destroyer, F-22 fighter, Future Combat System (armored vehicles and associated weapons and equipment), Kinetic Energy Interceptor, Multiple Kill Vehicle, Presidential helicopter and Seawolf submarine, all got production cut sharply, or were cancelled, when their budgets went too far out of control, or what the military could afford. So there's hope yet.
During the Cold War, such cancellations were rare. The conventional wisdom was that, once a new project got a "budget line," cancellation was pretty much impossible. Meanwhile, the 96 largest military procurement projects in the United States total $1.6 trillion in development and manufacturing costs. Each year, the U.S. government calculates how much these projects have gone over their original budget. Last year, the 96 projects were 35 percent over their original budgets. The year before (2007), it was 26 percent. Currently, procurement of weapons and major equipment make up about 36 percent of the defense budget. There will be more cancellations.
Another source of cancellations is a change in strategic direction. New forms of warfare, or new technologies grab enormous shares of the budget. Thus the invention of aircraft a century ago had, fifty years later, evolved into nearly half the military budget being spent on building and operating aircraft. Now we have robots and computers revolutionizing everything. That's where more of the money is going, and someone is going to be losing.
Another big problem is the decades old contractor practice of deliberately making an unreasonably low estimate of cost when proposing a design. The military goes along with this, in the interest of getting Congress to approve the money. Since Congress has a short memory, the military does not take much heat for this never ending "low ball" planning process.
Actually, it's poor planning in general that causes most of the high costs. It's bad planning by the military, when coming up with the initial design, and bad planning on the part of the few manufacturers that have a monopoly on building certain types of weapons systems. Monopolies do not encourage efficiency. There are many examples of all these bad habits at work. Don't expect any of this to change anytime soon. It's the way things have worked for a long time. Many generals and admirals, members of Congress, and even a few manufacturer executives, have called for reform. But it just doesn't happen, at least not to a large extent.