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Weapons That Will Never Die: We Need to Stop the Expensive Reincarnations

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Part of the Series

There are weapons that started out sounding good on paper but end up not fitting the threats of changing wars or are deployed in war and fail to perform. These same weapons, because of their myriad problems, also become vastly overpriced as the DoD and their contractors try to fix the problems under the guise of endless upgrades. The base price of the first round of the weapon gets very high, and subsequent buys of the weapon become so inflated that the DoD either lowers the units that they buy for the same amount of money, or cuts the spare parts and training budgets. The cuts either prevent the weapons from being used enough in training to prepare for the real battlefield, or create a lack of spare parts that keeps a large portion of these weapons from being battle-ready. Logic would tell you to move on to another concept early on and cut your losses, but the DoD bureaucracy knows these weapons will survive many generations of civilian managers and even weak Congressional inquiries, because the weapons take on a life of their own.

In this column, I will discuss a long-lived weapon system, the Maverick missile, to show how ill-conceived and mismanaged programs can continue, decade after decade, to take precious defense resources with little real addition to our national defense.

The Maverick missile is a tactical, air-to-surface missile that is carried on the A-10 close air support plane, the F-15E and the F-16. The idea of close air support is for the plane to use the missile to back up troops on the ground. A current mission for close air support that is in the news is the air support that the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have been giving to the Libyan rebel fighters to protect them from artillery and tanks. The Maverick was first delivered to the US Air Force in 1972, and there have been Maverick A, B, D, E, F, and G models, with each generation changing the guidance system or the size of the warhead. The Maverick missile's mission directly competes with the gun on the A-10, which uses 30 millimeter shells to destroy everything from trucks to tanks. The shells of the A-10 gun have been shown to be highly effective at a much lower cost. The Maverick should have to compete for effectiveness of close air support with the gun system of the A-10, but the plane also carries Maverick missiles.

The original idea for the Maverick missile was to put a television guidance system in the nose of the missile, with the pilot finding the target, locking on it, firing it and then breaking away. The goal was that it would be more accurate than just dropping dumb bombs or missiles, and that the pilot could see the target from far away and would be able to maneuver away from the target once the missile's guidance system locked onto the target. In Vietnam, the television (electro-optical) version of the weapon had problems with the pilot seeing the target, so the next version, the B version, had a screen magnification. The next versions had infrared sensors to try to help with the sighting and accuracy, but there have also been problems with the pilot and the missile being confused by relying on heat source targets in a battlefield that has many hot and burning items. The most recent reincarnation of the Maverick missile is to use a laser guidance system.

The basic problem with the missile in real battlefield situations is that you are asking a pilot to look for a tank (you don't want to waste this expensive missile on just a truck) while looking through a sensor that only sees a small part of the landscape and trying not to get shot down. It has been described as trying to find a tank while looking through a straw. The missile's guidance system has had a history of breaking the lock on a target and missing.

There are more technical and tactical problems with the missile that I won't go into here, but over the years, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress and the press have done detailed reports and stories on the inherent problems of the Maverick, especially with its testing. Morton Mintz, a Washington Post reporter in 1982, did an in-depth expose of the Maverick's technical problems and cheating on Maverick testing, such as putting drab olive tanks on white sand so the television guidance system on the Maverick could easily see them.

The Maverick has also had cost and manufacturing problems. Hughes Aircraft first manufactured the Maverick in a Tucson, Arizona, plant owned by the government. The costs for making the Maverick were greatly overrun and were exposed by the famous Air Force whistleblower Ernest Fitzgerald. In his 1989 book, “The Pentagonists,” he revealed that the costs of the missile were way over what it should cost, and that the scrap and rework of each new missile was so high that it was the equivalent of having to rework one out of every three new missiles coming off the manufacturing line.

However, the Air Force and Hughes Aircraft just kept finding ways to repackage and re-sell the Maverick missile decade after decade, and it has become one of the standard missiles in the Air Force inventory. Raytheon purchased Hughes Aircraft, and the beat goes on to keep the missile going. In February 2010, Raytheon proudly announced that the Air Force and the Marines are buying more Maverick missiles, this time with laser guidance systems, and in February 2011, they announced how successful the testing has been and that production has begun. In one of their press releases for investors, Raytheon specifically tells the investor where the Maverick is made and the major subcontractors:

Raytheon's family of Maverick missiles provides more than 250 jobs in Tucson, Ariz., Goleta, Calif., and Farmington, N.M.

The AGM-65E2 is the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps' variant of the laser-guided Maverick; the AGM-65L is the U.S. Air Force variant.

Scores of Raytheon suppliers associated with the Maverick program provide employment to hundreds of people across the U.S.

Major suppliers include: Alliant Tech Systems, Rocket Center, W. Va.; BAE Systems, Lexington, Mass.; Eagle Picher, Joplin, Mo.; Ensign Bickford, Simsbury, Conn.; Kaman Aerospace, Middletown, Conn.; MOOG, Inc., Salt Lake City; MOOG, Inc., East Aurora, N.Y.; Primus Technologies, Williamsport, Pa.; Reynolds Systems, Middletown, Calif.; Woven Electronics, Greenville, S.C. and Analog Modules Incorporated, Longwood, Fla.

Raytheon wants everyone who invests in the company to know that the wealth is spread around to various states – that is, various Congressional districts and Senate seats – so their weapon will bring jobs and have a much better time surviving any cuts … especially since the Maverick has been around for 35 years.

Amazingly, Raytheon itself publishes the fact that, in the 35 years the DoD has bought over 69,000 various units of this missile, only around 6,000 have been used in actual combat. But the DoD plans to keep buying more and also have Raytheon refurbish some of the old stock. This missile has changed so many times over the years that you could just have a stock Maverick missile nameplate and keep sliding new missiles in place. This keeps the company making these missiles year after year with no new competition for the contract, and the DoD likes it because they don't have to take any risks with a new company. The entrenched company that makes the missile already has deep roots in the Congress, and can protect any Air Force procurement officer if the newest version has technical or manufacturing problems or massive cost overruns.

In the Gulf War, the total cost of various versions of the Maverick missile was over $100,000 each in 1999 dollars. Each generation of Mavericks with new technology costs more and more, with the most recent versions costing $250,000 each (although that may not be counting the overruns that usually don't show up until years later).

There are many other examples of overpriced and/or ineffective weapons that live on for decades due to the inherent problems in the DoD culture and bureaucracy. The C-5 cargo plane, the Patriot missile system (which just got an upgrade contract yesterday), the M-1 tank and the ballistic missile defense system are some of the most egregious examples.

Many times, the upgrades for these weapons systems are sold to the Congress as cheaper alternatives to buying new weapons and military services. The companies claim that since the weapon was already in production, there will be fewer costs. But giving these companies monopolies on these weapons stops a competitive process, and once the DoD buys into the upgrade, costs go out the ceiling and can exceed the cost of a new, competitively bid replacement.

The Congress also buys into this bogus argument because these weapons and their manufacturers are known quantities, and even if they have a checkered past, the members of Congress who have jobs in their districts also lobby their colleagues to save the jobs. New weapons require competition, and it is a jump ball to see where the new jobs will appear. So, having a weapon already being made is a distinct advantage to the DoD, the military services and the Congress, but not for the taxpayers and the soldiers. This system is not serving them and our national security well.

Next week, I will propose several solutions that will try to break this cycle and free the system of these perpetual turkeys without throwing out effective weapons that should survive generation after generation because of merit, not misplaced longevity.