Eisenhower’s nightmare

John McCain uses a Senate floor speech to excoriate the "military-industrial-congressional complex."

Arizona Sen. John McCain on Thursday unleashed a blistering attack against the “military-industrial-congressional complex,” leaving no service and almost no major program out of a broadside that excoriated today’s acquisitions environment.

The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee called the F-35 “a mess” — having already called it “a scandal” and “a national tragedy;” he lamented “significant problems” with the Marines’ late Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle; he regretted the “great expectations and enormous costs” of the V-22 Osprey; and declared that “military space procurement programs are among the most notorious for chronically performing poorly.”

Of Future Combat Systems, McCain said this: “To say that this program was a spectacular, shameful failure would not do it justice.” The Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship is “another example of a fundamentally flawed acquisition process,” he said, and get a load of what he said about the F-22:

Unfortunately, the F-22 also ended up being effectively too expensive to operate compared to the legacy aircraft it was designed to replace.  It also ended up largely irrelevant to the most predominant current threats to national security — terrorists, insurgencies, and other non-state actors.  In fact, if one were to set aside the F-22’s occasional appearances in recent big-budget Hollywood movies where it has been featured fighting aliens and giant robots, the F-22 has to this day not flown a single combat sortie — despite that we have been at war for 10 years as of this September and recently supported a no-fly zone in Libya.

Politically engineered to draw in over 1,000 suppliers from 44 states represented by key members of Congress and, by the estimates of prime contractor Lockheed Martin, directly or indirectly supporting 95,000 jobs, there can be little doubt that the program kept being extended far longer than it should have been — ultimately to the detriment to the taxpayer and the warfighter.  As such, it remains an excellent example of how much our defense procurement process has been in need in reform.  We may fight a near-peer military competitor with a fifth-generation fighter capability someday, but we have been at war for 10 years and until a few months ago had been helping NATO with a no-fly zone in Libya.  And, this enormously expensive aircraft sat out both campaigns.

He concluded the F-22 “may very well become the most expensive corroding hanger queens ever in the history of modern military aviation.” McCain then moved onto our friend DDG 1000, the Airborne Laser and the presidential helicopter program — you get the idea here.

The culprit in all of this, McCain declared, is President Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” — though McCain said it has become much more powerful than it was in Ike’s day and ensnared Congress. This would not have surprised Ike — there’s even an apocryphal story he originally wanted the phrase to include “congressional,” but deleted it to placate the Congress of the day. So what’s the answer? Here was McCain’s prescription:

Well, little can be done to disrupt the inherent biases of those who are the major forces in the military-industrial-congressional complex to maximize their own particular interests.  But, we can help the Department of Defense reform itself by developing a weapons procurement process that directly responds to the root causes of failure by, for example, starting programs on a solid foundation of knowledge with realistic cost and schedule estimates and budgeting to those estimates; locking in sufficiently defined requirements early; managing the cost, schedule and performance trade-space effectively to ensure that needed capability is procured within a fixed, reasonably short period of time; insisting on early and continued systems engineering; leveraging mature technologies and manufacturing processes; not procuring weapon systems that promise generational leaps in capability in a single bound; and definitely not doing so under cost-plus contracts.

We must also ensure transparency and accountability throughout, and use competition to encourage industry to produce desired outcomes and better incentivize the acquisition workforce to do more with less.  We should also embrace initiatives geared at making the government as skilled and knowledgeable a buyer as Industry is a seller.  With the right leadership, such approaches may help overcome the negative, pernicious effects of the military-industrial-congressional complex on how we buy major weapon systems.  And, given how tightly woven the military-industrial-congressional complex is into the fabric of our society and economy, this is all we can really hope for.

If that. Despite McCain’s often mordant description of the problem, his ideas for solving it are deeply familiar to everyone in his hated Iron Triangle. Service officials already have pledged to follow many of them. The Air Force has said ruthless requirements control is what’s going to keep its new bomber costs reasonable and the Marines have a “war room” for squeezing out as much as possible from their new amphibious vehicle.

Which places McCain in the same position as so many other would-be defense reformers over the years — with no choice but to wait and see if the military-industrial-congressional complex can start to get it right going forward.