The Pentagon’s Wasteful Weapons

Now the “lemon” is up to $1.7 trillion. Even more lemonade?

W.J. Astore

Imagine you’re a soldier in combat. What’s the most important feature of any weapon system? That it works. That it’s reliable. Nobody wants a weapon that jams in a firefight. Reliability, simplicity, ruggedness are key features of weaponry.  Yet the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex seem to specialize in unreliable, complex, fragile ones. Ones that don’t work, or that don’t work very well, and at inflated prices as well. This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch, and here’s an excerpt from it:

Cancel culture is a common, almost viral, term in political and social discourse these days. Basically, somebody expresses views considered to be outrageous or vile or racist or otherwise insensitive and inappropriate. In response, that person is “canceled,” perhaps losing a job or otherwise sidelined and silenced. In being deplatformed by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, for instance, this country’s previous president has, it could be argued, been canceled — at least by polite society. More than a few might add, good riddance.

Cancel culture is all around us, with a single glaring exception: the U.S. military. No matter how poorly a major weapons system performs, no matter how much it goes over budget, no matter how long it takes to field, it almost never gets canceled. As a corollary to this, no matter how poorly a general performs in one of our twenty-first-century wars, no matter his lack of victories or failure to achieve mission objectives, he almost never gets cashiered, demoted, or even criticized. A similar thing could be said of America’s twenty-first-century wars themselves. They are disasters that simply never get canceled. They just go on and on and on.

Is it any surprise, then, that a system which seems to eternally reward failure consistently produces it as well? After all, if cancel culture should apply anywhere, it would be to faulty multibillion-dollar weapons systems and more than a few generals, who instead either get booted upstairs to staff positions or retire comfortably onto the boards of directors of major weapons companies.

Let’s take a closer look at several major weapons systems that are begging to be canceled — and a rare case of one that finally was.

* The F-35 stealth fighter: I’ve written extensively on the F-35 over the years. Produced by Lockheed Martin, the plane was at one point seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Nonetheless, the U.S. military persisted and it is now nearing full production at a projected total cost of $1.7 trillion by the year 2070. Even so, nagging problems persist, including engine difficulties and serious maintenance deficiencies. Even more troubling: the plane often can’t be cleared for flying if lightning is anywhere in the area, which is deeply ironic, given that it’s called the Lightning II. Let’s hope that there are no thunderstorms in the next war.

* The Boeing KC-46 tanker: A tanker is basically a flying gas station, air-to-air refueling being something the Air Force mastered half a century ago. Never underestimate the military’s ability to produce new problems while pursuing more advanced technology, however. Doing away with old-fashioned windows and an actual airman as a “boom operator” in the refueling loop (as in a legacy tanker like the KC-135), the KC-46 uses a largely automated refueling system via video. Attractive in theory, that system has yet to work reliably in practice. (Maybe, it will, however, by the year 2024, the Air Force now says.) And what good is a tanker that isn’t assured of actually transferring fuel in mid-air and turns out to be compromised as well by its own fuel leaks? The Air Force is now speaking of “repurposing” its new generation of tankers for missions other than refueling. That’s like me saying that I’m repurposing my boat as an anchor since it happened to spring a leak and sink to the bottom of the lake.

* And speaking of boats, perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the Navy has had serious problems of its own with its most recent Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers. That service started building carriers in the 1920s, so one might imagine that, by now, the brass had gained some mastery of the process of updating them and building new ones. But never underestimate the allure of cramming unproven and expensive technologies for “next generation” success on board such vessels. Include among them, when it comes to the Ford-class carriers, elevators for raising munitions that notoriously don’t operate well and a catapult system for launching planes from the deck (known as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System or EMALS) that’s constantly breaking down. As you might imagine, not much can happen on an aircraft carrier when you can’t load munitions or launch planes effectively. Each new Ford-class carrier costs in the neighborhood of $14 billion, yet despite all that money, it simply “isn’t very good at actually being a carrier,” as an article in Popular Mechanics magazine bluntly put it recently. Think of it as the KC-46 of the seas.

* And speaking of failing ships, let’s not forget the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), which have earned the nickname “little crappy ships.” A serious propulsion design flaw may end up turning them into “floating garbage piles,” defense journalist Jared Keller recently concluded. The Navy bought 10 of them for roughly half a billion dollars each, with future orders currently on hold. Lockheed Martin is the lead contractor, the same one responsible for the wildly profligate (and profitable) F-35.

* Grimly for the Navy, problems were so severe with its Zumwalt-class of stealth destroyers that the program was actually canceled after only three ships had been built. (The Navy initially planned to build 32 of them.) Critiqued as a vessel in search of a mission, the Zumwalt-class was also bedeviled by problems with its radar and main armament. In total, the Navy spent $22 billion on a failed “next generation” concept whose cancelation offers us that utter rarity of our moment: a weapon so visibly terrible that even the military-industrial complex couldn’t continue to justify it.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday has gone on record as rejecting the idea of integrating exotic, largely untried and untested technologies into new ship designs (known in the biz as “concurrent development”). Godspeed, admiral!

Much like the troubled F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship, the Zumwalt’s spiraling costs were due in part to the Pentagon’s fixation on integrating just such “leading-edge” technologies into designs that themselves were in flux. (Not for nothing do military wags refer to them as bleeding edge technologies.) Such wildly ambitious concurrent development, rather than saving time and money, tends to waste plenty of both, leading to ultra-expensive less-than-fully effective weapons like the Zumwalt, the original version of which had a particularly inglorious breakdown while passing through (or rather not passing through) the Panama Canal in November 2016.

Given such expensive failures, you might be forgiven for wondering whether, in the twenty-first century, while fighting never-ending disastrous wars across significant parts of the planet, America’s military isn’t also actively working to disarm itself. Seriously, if we’re truly talking about weapons that are vital to national defense, failure shouldn’t be an option, but far too often it is.

With this dubious record, one might imagine the next class of Navy vessel could very well be named for Philip Francis Queeg, the disturbed and incompetent ship captain of novelist Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. It’s also quite possible that the Pentagon’s next advanced fighter jet will fulfill former Martin Marietta CEO Norman Augustine’s estimate from the 1980s that, by the year 2054, the entire Pentagon budget would be needed to buy one — and only one – combat aircraft. Perhaps a Death Star for America’s new Space Force?

Be sure to read the rest of the article here at TomDispatch.com.

31 thoughts on “The Pentagon’s Wasteful Weapons

  1. Your critique makes complete sense if the purpose of our military is to defend our country. Unfortunately it seems that the purpose is more to funnel large amounts of money into the pockets of a relatively few individuals. In that purpose it succeeds admirably so nothing is likely to change.

    Regarding “integrating exotic, largely untried and untested technologies into new ship designs (known in the biz as “concurrent development” “, I think the short story “Superiority” by Arthur C. Clarke is excellent.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Of course rewarding repeated failures produces more of the same. It’s a reinforcement feedback loop, essentially. And it’s largely why, for instance, spoiled rich kids often turn out to be such nasty, uncaring adults: their socially unacceptable behavior as children is frequently indulged, even rewarded, by their parents. As go F-35s, so go former Presidents.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nunn-McCurdy ought to be cancelled. The GAO shouldn’t bother with MDAP and should just study other things. The pretense of oversight for the purpose of intervention is long past…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Regarding the KC-46 I recall that senator Patty Murray from Washington pushed for the program (which I think was low priority for the Air Force at that time, early on – they didn’t even have a defined mission and need for it) by saying it was necessary for the security of the US to keep the cash flow of Americas big plane maker healthy in what she called economically difficult times.

    It’s why I say the F-35 was wildly successful at its true goals – directing money to the proper corporations and enabling the advancement of the proper people in the Pentagon. Sadly, the US is along way removed in time and culture from the days of the Truman Committee roasting companies like Curtiss-Wright on a spit.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. If the prime objective is corporate welfare, who cares if exotic machines work or not? This is another example of following the money to get an explanation.

    Speaking of aircraft carriers, their size astounds me and got me wondering if making one (or more) into a hospital ship for international on-the-spot help for foreigners might not go a tiny way toward making up for all the foreigners we kill without hesitation. This re-purposing would make a lot of sense…take what would be a sitting duck in nuclear war and is currently a platform for pounding into dust any place in a poor country worldwide that catches a president’s eye and turn it into a productive machine for the good of humanity outside the United States. I created this annotated graphic to show size comparison between a Nimitz class carrier, a football stadium and a hospital. The navy does have a hospital ship, tiny by comparison.

    I assume a Ford class carrier is even bigger than a Nimitz class carrier.

    BTW, Jimmy Carter had the courage to kill the SST, but then he went on to propose the MX missile that would shuttle between multiple shelters, trading one bad idea for another (amazingly, the MX died).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. They kept the MX “Peacekeeper” missile but abandoned the idea of moving them around via rail. What a dumb idea to begin with.

      Carter rightly canceled the B-1 bomber but Reagan brought it back. It’s been an expensive plane and a maintenance nightmare for the Air Force.

      Like

    1. It amazes me the money and intellectual resources we’ve dedicated to weaponry. Think of what we could have done with renewable energy, or space exploration, or environmental preservation. But we’d rather build stealth fighters and destroyers and more nukes. Insanity.

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      1. What a travesty that all of this intellectual and monetary treasury has been put into the service of warmongering leaders. There are just a handful of people in charge who are directing all this money and effort into useless, superfluous piles of metal and circuitry. It boggles the mind to realize how small the cadre is who are responsible for the monumental waste.

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      2. There’s no better way to see the waste of weaponry than to view the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson. The famed F4 Phantom, a big killer of Vietnamese and devastator of Vietnamese villages and countryside with napalm is now used (while the number lasts) as an unmanned drone for target practice. The B58 Hustler bomber fleet was sold to a scrap metal company. The F-35 will end up in Tucson far less employed than the F4 was, the irony being the less used one of these planes, the better. The question to ask looking at all these grounded pieces of scrap metal is how did they serve to defend the United States? Projecting power around the world? Yes, definitely. Making money in arms sales? Without doubt, but for what benefit for the hundreds of billions spent?

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Everyone: Just tried something new. I created a podcast to accompany this article. You can listen to it here, or click on the link at the top of the article. This was off-the-cuff, an experiment, and I welcome your comments.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Are you sure this is intended for a podcast? Where’s the hectoring tone? The build up to a frothing finale? There’s not even a litany of dubious “facts” from “highly-placed, anonymous sources.” It reminds me of my maternal grandfather who, after yet another long shift at Inland Steel, would sit at the kitchen table with a cup of A&P 8 O’clock Coffee and sift through a copy of The Chicago Tribune, looking for interesting articles to read and comment on for the benefit of his 5 year-old grandson. Bravo.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I am trying to put out the podcast fire wherever I encounter it as it spreads everywhere, so no offense to you in particular, prof.

      For communication, written material is so much better than a podcast

      > speakers are prone to off the cuff thinking and getting off on tangents. Writing requires (or should!) the writer to gather his/her thoughts and present them concisely, any deviation from the topic is easily skipped by the reader.

      > written material is quickly scanned, you immediately see what is in it, you have to watch an entire podcast to make sure you didn’t miss something

      > written material is so much faster to take in, reading is far faster than listening/watching

      > written material is not hampered by useless phrases like “like”, “you know what I mean”, “uh”, pauses of greater or lesser duration that add nothing to informing the audience.

      > written material can be forwarded or excerpted and easily sent to others who are far more likely to read it than to take on a podcast

      Boooooo to podcasts!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s OK. I think podcasts can have their uses. I prefer to keep them short (under 15 minutes) and focused. I will try them occasionally, mainly to amplify a post. Writing is still #1 for me.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It also chews up data and when you only get limited option plans that are never on the generous side; the written word is preferred. I am astounded that rural life away from the grid is being asked to excessively pay for these satellite services,which are actually a lesser quality than the cities Infrastructure. But, that’s our modern day capitalism choice as to how they will make their technology turn an acceptable profit margin.
        Plus if I spent all my day listening to every person who puts together seminars and podcasts, I may never ever see the light of day again.

        Liked by 1 person

    3. I listened to some of your presentation, William, and I must say, I thought it was remarkable. HughesNet only gave me about 25% and then “ cancelled “ you …(six times) before I gave up and went out into the sunshine. What I caught let me know that you speak like an educator, your teaching skills are evident. I believe it is a strength that is needed to empower the citizenry with…. what the “why” of opposing the MIC is all about. Your articles do a great job of presenting the facts; the financial, mental, physical, political, and societal costs of America’s military entanglements; and I believe that skill translated to your podcast. It was like sitting in a classroom.
      I really appreciate your approach, as well as Danny Sjursen and the fine folks at Tom Dispatch , because we get an inside education that helps us when we speak to others as to why war is a lost cause. It is so vitally important to let people know that this truly is a racket and that the taxpayer is being taken for a ride. Exposing the revolving door so that the mystique can be laid bare before our eyes …. only then can we help others realize most of this is about channeling money into the hands of a select and powerful few. Thanks for fighting for truth. You almost have me convinced to open a Facebook account just so I can post anti war articles….creat a wall of dissent for their algorithm machinery.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you. If you’ve lived without Facebook, I’d stay off it. I’m on FB but I never joined Twitter, Instagram, and other social sites. I joined FB in 2007 to stay in touch with colleagues but it has morphed into a narcissist swamp and a polarizing force.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. There’s a hidden formula hidden in a vault in a nuclear underground bunker.
    It’s for calculating cancellation of faulty weapons systems…
    it’s based the faulty factor on financial windfall coefficients…
    How many future millionaires of military brass will it deliver is the solution to the procurement process.
    It’s fabulous to be living large as a greedy leader in the military-mirage money machine.
    Certainly nothing worthy of the level of respect that is demanded from personnel and citizenry.
    Failure is an option that pays.
    Isn’t it oddly funny that one can talk themselves into believing any of these systems is necessary in a society that wants to believe it is ever forever dawning on enlightening days?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Costs too much indeed! Thank goodness we have “allies” and “friends” who will gladly fork out billions to get the latest military gear from Uncle Sam. That’s behind the “Abraham Accords” that do absolutely nothing to help the Palestinians but get more customers in line for the F-35.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Somehow
    In a eerie fashion
    This ancient saying
    Seems to apply
    The love of money
    Is the root of all evil

    I don’t see television and have lost touch with words that describe the latest trends; so I never have read anything describing “Cancel Culture “ until your telling. It seems cancelling happens frequently when pain inflicting events , practices, or memories get labeled as detriments for our society. So it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to calculate that nuclear weapons would fit into the cancellation category. They are certainly more troublesome than anything that has been “cancelled “ in the last decade.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. The world has seen the Pax Romana, the Pax Britannica … but never has and never will see a Pax Americana if only because the “War Room” scenes of “Dr. Strangelove” are probably closer to the truth than anyone realizes, filled with “unofficial studies” (“World Targets in Megadeaths”) and rampant paranoia (“The Mine Shaft Gap”) over pretty much anything and everything.

    Liked by 2 people

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