Our Security is at Risk, Mr. Bush

Tom Peters

The most important job in President-elect George Bush’s administration is Secretary of Defense. The weapons designing, producing, and deployment process is a disgrace. The issue is not about hawks versus doves, nor guns versus butter. It is about making weapons systems that work and that are sanely priced.

Characteristically, the military’s DEC PDP-11/44 computer, after the Department of Defense gold-plated the specs, cost eight times more and breaks down 11 times more often than the lookalike commercial version. No wonder. The DOD’s 54,000-person weapons- buying bureaucracy created a 25,000-pound, 1.5 million-page specification for the giant C5A air transport. It takes 16 single-spaced pages just to specify a plastic Army whistle.

So now comes the B-2, or Stealth, the incredibly complex, supposedly radar-proof bomber that will cost about $500 million apiece. Horror rumors about the Stealth already abound. Some suggest it has so much onboard electronic junk that the radar-proofing may have been severely compromised.

I accumulated a healthy file of newspaper clippings just during the week or so I was noodling about this column. One analyzed the Navy’s hopelessly complex, $525 million-a-copy Aegis fire-control system, cornerstone of our surface-fleet missile defense, noting: (1) Most of its tests were rigged (military-ese for this is “success-oriented testing”); (2) its first in-combat shot hit a low-flying cloud thought to be a Libyan missile (shot number two nailed Iran’s ill-fated civilian airliner); and (3) some officers are leery of turning it on at all, because it emits a strong signal that amounts to an all-points bulletin announcing its presence.

Another chilling news column concerned a two-year Pentagon investigation of spare-parts quality at one Air Force supply depot. Random testing and retesting of the 685,925 spare parts revealed 610,552 (89 percent) components with major flaws 46,568 (6 percent) with minor ones.

British defense correspondent Jon Connell begins his book, The New Maginot Line: A Documented Exposé of Our Fatally Flawed Defense System and What We Can Do About It, with a warning: “No one who believes defense should be taken seriously can fail to be appalled by America’s system of military procurement. It comprises an obsession with high-tech and an endless chase after super-expensive, super-sophisticated weapons, many of which do not work—or, if they do, are irrelevant to any real ‘threat.'”

Connell analyses more than a dozen weapons systems, from which a common set of problems emerge. First, there’s over-complication. Typical: The Copperhead, a smart artillery projectile, repeatedly failed in less-than perfect weather. The fabled, and finally canceled, Divad air-defense gun, with 240 software programs in its fire-control package, never worked.

A second problem is lousy operational capability. The Abrams M-1 tank, for example, requires seven types of oils. Add to that excessive fuel consumption, and, says Connell, “[I]t has to travel into battle with a wagon train of fuel trucks, technicians, and spare parts vans. This ‘rolling traffic jam,’ as one army commander called it, would, of course, be highly vulnerable in a shooting war.” The F-111D’s Mark II avionics package got so complex that its promised “mean time between failures” of more than 60 hours became less than three hours in practice. And its planned 1.4 “maintenance man-hours per sortie” rose to 33.6.

Third, our testing programs are deplorable. In a Divad demonstration, when the gun seemed unable to hit a stationary helicopter placed on an elevated platform, the Army added “radar reflectors.” One observer compared it to “testing a bloodhound’s ability to track a man covered with beefsteak standing alone and upright in the middle of a parking lot.”

Next, basic mission degradation is commonplace. The Bradley Fighting Vehicle was to take a dozen soldiers into battle. After various accoutrements were added, usurping the space of three men and requiring another three to run it, only six soldiers could be transported. Also, the Bradley ended up so big that a large cargo aircraft, the C-141, is needed to carry one vehicle.

Moreover, the mission for which weapons systems are designed is often suspect. The Abrams tank was loaded with gee-gaws that allow it to hit targets two miles away. But in the European theater, close-order fighting would be normal. Similarly, the F-15 aircraft, designed for long shots and speed more than maneuverability, does fine in one-to-one fighting. But air warfare is likely to pit swarms against swarms. Slower and simpler planes in larger numbers can give several F-15s fits.

Which brings us to the granddaddy of issues—numbers. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel George Dvorchak wrote in the Tactical Analysis Bulletin: “There isn’t any way to out-technology the other guy. If he has some good basic capabilities, numbers are a basic driver.” But reliable, somewhat lower-tech systems (in high numbers) have few supporters. The military, ever-fearful that funds from Congress and support from the populace will fade, loads every last bit of sophistication onto the newest weapon. As well, in business or government, complex organizations replicate themselves in the products they create. Our complex weapons systems resemble the complex bureaucracies that birth them.

In the 1930s, TWA sent McDonnell-Douglas (then Douglas Aircraft) a three-sentence letter, along with one page of specs, asking for a bid on a new type of aircraft. Ten days later, Douglas submitted the basic configuration for what became the DC3, the most important and reliable aircraft in history. We’ve fallen far from that way of operating, which DOD also used to follow. The journey has put our nation’s defenses at risk.

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

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