The DoD has shown a remarkable inability to effectively manage major weapon system procurement programs over the last 20 years. Browsing the web today, I find two articles that highlight just how bad the process is.
The first is an article in DefenseTech displaying some of the most expensive failed programs of the last decade:
Future Combat Systems (FCS) $18.1B
Comanche helicopter $7.9B
nPOESS satellite $5.8B
VH-71 Presidential Helicopter $3.7B
Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) $3.3B
Transformational SATCOM (TSAT) $3.2B
Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) $0.6 B
Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter $0.5 B
Aerial Common Sensor $0.4 B
CG(X) next Generation Cruiser $0.2B
Most of these failed programs fall into two main categories. First, there are those programs that were simply too technologically aggressive to be produced in any economical fashion, in anywhere near the numbers of platforms required. Other programs such as the RAH-66 Comanche and the Crusader howitzer programs were simply overtaken by the pace of technology. That is, they were designed for a networked environment before the rest of the world even started to think of that level of connectivity, and the development programs were so long that by the time they were ready for production, the state of the art had actually long passed them by.
The Dew Line, by way of contrast, has a list of successful programs (in this case, limited to aircraft procurement).
5. H-1 Upgrades*
6. MQ-9 Predator
The first thing that leaps out when you look at the list of successful programs is that there isn’t a single “transformational” or “revolutionary” platform on the list. Each program has built either on an existing airframe, or is an evolutionary adaptation of an existing technology. Program managers were careful to not add every possible feature to the design, and locked in the basic design early on. They worked to ensure that the requirements were realistic, and that the state of the art could reasonably be expected to fulfill them in a timely and cost effective manner.
I’m greatly concerned that the DoD can’t seem to take the same approach to other major weapon system procurement programs. Problem programs such as LCS, FCS, the F-35 and EFV all seem to fail whenever “spiral development”shows up, where basic research and development of underlying technology and the weapons design and procurement process are intertwined.
I’m not arguing that the military shouldn’t pursue new technologies or only buy revamped versions of existing designs. But it is apparent that unless critical design technologies are relatively mature, the DoD cannot be expected to incorporate them without massive cost overruns. And who thinks that’s a viable option in the face of austere defense budgets looming ahead?
*I’m not at all sure I’d personally include the H-1 Upgrades as a successful program (other than to admit that aircraft are being bought).