Procurement: April 9, 2005


: The U.S. Department of Defense is trying to move away from developing new weapons for conventional (tanks, fighter-bombers, warships and all the usual stuff) war, and towards creating tools for unconventional warfare. This is already happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, where billions are being spent on new communications (the battlefield Internet), UAVs, night vision devices, and electronic warfare (for chores like jamming wireless devices used to detonate roadside bombs.) The reason for all this is simple: the United States has a tremendous edge in conventional warfare, over any current or near-future opponent. But in the meantime, we face the prospect of lots of little wars and irregular combat. The troops need special tools for that sort of thing, and the Department of Defense cant afford to create those tools, while still developing new conventional weapons. This creates political problems, because developing new conventional weapons involves billions of dollars. That much money attracts politicians, who want to get the development, and manufacturing, of these new weapons done in places where their constituents live, and vote. Once a major conventional weapons program gets going, money, and votes in Congress are committed to seeing it through. The Department of Defense cannot afford to upset too many people in Congress, because these folks vote on the Department of Defense budget, and have a lot of power to interfere with what the military does, and how they do it. The current war presents an opportunity to shift gears without getting stopped by the politicians. So far, this has worked for the army, which has killed the Crusader artillery system and the Comanche helicopter. This was relatively easy, because the army is doing most of the fighting and this puts the usual budget politics on the defensive. 

Getting the air force, navy and marines to play this game is a little more difficult. The other services control over 70 percent of the defense budget, and have several conventional warfare projects ripe for deletion. These include the F-22 fighter, a new class of cruiser sized destroyers for the navy and the marines tilt rotor V-22 aircraft. Its not like these projects would be cancelled and the money handed over to the army. There are new items, better suited for unconventional warfare, that the other services need as well, and don't have the money for. UAVs, networking, transportation (air and sea) and special operations (for counter-terrorism and peacekeeping.) The partisans of projects like the F-22 and V-22 are fighting hard, along with their Congressional allies, to keep these aircraft flying in large numbers. Its war, a war of attrition, where both sides are drawing (political) blood, making enemies and sometimes wondering if the fight is worth the losses. Do some damage to a politicians pet project, and the victim will probably remember it for a long time. 

But the most frustrating part of all this is that the big-dollar weapons projects are always going to be the favorites in Congress. These projects create lots of jobs, and votes, and rarely cause any trouble. But developing new stuff often involves new players, new technologies and more opportunities for embarrassing things to happen. This causes bad media coverage and lost votes. Worse still, most of these new unconventional warfare projects are small, and some are labor intensive. Politicians prefer big, expensive things that just sit there, not lots of money spent on training new Special Forces troops. These guys scare politicians because they  will get sent to messy parts of the world, where the chances are embarrassing events will take place. Never mind that this is how you have to fight terrorists. Most politicians are focusing on getting reelected, and bad publicity does not contribute to that effort.

So while new and imaginative ideas are hot right now, expect the defense budget to revert to the old big, fat and happy model as soon as possible.


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