Procurement: The War On Waste

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November 4,2008: The U.S. Department of Defense has done yet another study on why weapons systems are so expensive, and take so long to develop, and got the same answer it has been getting for decades. Basically, it's poor management. In the United States, figuring out what military equipment to buy, and then developing it, suffers from what can be called, the "American Disease." Put simply, there are so many special interests involved in spending all that money (currently over half a trillion dollars a year), that much of the money allocated for developing and producing new gear, is wasted. Military people have been complaining about this for a long time. It's not a new problem.

While some good and effective weapons are produced, it's the enormous amount of waste that is at issue. In contrast, note how quickly and efficiently military equipment is developed in wartime. There's a long tradition in the United States military of creating new weapons or equipment in a very short time when there's a war going on.

There are many examples. During the 1991 Gulf War, a heavy "bunker buster" bomb was developed in six weeks, and put to use. During the Afghanistan war, the air force again developed a fuel-air explosive bomb in 30 days and used it during the Tora Bora battle in late 2001. There were many similar "rapid development" examples during Vietnam, the Korean War, World War II and earlier, and continuing to the present.

Noting all this, the Department of Defense is now encouraging weapons and equipment developers to rapidly get their new gear ready for use in the field. Then the stuff is shipped off to military training areas so troops can learn how to use it, and then sent off to Afghanistan or Iraq for actual combat use. It's not as dangerous as it sounds, as most of these "fast track" items are not weapons, but electronic gear or off-the-shelf equipment adapted for military use. In peacetime, it could take years of testing, paper shuffling and bureaucratic delays before the troops got the stuff. Now, delivery time is sometimes measured in weeks.

Such speed is not unknown in the Department of Defense, for the U.S. Army Special Forces have long had their own equipment budget, and permission to get new stuff into the field as quickly as they dared. Now troops are increasingly, and unofficially, adopting new civilian gear (and sometimes weapons) for military use. The widespread availability of email, even in combat zones, makes it easier for the troops to share new discoveries. As a result, the Department of Defense has been under pressure to allow some of these troop level initiatives to become official issue equipment.

Despite these wartime interludes of sanity, most of the time, the "American Disease" rules. Projects are loaded down with useless requirements (to keep politicians or special interests happy, and bureaucrat backsides covered), and kept alive long after their time has passed.

 

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