“The Pentagon Labyrinth”: A New Guide to Reform the Pentagon Even if You Feel Overwhelmed by the Mess

"The Pentagon Labyrinth": A New Guide to Reform the Pentagon Even if You Feel Overwhelmed by the Mess

For this week’s Solutions column, I am looking at a new handbook, “The Pentagon Labyrinth,” edited by Winslow Wheeler. This handbook is a collection of ten essays on how to understand and begin to tackle reforming the Pentagon. There are many good solutions in this 150-page book put out by the Strauss Military Reform Project, Center for Defense Information. The book can be purchased in hard copy, but is free electronically. For this column, I will be discussing and expanding the sections on buying and testing weapons, an area where much of the waste, fraud, careerism and other Pentagon mischief starts.

For me, this book is old-home week, as I have worked with six of the nine authors in my past 30 years of trying to reform the Pentagon. As the book cover says, the combined experience of these authors on the DoD is over 400 years. The book covers every angle of Pentagon spending: the budget, Congressional approval and oversight, careerism and picking and fielding of weapon systems. There is a lot of wisdom in this book that I have learned the hard way over the years, and I hope that anyone else who wants to oversee and reform the Pentagon does not reinvent the wheel, but reads this book first and saves themselves a lot of time and heartburn. The authors of these essays are so committed to helping people get a handle on reform, they print their email addresses in the back of the book so you can contact them for more information.

If you are of the old school and believe that you should read more than 150 pages before you tackle this voracious government beast that consumes almost as much money on defense than all the other countries combined, there is enough suggested reading in the footnotes and in the back to keep you busy for as many months as you wish. All of this has been made easier because the Center for Defense Information and the Project on Government Oversight have scanned in many hard-to-find historical documents that are full of past wisdom and, now, are just a click away.

There are two essays in the book that directly cover buying weapon systems. The first one, “Evaluating Weapons: Sorting the Good From the Bad,” is written by Pierre Sprey, who, among other accomplishments, is the co-designer of the F-16 fighter and the A-10 close support fighter. He also was one of the main people behind the military reform movement in the 1980s that accomplished many reforms before the Pentagon and the Congress swept them away in the 1990s and beyond. (For those who are audiophiles and jazz enthusiasts, Sprey founded Mapleshade records, which records music with state-of-the-art equipment for a pure sound, and you can also buy unique stereo equipment designed by Pierre with his aerospace engineer precision. Where else can you get speaker wire developed by the designer of the F-16?)

The second essay that deals directly with weapon systems is “Developing, Buying and Fielding Superior Weapon Systems,” by Thomas Christie, who has been evaluating, testing and buying weapon systems in the Pentagon for most of his career. His last post, director of operational test and evaluation, was an office that was created by we military reformers in the 1980s to encourage independent testing and oversight outside the military services and has been one of the few reforms that has not been totally eliminated or deformed by the DoD.

Sprey’s essay explains something that is not done well in the DoD when developing new weapons: looking at the history of all different types of warfare and seeing what works. Based on his extensive study over many decades of what works in war, he has come to the conclusion that weapons are not nearly as definitive for success in battle as people and, then, ideas. He come up with a set of rules on how to look at buying weapons and his first rule is crucial in finding out what will really work before committing billions of dollars and decades to a weapon system:

RULE 1: Weapons are not the most important ingredient in winning wars. People come first; ideas are second and hardware is only third.

After 1973’s crushing 80-to-1 victory by Israelis flying F-4s and Mirages against Arab pilots flying MiGs, the commander of the Israeli Air Force (IAF), Gen. Mordecai Hod, famously remarked that the outcome would have been the same if both sides had swapped planes. He was exactly correct, simply because the IAF had the most rigorous system in the world for filtering out all but the most gifted pilots. In every war, it’s the few superb pilots that win the air battle. A tiny handful of such pilots have dominated every air-to-air battleground since World War I: roughly 10 percent of all pilots (the “hawks”) score 60 percent to 80 percent of the dogfight kills; the other 90 percent of pilots (“doves”) are the fodder for the hawks of the opposing side. Technical performance differences between opposing fighter planes pale in comparison.

Submarine warfare is strikingly similar: the best 10 percent of the skippers account for the majority of the tonnage sunk. And, when the ace skippers switch boats, the high scores go with the skipper, not with the crew left behind.

Ground combat is much subtler and more complex than air or naval warfare thus, relative to hardware, people and ideas are even more dominant. In 1940, the Germans, outnumbered 1.5 to 1 in armor by French and British tanks, most of them technically superior, crushed France in just three weeks. The smaller German tank forces hardly mattered; they won because they had far better combat leaders, tactics and morale and because their troops were far better trained. Fifty years later, commenting on a similar disparity in people, General Schwarzkopf said the outcome of Gulf War I would have been the same if the U.S. and Iraqi armies had exchanged weapons, thereby echoing General Hod.

People are so overwhelmingly important in war that, as we shall see in Rule 5, the single most important characteristic of a weapon is its effect on the user, that is, whether it helps or hurts the user’s combat skills, adaptability and fearlessness.

I can tell you from experience that career generals would much rather deal with buying complicated and exciting planes, tanks and ships than deal with training time, support and spare parts to make sure that the troops are trained well enough for combat. In fact, when these weapons overrun, the first place the bureaucracy looks to cover or hide the overrun is to take the money out of spare parts and support for the weapon, so training on it is limited. Overruns also cause the bureaucracy to buy less and less weapons for more and more money. Throw in the problem that these scarce weapons become so expensive to use and/or lose, that troops don’t have a chance to extensively use them in realistic battlefield conditions. The real prestige for the careerist in the military is to have successfully shepherded an expensive and high-tech weapon through the DoD bureaucracy with help from friendly members of Congress, and then have the grateful large contractor make sure that a well-paying job awaits you when you retire on your high officer salary. This does not exactly fit in with Sprey’s people first criteria.

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I started my career looking at the development and testing of the M-1 tank, a cold war weapon that had major problems in its development. At the time, the M-1 was being manufactured to be the main battle tank in a theoretical war with the Soviet Union in Europe, something I thought rather remote during the nuclear standoff with the Soviets. While tanks can be important, I realize now that the investigation I am currently doing for a book on the Army’s and Marine’s ineffective development of helmets for the troops could be light-years more important than the work on the tank. An M-1 is not likely to be as crucial as an effective helmet when troops in Afghanistan face the primary weapon of this war: the improvised explosive device and the traumatic brain injury it can cause to troops who are in the first or secondary blast zones. The helmet may not be as exciting as the tank, but in Sprey’s people first criteria, it is much more crucial.

The military reform movement has spent much of its time trying to beat the DoD/Congress/contractor team’s giant public relations effort once a weapon gets rolling, whether it works or not. There is so much happy talk on how successful a weapon is in combat that it takes years for the truth to get out. Sprey addresses the problem in his essay with the Patriot missile, a weapon that has the dubious distinction of having been in research and development for 25 years:

RULE 7: When judging weapons effectiveness, seek out informed skeptics, both in and out of uniform. Weigh carefully their insights on weapons shortcomings. Ignore the corporate flacks, military procurement program managers, acquisition command flag officers, civilian high tech advocates and, above all, the “experts” and “experienced users” trotted out by the military services whenever their favorite programs are under attack.

No example demonstrates better the enormous value of an informed skeptic than the Patriot tactical ballistic missile defense system. During Gulf War I, 158 Patriots were fired at incoming Iraqi Scud ballistic missiles, an ancient and ineffective derivative of the World War II German V-2 rocket. Army press releases during the war claimed 100 percent of Scuds were shot down, reducing this to 96 percent in the first testimony to Congress, then 80 percent, 70 percent and a final figure of 52 percent, though with a caveat that only 25 percent could be supported with “high confidence.” The Army’s slow backpedaling from their initial outrageous claims was entirely due to the meticulous analyses of combat videotapes by a single courageous, highly qualified skeptic, M.I.T. professor Theodore Postol. His final work demonstrated that, at best, only 2 to 4 of the 158 incoming Scuds had been destroyed by Patriots, even though more than 3 Patriots were fired at each Scud, on average. In truth, Postol showed there was no conclusive evidence that any Scuds had been destroyed by Patriots.

Even worse, when the Patriots were deployed to defend Tel Aviv halfway through the Iraqi Scud campaign, Postol’s evidence showed they increased Israeli casualties per Scud by 74 percent and apartments damaged per Scud by 340 percent apparently mostly due to explosion debris from the large numbers of Patriots that missed.

Needless to say, the 0 percent to 5 percent combat success rate of Patriot batteries against the primitive Scuds is a poster child for the false claims and likely failures in combat of our $90 billion Ballistic Missile Defense System.

It is this type of lying by the weapons bureaucracy that keeps the funding going for years for weapons that don’t work.

Christie’s essay worries about how the weapons bureaucracy grabs onto a weapon and tries to prevent any competing or alternative weapon to challenge it at the early stages of development. Competition and risk are dangerous for the bureaucratic career of a weapons program manager and it is much safer for him to kill off any competition early and make sure his weapon has a monopoly on its mission, whether it works or not. From his essay:

A typical hardware program will involve three to five administrations and ten or more congresses. By the time the technical and cost issues finally become known, few, if any, of those involved initially are still around and those who are refuse to admit they had been wrong, to cut their losses before the problems worsen or to discipline the system by making an example of program officials and their contractors who have sold the department and the taxpayers a bill of goods.

This fits with the famous saying of a long-term Air Force whistleblower, Ernest Fitzgerald, who said his first law of weapons procurement was “first it is too early to tell and second, it is too late to do anything about it.” The skill of the weapons program manager is to massage the technical information and costs so it is always too early to tell until it is too late to do anything about it.

Christie is also concerned about how the fix is in very early in the development of a weapon versus the importance of finding out problems early in the development:

Hard-nosed discipline on the part of decision-makers at the front end of the process is crucial to reining in the appetite of the requirements community and precluding ill-informed development decisions based on immature technologies and optimistic projections of system costs, schedule and performance. Upfront realistic cost estimates and technical risk assessments, developed by independent organizations outside the chain of command for major programs, should inform Defense Acquisition Executives. The requirement for those assessments to be independent, not performed by organizations already controlled by the existing self-interested sections of the bureaucracy … is essential.

The existing process has heartily approved presumed quantum leaps in claimed capability that are reflected in high-risk, often unattainable, technical and operational requirements. Many of these system performance goals have resulted from the salesmanship of the DoD research and development communities, combined with industry lobbying, in successfully convincing the user and the rest of the acquisition community that the hypothetical advanced capabilities could be delivered rapidly and cheaply.

In case after case, Pentagon decision-makers have acquiesced to programs entering FSED/EMD [Full-Scale Engineering Development (FSED) – now referred to as Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD)] and even low-rate initial production before technical problems are identified, much less solved; before credible independent cost assessments are made and included in program budget projections; and before the more risky requirements are demonstrated in testing. This is nothing more than a “buy-in” to “get the camel’s nose under the tent.”

“The Pentagon Labyrinth” has, within its ten essays, dozens of suggested solutions to reform the DoD. However, I picked these two essays on weapons procurement for a reason. While it will be a monumental task to try to fix the DoD books and its procurement practices, a vital first step for the troops is to get the requirements right for weapons and equipment they must use in a war, and that won’t happen without getting the self-dealing incentives out of the system. As long as the DoD weapons designers are heavily influenced by the contractor’s newest tech toy instead of what realistically works on the battlefield, and as long as the weapons program manager’s career is tied so closely to the contractor’s success with hopes of a job after retirement, the system will continue to spit out ill conceived weapons such as the Patriot missile and the concept of people first for the troops will be lost.

Although many of the current weapons under development need drastic program changes or cancellations, it may be too late to stop it. Anthony Battista, a former staffer with the House Armed Services Committee, said that weapon “programs are like freight trains … once they get started, it’s very hard to turn them off, even if they don’t make sense.” However, the Congress and the DoD could start a new era with all future weapon systems that would link weapons to real threats and quantify what these programs should cost. If that is done right, with the right incentives for the program managers and others, it will go a long way to trying to also find where DoD’s money is going.

I have broken my rules on this column because I usually insist that my columns and the guest columns give small slices of solutions that are attainable in the short run. This is not a problem that has that type of solution. However, I believe that the first step for a solution to the weapons procurement crisis is to start talking about what isn’t working now and start a gravitation toward the Sprey people first concept and Christie’s call for “[u]pfront realistic cost estimates and technical risk assessments, developed by independent organizations outside the chain of command for major programs.”

Does it seem all so overwhelming? I will be the first to admit that it is. But if Truthout’s readers are angry and serious about starting to change this mess, perhaps you should read “The Pentagon Labyrinth” and then attach the pdf to emails to members of Congress, Armed Services Committees, reporters and members of the executive branch … maybe the book will trickle down to some staff member who then will be better equipped to try to stop at least some of the freight trains, or not let any more get started.