America's High-Tech Weaponry
Million-dollar missiles, broken black boxes, and the phantom fleet
BY JAMES FALLOWS
THE DISTINGUISHING FEATURE OF AMERICAN DEFENSE planning in recent years has been the pursuit of the magic weapon, the weapon that will make victory automatic, that will give ten men the power of ten thousand. American troops are said to be outnumbered; therefore, only technology will save them. The search for more exacting technical triumphs has taken on a life of its own.
The effect of this trend has been a lineage of weapons in which each generation of planes, tanks, missiles, ships, costs between two and ten times more in constant dollars than the previous one. The trend, if unchanged, will make much of the debate about defense spending moot. Constant increases will be mandatory, but no practicable amount of spending can keep up with the rise in cost. Given seemingly endless price increases, another discussion becomes urgent: How effective, how necessary are these weapons? And what do we sacrifice to own them?
These questions have special relevance in light of the Reagan Administration’s proposal to increase defense spending by 16 percent between 1981 and 1982, and to devote much of the increase to expensive, complicated weapons such as nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft equipped with advanced electronics systems. The administration’s proposal reflects the assumption that increasing the budget for defense without changing the underlying pattern of spending will make the nation more secure.
The story of the Air Force’s Tactical Air Command gives reason to doubt that assumption. Tac Air, as it is known, consists of those planes not designed for strategic nuclear assault on the Soviet Union. They include fighter planes, attack or bombing planes, radar planes, reconnaissance planes, radar early-warning planes, and electronic-countermeasures planes.
The forces of Tac Air represent a substantial, and growing, part of the resources we invest in defense. Over the past fifteen years, the Tac Air share of the Air Force’s investment budget—the money for new equipment—roughly tripled, from 21 percent to 62. If there could be a test of the principle that more money buys more and better defense, it would be found in the history of Tac Air. What that history suggests is that everincreasing expense, far from making Tac Air better prepared for battle, has more likely done the reverse.
The riches devoted to Tac Air have been used, with very few exceptions, to finance a progression toward ever more technically complex aircraft and weapons. The aircraft engines have been pushed toward the extremes of high internal pressure and temperature, requiring many more compressor stages and more exotic materials to withstand the tremendous heat and stress. Aluminum is inadequate for the airframe of a plane designed to travel, however briefly, at two and a half times the speed of sound. It must be strengthened by such expensive materials as titanium, stainless steel, and beryllium. The fighter planes have acquired more complex “avionics” systems, consisting of large radars to detect enemy planes and a variety of computerized “fire control” systems meant to launch guided missiles to their targets. Extremely “capable” planes—such as the Navy’s F-14 Tomcat, and the Air Force’s F-15 Eagle—are “all-weather” fighters, theoretically able to locate and destroy targets at night or in fog or rain. The missiles they carry, such as the Phoenix and the Sparrow, are supposed to be able to home automatically on targets well beyond the range of the pilot’s sight, and to destroy them without fail.
With each of these developments, the cost of the planes has increased. In 1980 dollars, each F-14 costs somewhere between $26 million and $35 million, depending on the accounting system used. An F-15 costs between $15 million and $25 million, compared with about $6.5 million for a simpler attack plane knowm as the A-10, and about $4 million for a simple fighter, the F-5. In the twenty-five years after the end of World War II, the cost of first-line American fighter planes rose by a factor of 100, measured in constant dollars. The force behind these cost increases has been the burgeoning of technical complexity. During the quarter-century after World War II, for example, the cost per fighter for avionics rose from about $3000 to roughly $2.5 million, for engines from about $40,000 to about $2 million.
THE MOST USEFUL DOCUMENT FOR UNDERSTANDING Tac Air is an extraordinary report called “Defense Facts of Life,” which was prepared by a civilian employee of the Pentagon named Chuck Spinney. Spinney is a thirty-five-year-old former Air Force officer who now works for the Program Analysis and Evaluation office of the Department of Defense. Building on the work of one of his predecessors in that office, an engineer and analyst named Pierre Sprey, Spinney has spent the past several years studying the implications of the trend toward complex weaponry as exemplified by Tac Air.
According to Spinney’s analysis, the rising cost and complexity have had an immediate effect on the numbers of planes in the force. No conceivable amount of funding, not even the comparative riches of Tac Air, could keep up with unit cost increases of 30 to 40 percent every year, so the number of planes in the inventory has decreased. In 1944, at the peak of wartime production, the United States turned out 10,000 military airplanes. In the midfifties, the military purchased 3000 fighters (including planes for air defense) a year. In the late seventies, about 400 fighters were purchased per year; the 1982 budget allows for fewer than 230. Since the mid-fifties, the total inventory of American fighter planes has fallen from 18,000 to 7000. Norman Augustine, a vice president of Martin Marietta Aerospace, says, “From the days of the Wright brothers through the F-18 [a current Navy fighter], aircraft costs have been increasing by a factor of four every ten years. If the trend continues,” he says, “in the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one tactical aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared between the Air Force and the Navy, three and a half days each per week.”
The decline in numbers is only the first effect. The second is that each plane can be used less often than its simpler, cheaper alternatives. In the modern Air Force, the “sortie rate”—the number of flights per plane per day—has fallen steadily with the progression toward more complicated weapons. Why? The main reason is that as an airplane or missile becomes more complicated, the probability that all its parts will be working correctly at the same time decreases. Early in 1980, Harold Brown, then the secretary of defense, issued a paper on Tac Air that compared the reliability records of a dozen different aircraft models. One measure of reliability is the proportion of planes that are “not mission-capable”—that is, not fully ready for combat because they need repairs or lack spare parts. The “not mission-capable” rate for the relatively simple A-10 was about one third, compared with nearly two thirds for the very complex F-111D. The records showed a consistent connection between high complexity and low reliability.
Expensive and unreliable aircraft make for a dramatic reduction in what fighter pilots call “presence in the sky.” A retired Air Force colonel named Everest Riccioni, who now works for Northrop, has written about the difference between the “real fleet” and the “phantom fleet.” The real fleet is the one that can be put in the air at any given moment; the phantom fleet is composed of all the planes that are confined to the runway, for reasons of repair, unreliability, lack of crews. “The enemy doesn’t give a damn about the phantom fleet,” he says. “The only force that matters to him is the one in the air.”
Riccioni demonstrates his point by comparing three representative planes: the F-5, one of the simpler aircraft now in the American inventory; the F-4 Phantom, a very large fighter of medium-level complexity; and the even larger and more complex F-15. (It should be noted that the F-5 is built by his company, but Riccioni advanced his argument about simpler planes for years while he was still in the Air Force, before he went to work for Northrop.)
The first difference, of course, is cost. By Riccioni’s estimates, the F-15 costs about four times as much as the F-5 and twice as much as the F-4, so a single sum of money could variously buy:
|No. of planes:||1000||500||250|
But these figures include the “phantom force.” To find the real force, the number of planes must be multiplied by the “sortie rates.” The rates are roughly as follows:
The product is a “real force” of:
|Planes in the air/day:||2500||750||250|
In short, the same expenditure, on less sophisticated aircraft, buys four times as many planes and ten times as many sorties.
One aircraft designer says, “The typical contractor’s question is, ‘Would you rather go to war in an Eagle [the F-15] or an F-5?’ The more realistic question would be, ‘Consider a confrontation between one F-15 and six MiG21s. Would you rather be the pilot of the F-15 or one of the six MiG pilots?’ ”
HOW WELL ARE THESE NEW, MORE COMPLEX AIRplanes adapted to the likely circumstances of combat? Each F-15 contains forty-five “black boxes”—computer systems that run the avionics and other functions of the plane. Indicators let a pilot know when one of the boxes is malfunctioning. When that happens, the offending box is removed in toto and a new box is snapped in. Then, in the service bays, the box is tested in another computer system, known as the Avionics Intermediate Shop, or AIS. Anyone who has worked on computers will tell you that tracking down a defect can be a maddening and lengthy process. In theory, the AIS reveals which computer card has gone wrong and needs to be replaced. In practice, the system has problems of its own. In 1979, according to Spinney, the testing system worked only 50 percent of the time; the following year, it improved to 80 percent. But even when the AIS computers are working, about a quarter of the time they yield “cannot duplicate” signals—that is, they can’t find anything wrong with the box that was pulled from the plane. Such a box is generally put back on the shelf, to be tried later in a different plane.
The typical “wing” of seventy-two F-15s has six AIS computers. It takes an average of three hours, and can take as many as eight, to check one box, and each computer can check only one box at a time. Thus, to support seventy-two planes—more than 3000 boxes—requires a smoothness of scheduling that is difficult to sustain even when there are no bombs falling on the hangars. As a result, “computer supportability” has become a big problem in its own right for the Air Force. Within the Air Force, there have been proposals for two large computer depots, one on each coast, that would centralize the functions of the AIS and stock the thousands of necessary spare parts. In time of need, such as wartime, a special transportation system, dedicated to this purpose alone, would ferry the computers from one air base to another. “One thing you do not have in combat is a dedicated transport system,” Spinney says.
There is a similar problem in the repair of the sophisticated engines for the F-15. They are designed to make it easier for crews to pull them out and ship them to the depot than to repair them on the flight line. “It’s so easy to pull an engine that they get rid of it if there’s a gurgle,” says an aircraft analyst. Peacetime regulations control the pulling of engines, but the rules would almost certainly be ignored in time of war, and the bottleneck would merely move from the flight line to the depot. The analyst says, “To generate sorties, you end up swamping the engine shop. It takes half an hour to pull an engine, but four or five hours in the shop to check it out, even if nothing is wrong. The whole system depends on a smooth flow, and if that’s disturbed, as it would be in war, it completely falls apart.” The wartime experience of the F-4 jet suggests the dimensions of the problem. The F-4 is a less complex plane, and the intensity of air combat in Vietnam was far lower than the projections of all-out war in Europe that were used to justify the F-15. Even so, during the Vietnam War the depot in Utah had a twoyear backlog of battle-damaged F-4s for repair.
LAST FALL, A PUBLIC RELATIONS DIRECTOR FOR McDonnell Douglas, John J. McGrath, wrote a letter of complaint to the editor of Newsweek magazine. He took exception to a report that questioned the effectiveness of the F-15, which McDonnell Douglas produces. Specifically, he objected to the (accurate) statement that, in Air Force tests, three F-5 airplanes had shown that they could shoot down one F-15. “In combat exercises against many types of aircraft (all having combat ability equal to or greater than an F-5), the F-15 exchange ratio was 88 to 1,” McGrath said.
This is, of course, the case for high technology. If those new planes really are eighty-eight times better, then who cares if you can put even ten times as many simpler planes in the sky for the same money? But there is another way to look at the question of “exchange ratios” and comparative “capabilities,” which is to ask what the achievements in complexity and electronics add up to in combat.
Just such an analysis of the history of air combat is what Pierre Sprey undertook. Sprey is a dapper-looking man in his forties, with silver hair combed straight back and a jaunty air. He was trained as an engineer at Yale and as a statistician at Cornell, and worked for the Grumman Aircraft Corporation before coming to the Pentagon as an analyst during the regime of Robert McNamara. In 1978, as part of a celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of powered flight, Sprey delivered a speech at Wright-Patterson Field, in Ohio, explaining the lessons that actual combat experience might teach about aircraft design. The history of aerial combat begins with World War I and runs through Vietnam and the assorted wars in the Middle East. An analysis of that record, Pierre Sprey suggests, yields “combat-derived criteria” for a fighter airplane’s success.
The overwhelmingly important criterion is surprise: one pilot’s ability to catch another completely unawares. In the entire history of air combat, between two thirds and four fifths of all “kills” were due to the element of surprise. Surprise dominated in World War I, and in Vietnam. The most lethal “ace” of all time, the German flier Erich Hartmann, did everything he could to avoid prolonged “dogfight” engagements. He claimed that of the 352 planes he destroyed during World War II, fully 90 percent were “kills” by surprise. On the Allied side, one air commander filed a report in 1944 that might have been taken from accounts of Korea or Vietnam: “Ninety percent of all fighters shot down never saw the guy who hit them.”
According to Sprey, people who know of these figures talk about tactics and alertness, but they almost never think about the plane itself. However, a number of features of a plane’s design do affect the chances for surprise. A smokeless engine, for one: an F-4 fighter (the Phantom) would be visible only within a radius of five miles if its engine did not smoke, but it is visible from fifteen to twenty-five miles away with its usual smoke trail.
An airplane’s speed also affects its prospects for surprise, but not “speed” as it is usually conceived. When the services ask for new planes, and when congressional committees hear about the need to counter the Soviet threat, the speed discussed is nearly always the plane’s maximum speed. A Mach 2.5 fighter is one that can use its afterburners to reach 2.5 times the speed of sound (roughly 1900 miles an hour). But because afterburners consume fuel at a tremendous rate, pilots can sustain those top speeds for only a matter of seconds. The usual saying is that a plane will reach Mach 2 just in time to run out of fuel. (Indeed, several of the American fliers who ended up as prisoners of war in North Vietnam were captured because they ran out of fuel while chasing MiGs at Mach 1.6.)
The speed that does matter in combat, Sprey suggested, is cruising speed, “the speed that wall let you fly long enough to do what you want to do to the enemy.” When one plane has a speed advantage over another in combat—enabling the pilot to sneak up behind the other plane’s tail, and avoid others’ sneaking up on his—the advantage consists of the difference between the cruising speeds of the two planes. In both old and modern jet fighters, these are usually below the speed of sound, and far below the top speeds for which the planes have been so carefully designed and expensively produced.
If surprise is so important, Sprey continued, it also holds implications for the proper electronic equipment on a plane, implications that run directly counter to the prevailing wisdom employed in more “capable” planes. Modern radar and “fire-control” systems are intended to give the plane “all-weather” and “beyond-visual-range” capabilities, which so far have not proven usable in combat. “All-weather” means the ability to detect other planes at night, in clouds, in storms; “beyond-visualrange” means the ability to discern enemy fighters from many miles away and target guided missiles to destroy them. What these calculations ignore, Sprey said, is that the other plane is looking for you, and these same radar systems serve as giant beacons, alerting any other plane in the region to your presence. If other planes are equipped with a “radar-warning receiver” (a “fuzz-buster”), their pilots are quickly aware of someone beaming radar toward them, and of the direction from which it comes. The price of this radar, then, is the element of surprise. And for what? In Vietnam as in all other recent wars, the great majority of “kills” were based not on radar detection but on the pilot’s visual observations.
As one Air Force veteran says, “Imagine yourself holding a gun and a flashlight in a pitch-dark room, with a lot of other guys with flashlights and guns. Who’s going to turn on his flashlight first? Well, radar is that flashlight.”
THERE IS A FINAL, EXEMPLARY LESSON TO BE DRAWN from Tac Air. The real message of Chuck Spinney’s analysis, which is one of the most significant documents in modern American defense, is that unrealistic military planning, which chronically pays too little attention to the economic and military effects of complexity, constitutes a “form of organizational cancer.” The pattern, in essence, involves four steps.
First, the planners are eternally optimistic about the amounts of money they will be able to spend to buy new equipment. Year after year, the long-range spending plan predicts a smooth, steady increase in funding for the five years that are about to begin. These predictions, in turn, shape decisions about the kinds of weapons to buy. That is, the military might decide to build a new, complex fighter plane in the belief that it can purchase 1500 of them, even though it would never choose that plane if it knew in advance that it would be able to afford only 500. Although the past teaches the unpredictability of military budgets, the plans are made as if the future were assured.
Second, in their desire to buy more equipment for the force, the planners forget or fool themselves about how much money they need to set aside for “operations and maintenance” (known as O&M) of new equipment, especially the more complex varieties. For example, Spinney points out that in 1968, Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown endorsed a new avionics system for the F-111D, saying that, despite its complexity, it would be extremely reliable. He predicted that the system would go 60 hours between breakdowns (technically, “mean time between failure”), and that it would require less than 1.5 manhours of maintenance per sortie. In 1980, the system went about 3 hours between breakdowns, and averaged 33.6 maintenance man-hours per sortie. That is, it required about twenty times as much maintenance as predicted on both counts.
Third, as a natural consequence of the second step, the military has to make unexpected cuts in its “investment” budget—the money it has set aside for new equipmentin order to make up the cost of maintenance and overruns on previous programs. No matter what the weapons system, whether ships, planes, helicopters, or missiles, the military ends up buying a smaller number than it originally projected, simply because it doesn’t have the money to buy more. This means, among other things, that the cost for each plane or ship is much higher than expected, since the overhead is spread over a smaller “buy.”
Fourth, when certain parts of the military do enjoy momentary prosperity, they tend to use the money not to bail out the projects they have already started but to get yet another complex system, with yet another inadequate maintenance budget, under way. This, of course, is much of the story of Tac-Air.
“In a general sense, this pattern reflects a tendency to reduce our current readiness to fight in order to modernize for the future,” Spinney says in his presentation. “However, because of rising operating costs, the price of even low readiness is rising inexorably over the long term. . . . This pattern of behavior can be expected to continue as long as costs, particularly operating costs, grow faster than the budget.”
AT LEAST ONCE IN RECENT HISTORY, THE MILITARY tried a different road. In the early seventies, the Air Force launched its Lightweight Fighter Prototype Program, which led to the development of today’s F-16 airplane. A group of free-thinkers known as “the Fighter Mafia”—which included Pierre Sprey, Everest Riccioni, and an Air Force colonel named John Boyd, who had almost single-handedly developed the modern theory of aerial combat—used their technical arguments and their bureaucratic skills to build support for a small, light, inexpensive, and highly maneuverable plane.
Unlike the elaborate design specs of the standard Air Force project, the succinct requirements for the Lightweight Fighter called for no maneuvers at speeds above Mach 1.6. Instead, they set loose goals for a plane that could out-accelerate, out-turn, and out-endure any existing aircraft in the range of speeds actually seen in combat—about Mach .6 to Mach 1.6. With these general instructions, private manufacturers were left to develop prototype aircraft, which would prove their merits in competitive “fly-offs” against other prototypes. David Packard, who, as deputy secretary of defense, had been one of the strongest partisans of prototyping, spelled out the new philosophy in a memorandum early in 1971:
It is important that each program have these features:
1. . . . Only the price shall be firm. All specifications shall be open.
2. At least two projects should be authorized for each class of plane.
3. A plan for fly-off testing will be required.
4. It must be made clear that there is no commitment to go ahead with a further program.
5. At the same time, we will lose benefit of this approach if, after a fly-off, we go back to some other competition for full development and production. In other words, the fly-off testing is the source selection if we decide to go ahead.
After a number of intricate fandangos, involving Northrop’s ambitions for foreign aircraft sales and an abortive proposal for a small fighter from “Kelly” Johnson, a world-renowned designer at Lockheed who had conceived the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes, the development of prototypes finally began. The two manufacturers involved, Northrop and General Dynamics, did produce prototypes that embodied the virtues of lightweight fighters that the Fighter Mafia had long been touting. The winner, a General Dynamics product known as the YF-16, was, in the eyes of the Mafia, the greatest fighter since the F-86. It weighed about 20,000 pounds and carried only a simple aerial cannon, Sidewinder missiles, and their fire-control systems. Through the fly-offs, Sprey had kept looking for ways to take extra weight out of the plane, and Boyd had reined in all attempts to move away from actual flight data to computer analyses as the standard for evaluating the competitors. Because it was so light (and therefore could accelerate and turn quickly), the plane could fly circles around other planes, including the F-15. Because it was so small and so hard to see, either by eye or by radar, it maximized the advantage of surprise. Its projected cost was about half that of the F-15. James Schlesinger, by then the new secretary of defense, had taken on the Lightweight Fighter as one of his own projects, and he was well pleased with the result of the fly-offs. He decided to proceed with production, and he persuaded both the Air Force and the Congress to go along. General Dynamics won the contract.
Before the YF-16 could go into production, it fell back under the domination of the Air Force’s development and procurement bureaucracies. Under the supervision of General Alton Slay, the head of the Air Force’s Configuration Control Committee, the plane went into “full-scale engineering development,” which amounted to modifying the blueprints, adding the technical specifications that had been so deliberately avoided up to this point, and loading roughly two tons of new electronic equipment and other modifications into the plane. This stage represented nothing less than the rejection of the entire philosophy under which the plane had been designed. Some twenty-five members of the Air Force had managed the development of the prototypes and the competitive fly-offs. Now the Air Force management group grew toward 200 people, and the contractor’s team rose from 150 engineers to about 1500.
The “Fighter Mafia” was outnumbered and outflanked, and Secretary Schlesinger, who had been the plane’s early champion, chose not to fight the thousand battles that would arise as the Air Force added one specification after another. The plane’s mission was redefined: instead of being a pure fighter, it was converted into a “multiplemission” airplane, to be used for attacking ground targets and dropping nuclear bombs. The structural and electronic changes justified by these new missions raised the F-16’s cost and degraded its performance as a fighter—conveniently reducing its status as a competitor of the Air Force’s favorite fighter, the F-15.
The result was an aircraft that cost 75 percent more than the YF-16 would have; that is being fielded in units with air-to-ground missions rather than pure fighter units; that weighs roughly 24,000 pounds instead of roughly 20,000, with a proportional reduction in acceleration; and that comes loaded with hard-to-maintain electronic equipment. Nonetheless, it was a better aerial fighter, by all the combat standards Pierre Sprey laid out in 1978, than any other the United States or the Soviet Union had built in thirty years. In aerial exercises, F-16 pilots, with passive radar systems, detect F-15s as quickly as the F-15s, with their overpowering radar systems, can detect them. In NATO exercises, Belgian pilots in F-16s have soundly beaten U.S. pilots in the Eagles, which cost more and can fly less frequently.
THE STORY OF TAC AIR IS THE STORY OF MUCH OF the rest of the Pentagon. In nearly every weapons system, designers have pushed technology as the solution to American military problems, without distinguishing between the innovations that simply breed extra layers of complexity and those that represent dramatic steps toward simplicity and effectiveness. As a result, the cost of military equipment keeps going up, the number of units in the inventory goes down, and the reliability of each unit becomes open to serious question.
The Army’s latest tank, the XM-1, costs at least seven times as much as the Sherman tank of World War II. (All comparisons here are in constant dollars.) The Main Battle Tank—a proposal from the early seventies that was junked because of technical problems and resistance from Congress—would have cost ten times more than the Sherman. Modern aircraft carriers, with their nuclear propulsion, cost four to five times as much as those built at the end of World War II. The first guided missile used for aerial dogfights, and still the most reliable, is the heat-seeking Sidewinder, which originally cost about $3000 apiece, or about $10,000 in today’s dollars. Its less reliable, radar-guided competitors, the Sparrow and the Phoenix, cost ten and one hundred times as much respectively. (The latest model of the Phoenix costs more than $1 million.) The nuclear-powered attack submarines, whose creation Admiral Hyman Rickover oversaw, are different from other complex weapons, in that they work. But at roughly $300 million apiece, the Navy can buy only one fourth as many of them as of diesel-electric subs.
As with Tac Air, the progression toward higher and higher costs degrades real military readiness in two ways. The first is simply that it diverts resources. When so much money goes for computers and complex engines, there is less for training sessions, extra rounds of ammunition, realistic preparation for combat. The “CommandControl-Communications-Intelligence” networks, in which the military now invests so much effort and money, illustrate the problem. The “cee-cubed-eye” systems, as they are known (in written form, it is “C3I”), are radio and computer hookups designed to carry out the dream of controlling military maneuvers from one central point. To that end, the military has invested somewhere between $10 billion and $15 billion in the Worldwide Military Command and Control System (or WWMCCS, pronounced “wimmex”). Another network, called the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, or JTIDS, is designed to feed information from one computer to another on the battlefield. From a technical standpoint, even the partisans of C3I will admit that, yes, there are still a few bugs in the system. Once or twice a month, the newspapers carry a story about the WWMCCS computers breaking down. When the system was thoroughly tested in 1977, attempts to send messages ended in “abnormal terminations”—that is, breakdowns—62 percent of the time.
The wild expansion of C3I also undermines the very qualities of leadership and initiative that are essential to success on the battlefield, since officers must operate in time of crisis with a commander looking over their shoulders from miles away. Nonetheless, since 1977, there has been an assistant secretary of defense charged with no responsibility other than promoting C3I. He has been so successful that the United States is now spending billions of dollars on centralized command networks that are useless when they don’t work and may be actively harmful when they do.
In addition to consuming resources, the costly and complicated systems harm military readiness in another way: by making it too costly, or too impractical, for soldiers to spend much time in realistic training. For example, John Fialka has reported in the Washington Star that the Army’s gunners who are stationed in the frontline areas of Europe and Korea, where they would presumably be charged with stopping the Soviet tanks with TOW (“tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) missiles, get to fire at most once a year with a live round, which now costs $6000.
The question must be asked, here as with the complex airplanes, do the virtues of “advanced” systems offset these drawbacks? In general, the answer is no, because in designing more “capable” weapons and dreaming of the advantages they will bring, planners usually avert their eyes from the confusion that is the only certainty of war.
The Rapid Deployment Force planned for the Middle East would, as George Wilson of the Washington Post has pointed out, most likely encounter its greatest difficulties not in enemy aircraft or tanks but in figuring out how to find enough water to keep its equipment functioning and its men alive for more than about one day. In the Saudi desert, each soldier and his supporting equipment would require about twelve gallons of water a day. A GI canteen holds one quart. The engines of a KC135 tanker plane must be injected with 670 gallons of distilled water each time they are started up. The military planners Wilson interviewed said that it was impossible to carry enough water onto the scene, and difficult to imagine distilling it from seawater on the spot.
The real challenge comes not from hostile environments but from adversaries who can alter their behavior. A colony of bacteria will not change its tactics to avoid detection by a scientist looking through a microscope, nor will a gravitational field plot to disrupt the plans of builders erecting a skyscraper. An army will try to fool its enemy’s weapons, and will try hardest against those that actually begin to work.
All “precision-guided” weapons depend on sensors to home on their targets or to direct them to a desired path. All the sensors depend on making mechanistic, yes/no comparisons to distinguish the target from its surroundings. Infrared sensors choose between hot and cold; radar guidance measures the relative strengths and frequencies of waves reflected from the target and the background; some systems use television cameras to search for black/white contrasts in the target images. The sensors will fail if they have to deal with small differences between the target and its background—and such small differences are what soldiers instinctively strive for with camouflage. When the “smart” missiles went to Vietnam, most of them were flops. One of these, the Falcon, had been produced at a cost of $2 billion. On paper, its predicted “probability of kill,” or Pk, was 99 percent. In combat, it was effective about 7 percent of the time, only slightly less than another “smart” missile, the Sparrow. Eventually pilots refused to carry the Falcon on their planes.
The most highly touted prospect in today’s catalogue of high technology is “millimeter-wave” radar guidance, a process that will supposedly enable each missile to tell a tank from a car and an artillery piece from a rock, and to pick out, with pinpoint precision, the targets it was programmed to destroy. According to optimistic predictions from the Pentagon’s Research and Engineering officials, these weapons could be launched in a swarm over a battlefield, and could then be relied upon to fly around, spot Soviet tanks, and track them down to certain death. “What would I do if I were on the other side, and those things started to work?” asks one Pentagon official skeptical of the approach. “I’d get a bunch of corner reflectors [devices that send back disproportionately strong radar reflections] and put them in a lake, or mount them on a bunch of motorcycles going the other way. You’d see the missiles take out after them.”
LAST SUMMER, A MAJOR STORY ABOUT THE AMERICAN military appeared in Business Week. Its title was: “The New Defense Posture: MISSILES, MISSILES, AND MISSILES.” The story concerned projects in an increased defense budget. It quoted at length from Norman Augustine, whose warning about the dramatic rise in the cost of military airplanes was cited earlier. Augustine is a former assistant secretary of the Army for research and development who, in a pattern typical of such officials, had left to become a vice president of Martin Marietta Aerospace, producer of the Army’s Pershing, Patriot, and Copperhead missiles. Shortly after the Business Week article was published, he became chairman of the Defense Science Board, a Pentagon advisory group. One section of the story, which begins with a discussion of a missile called Maverick, is unusually useful for understanding modern defense. Not only does it indicate the effect on weaponry of the high-technology juggernaut but it suggests how the longing for magic weapons has done so much to pervert the proper functions of defense.
Maverick went into development 10 years ago as an electro-optically guided missile that carried a tiny television camera in its nose. The theory was that its camera would photograph a potential target, and the missile would then lock onto it. But the camera did not work well in clouds or at night. So, three years ago, the Air Force turned instead to the development of an infrared guidance system for Maverick.
The infrared device helped make Maverick an allweather missile, but it also left a lot to be desired. Its sensors spotted targets imprecisely, and its signal-processing computers were too often uncertain about where to steer it. Sometimes the hot spots it saw turned out to be flares fired as decoys. Because it did not see full shapes or images, Maverick still could not distinguish among real and spurious targets well enough to make it a truly one-shot weapon. . . .
But the air-to-ground Wasp and a new missile called AMRAAM (for advanced medium-range air-to-air missile), now in development, should be vastly better systems.
Embodying the latest in miniaturized electronic components, large-scale integrated circuitry, and minicomputers for signal processing, the new missiles will pack many thousands of times more computing power and sensory capacity than did their predecessors. Such advances in electronics will permit the missiles to see whole shapes of targets and select the right ones to hit.
“We’re beginning to see seekers that make a list for their signal-processing computers as they fly,” says Martin Marietta’s Augustine. “They say, ‘I see a tank, a bridge, and an armored personnel carrier.’ The computer is programmed to kill tanks, so it chooses the tank as its first-priority target.”
Augustine predicts that by the end of the decade, the computers in missiles-will come very close to comparing with the human brain. “Our missiles,” he says, “will be not just smart, but brilliant.”
In its tone and outlook, this could have been any account of any exciting new weapon developed in the past twenty-five years. The voice of realism is heard in its description of now-antiquated systems of recent history. They didn’t work quite right: the clouds got in the way; the sensors were fooled by flares. The voice of hucksterism is heard in the predictions. Yes, you had problems before, but wait till you see these brilliant new items.
What makes this passage so valuable is that it illustrates both sources of the pressure that pushes the military inexorably toward more “advanced” and more expensive weaponry. One is the force of seeming logic. In this category are the extreme battle scenarios that call for wonder weapons as the only appropriate response; the technical visions of how easy and automatic warfare might be if new inventions work out; and the argument that American forces are “outnumbered,” and must therefore exploit their advantage of high technology. The natural corollary of this reasoning is tolerance for rising cost and a lack of interest in the tiresome business of seeing which weapons actually work. The other major force is that of primitive self-interest. A culture of procurement has been created in the Pentagon that draws the military toward new weapons because of their great cost, not in spite of it.
ON ITS RATIONAL SIDE, MODERN MILITARY PLANNING recalls that technical changes have repeatedly altered the nature of war. In World War I, the machine gun gave an edge to forces on the defensive; twenty years later, the tank restored the dominance of maneuver and attack. In 1937, the U.S. government commissioned a study on “Technological Trends and National Policy.” Among the developments its experts failed to foresee were the military applications of helicopters, jet engines, radar, computers, nuclear weapons, missiles, satellites, and nuclear submarines. Thus, the U.S. can scarcely afford to overlook any avenue of research.
It is also possible to argue, on paper, that certain hypothetical situations cry out for special new weapons. What would happen, for example, if several aircraft carriers operating off the coast of Africa were attacked by Soviet “Backfire” bombers firing missiles from a hundred miles away? Or what what would happen if the Soviet Union, in addition to destroying all the nuclear missiles that lay buried in American silos, also figured out how to destroy the submarines and bombers that carry four fifths of the total American nuclear arsenal? What if you want to be sure not only that the different elements of your nuclear system together constitute an invulnerable deterrent but also that each element, on its own, could survive any conceivable attack? Speculation of this sort leads directly to the MX missile.
In addition to hypothesizing threats, such speculation can run to marvelous fantasy-life solutions. Wouldn’t it be great to have a tank that went from zero to 60 like a hot rod? What if we had a missile with a 99-percent “probability of kill,” or one that would give American forces a 955-to-l exchange rate against Soviet aircraft? (Such claims were actually made for one recent missile.) What if we could build an electronic “fence” across Vietnam and Laos to keep all the Communists out? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, instead of leaving aerial combat to a group of pilots trying to figure out for themselves which enemy planes to destroy, the whole enterprise could be automatically controlled from the ground? If you had a huge radar-computer complex, it might be able to identify all the “friendly” and “enemy” planes in the sky and rationally distribute assignments to the former for shooting the latter. Then it could transmit commands to each fighter plane, guiding it precisely to its target. Visions of this sort lay behind a $20-billion radar complex of the sixties known as SAGE—which, after countless revisions, finally foundered, because of the technical complexity of devising a computer program that could keep the friendly and enemy planes straight. Nonetheless, the Air Force and the Navy have invested further billions in radar planes known as the AWACS and the E-2, which face the far greater technical challenge of performing similar electronic feats from a single plane in the air.
Running through all arguments in favor of high technology is the idea that the United States really has no choice: since we are a modern nation, “quality,” not “quantity,” is the obvious way to go. “Given our disadvantage in numbers,” Harold Brown has said, “our technology is what will save us.” Most Americans probably understand this above all other concepts about our armed forces; which is unfortunate, because the concept is wrong—not wrong in the sense that American Seabees should attempt to build airfields with hand tools, as do the Chinese, but wrong in its implication that high technology always, or even usually, increases the military usefulness of a weapon.
The “we are outnumbered” argument is also wrong in concealing the fact that if the United States has fewer tanks and planes than the Soviet Union, it is because American planners have chosen to build fewer. There may be a parallel in the “throw weight” question in nuclear weapons. American nuclear strategists consciously decided that, instead of following the Soviet pattern of building large, heavy, nuclear-armed missiles, they would concentrate on lighter, smaller missiles, by exploiting American technological advances in accuracy, warhead design, and propulsion systems. Yet, when it comes time to compare U.S. and Soviet forces, they complain about the ominous Soviet advantage in throw weight, i.e., how big a load the missile can lift. In conventional weapons, American planners keep pushing at the frontier of technological complexity—and then complain that since we are falling further and further behind the Soviet Union in numbers, we must push the frontier further still.
If being outnumbered is really the problem, why not solve that problem directly? The Soviets now add about 500 tactical fighters to their force each year, compared with our average of 250. If a sensible plane could be built for $5 million instead of $25 million to $35 million, then it would cost about $2.5 billion to match the Soviet output. Are they building 2000 tanks a year, to our 1000? If planners concentrated on building a tank for $800,000 instead of $2 million, then it would cost $1.6 billion to match the Soviet output, and $3.2 billion to double it. These are not trivial sums, but they are hardly in the same league with prospective total procurement budgets. One nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and its escorts cost about $6 billion. For the same money, we could easily eliminate the entire Soviet advantage in production of fighter planes and tanks.
In addition to making the military tolerant of everrising costs, the logic of “advanced” weaponry has several other effects on the internal priorities of the Pentagon. For one thing, it makes planners far more interested in paper projections of how a weapon should work than in reports of how it actually performs. Much of the weapons-procurement system is designed precisely to shield projects against unflattering data from the field. Cripples such as the “smart” missiles are nursed toward survival, their problems regarded as mere growing pains that do not blemish the ultimate potential of the weapons. The emphasis on paper projections also tempts planners to show more passion for making weapons conform to their own regulations than for shaping them to perform in combat.
Further, the wonder-weapon mentality generates hostility to small, sensible steps that will not revolutionize the battlefield but will do some good tomorrow. Handheld calculators, the reliable $6 kind, might be a big help to artillery men. Instead, the Army has the TACFIRE system, a huge, cumbersome, unreliable, and quite vulnerable computer designed to control artillery. Richard Garwin, a physicist who works at IBM and Harvard and has long served on the Defense Science Board, suggests that the United States might look more closely at the wartime use of mines, for example, to help slow the Soviet fleet’s passage through the “Greenland-Iceland-UK gap” between their home ports and the open sea. “But no one can command a mine,” he says. “You don’t get promoted for procuring them. There’s no glamour to them.”
THE FORCE OF LOGIC, AND OF TORTURED LOGIC, GOES only so far in explaining the trend toward costly, complex weaponry. The real reason that American forces are “outnumbered,” and that high technology is king, lies in the very nature of the Pentagon, in the culture of procurement. In thirty years of peacetime operation (including Vietnam, since almost no one except the soldiers ever viewed it as total war, in which the weapons and strategies had to work), the central function of the military has been perverted. Yes, the Pentagon is in business to devise war plans and understand the enemy and protect the nation; but before any of those things, it is in business to spend money. Many people have come to recognize this reality of bureaucratic self-interest as it applies to, say, the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Indeed, many of the voices that are now crying most stridently for “more” defense belong to those “neoconservatives” who have shown an acute understanding that employees in the Office of Economic Opportunity may sincerely want to help the poor but will fight poverty less fiercely than they will fight a threat to their programs or their jobs. Why can’t the conservatives, neoor otherwise, see the same thing in the Pentagon? Between 1977 and 1979, the catch phrase for America’s most urgent military priority shifted from “NATO modernization” to “rapid-deployment force.” The purchases that the services listed as “essential” to carry out these very different missions were virtually the same.
This is corruption, but not in the sense most often assumed. The bribes, the trips to the Caribbean in corporate aircraft, do occur, but they distort the essence of the problem. The real damage is not spectacular but routine: it is the loss of purpose in the daily operation of the military machine, the substitution of procurement for defense. It affects all the relevant groups: soldiers, who are converted into sales agents; contractors, whose productive core is corroded; and finally, the rationality and civility of public discussion about defense, which are sabotaged by the hidden purpose of continuing to spend money.
When veterans of the defense business—the ones with “dissident” tendencies, the kind in any organization who stop to look carefully at things everyone else takes for granted —reach the point where they want to move beyond the details to explain what really troubles them about defense, it is always this theme they emphasize: the corruption of military purpose by procurement. Consider the comments of Dr. Thomas S. Amlie, who worked for nineteen years at the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake, California, and became its technical director: “There is no amount of money, even exceeding the GNP, which could redress the unbalance between Soviet and American force structures unless fundamental changes in the organization and its operation are made . . . We could have significantly better defense for three quarters of the present budget. The basic reason for the problem is incredibly simple and will be incomprehensible to anyone who has not spent time in the system: there is no profit and loss sheet. Thus, there is no competition and incentive to produce. The goal of every good bureaucrat is to get an exclusive franchise on what he is doing. If nobody else is doing it, no one can measure how well or poorly he is doing it. If he supervises more people, his grade level goes up. The only requirements are to stay busy, generate paper, and make no mistakes. The reader tempted to criticize this behavior is invited first to imagine himself in this situation, complete with a large mortgage and children in college.
“Nobody cares much what is bought so long as the money gets spent . . . The DOD has all the symptoms of being corrupt, incompetent, and incestuous, and is so to an alarming degree. This is not because of some sinister plot but because the present structure forces millions of players to act like rational human beings and do what is necessary for their survival or perceived best interests. Many of the players are aware that things are going badly and are unhappy they do not have meaningful jobs where they contribute. They are not, in the main, dishonest or incompetent, just caught in a very bad situation. All pressures are to maximize mediocrity . . . To the large extent that the DOD performs non-competitive procurement, it forces the industry into the same habits. Indeed, the larger corporations have to separate those divisions which do business with the government from those in the competitive market because of the corrupting effect of government procurement policies and practices.”
The culture of procurement teaches officers that there are two paths to personal survival. One is to bring home the bacon for their service as the manager of a program that gets its full funding. “Procurement management is more and more the surest path to advancement” within the military, says John Morse, who retired as a Navy captain after twenty-eight years in the service.
The other path opened by procurement leads outside the military, toward the contracting firms. To know even a handful of professional soldiers above the age of forty and the rank of major is to keep hearing, in the usual catalogue of life changes, that many have resigned from the service and gone to the contractors: to Martin Marietta, Northrop, Lockheed, to the scores of consulting firms and middlemen whose offices fill the skyscrapers in Rosslyn, Virginia, across the river from the capital. In 1959, Senator Paul Douglas, of Illinois, reported that 768 retired senior officers (generals, admirals, colonels, and Navy captains) worked for defense contractors. Ten years later, Senator William Proxmire, of Wisconsin, said that the number had increased to 2072. In the ten years after that, at least 1455 more senior officers joined the contractors.
J. Ronald Fox, a former assistant secretary of the Army, has said of this process: “The availability of jobs in industry can have a subtle but debilitating effect on an officer’s performance during his tour of duty in a procurement management assignment. If he takes too strong a hand in controlling contractor activity, he might be damaging his opportunity for a second career following retirement. Positions are offered to officers who have demonstrated their appreciation for industry’s particular problems and commitments.”
Thomas Amlie says: “The military is a closed society that takes care of its own. If a retired general representing a client goes in to see an old classmate still on active duty, he will get a very attentive hearing. The officers on active duty are also thinking ahead. Fighting the system gets one blackballed, and then future employment prospects are bleak. In this way the industry has come to control DOD even more than its political appointees. This control is acquired with relatively little money and, to add insult to injury, the industry uses government money to get control of the government. As in the case of the civil servant, there is no vast and sinister plot: the system grew that way because nobody was in charge or cared.”
The money at stake is of course considerable. In 1979, for example, ten companies each did more than $1 billion worth of business with the Pentagon. The leading firm, General Dynamics, which makes the F-16 and F-lll airplanes, the Tomahawk cruise missile, and nuclear submarines, held contracts worth $3,492,100,000. The next, McDonnell Douglas, which makes F-15 and F-18A fighters and Harpoon missiles, had $3,229,200,000. United Technologies, which makes helicopters and jet engines, among other things, received $2,553,600,000. Until the beginning of the Reagan Administration, the president of United Technologies was Alexander Haig—former four-star general, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces, current secretary of state, and perhaps the most dramatic single example of the traffic between defense contractors and the government. The other companies in the top ten were General Electric (jet engines, nuclear wmrheads, etc.), $2,042,500,000; Lockheed (large transport planes), $1,796,600,000; Hughes Aircraft (“smart” missiles such as the Falcon and the Phoenix), $1,556,900,000; Boeing (cruise missiles, B-52 bombers, Minuteman nuclear missiles), $1,514,500,000; Grumman (F-14 fighter and other planes), $1,364,200,000; Raytheon (Sidewinder, Patriot, Hawk, and other missiles), $1,249,400,000; and Tenneco (shipbuilding), $1,092,600,000.
After the election of Ronald Reagan, the contractors announced that those sums were sure to soar. Defense stocks led the rally on the stock exchange after the election; Raytheon went from 85 before the election to 102¼, one week after, Rockwell International from 30⅞ to 42½, McDonnell Douglas from 34⅝ to 42⅝, and General Dynamics from 59 to 77¾. If the new administration decides to approve the B-l bomber, that would mean some $10 billion for Rockwell. Boeing has recently received a $2-billion contract for cruise missiles. Northrop is trying hard to sell its F-5G fighters to the foreign market, on the theory that $5 billion of business may await it there. The list could go on and on.
IF THE MOST OBVIOUS THING ABOUT THIS LIST IS THE size of the sums involved, the most interesting aspect is that such huge contracts generate comparatively little profit. They generate a lot of business; also jobs, political influence, support of overhead, and cash flow. Still, defense contracts by and large create a lower profit level than normal commercial business. Partly, that is by definition: much defense business is on a cost-plus basis, which means that the contractor states his costs and adds a standard markup. A great deal of hidden profit is certainly buried in the “cost.” But more, the lower profit rates reflect the fact that exposure to the soft world of cost-plus contracting and sky’s-the-limit specifications corrupts even the industry that, is its most obvious beneficiary. Corruption in this case means eroding the disciplines of efficiency, innovation, and sound business practice that are, in the long run, essential to the firms’ survival. American firms—bowing to the book-length specification lists for new military projects, the cadres of retired officers they have taken aboard to generate business, and the line-by-line scrutiny of designs practiced by the Congress—suffer from inefficiency in direct proportion to the willingness of the Defense Department to pay their bills. Charles Bernard, an official in the Research and Engineering office of the Pentagon, says, “The U.S. [defense] industry has a lot of dilettantes in it—guys who are aircraft designers one day, torpedo designers the next. You’d say that’s impossible, but I’ve seen it. Guys with zero experience in something would get interested, write a brochure, get the contract, and then figure out what the hell to do.
“What we’ve lost in this process is the discipline of the project engineer. If you hired an architect for a building, you’d let him draw the plan, let him supervise the work, and then hold him responsible for the results. If you ask who the ‘architect’ is for most defense projects, you won’t find one. All they have are ‘program managers,’ who don’t know squat about weapons.
“To give you an example. The Sidewinder is the best air-to-air missile we’ve ever had. It was developed in the fifties, and we still have it. It was the product of one engineer, Bill McLean. There was a man obsessed with simplicity. He was one guy making sure that the system didn’t go out of control. Today we’d break it up into ‘interface managers’ and ‘engineering groups.’ Why? I think this kind of ‘matrix management’ was developed as a way to keep everybody on direct charge for the project [i.e. billable to the project], not indirect charge.”
Nearly everyone involved with defense contracting says it now combines the worst of both worlds. It permits neither cooperation between government and business nor the genuine arm’s-length relationship and freedom from specifications that might permit companies to be more efficient and innovative. The one clear exception is the long-time collaboration between the Lockheed Corporation and the Special Projects Bureau of the Navy for the production of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (the Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident models). Special Projects is run on the same principles as one of the design bureaus of the Soviet military establishment, with a cadre of officers that stays year after year and trains one crop of leaders after another from within. There is also little turnover among its counterparts at Lockheed. Management experts who have studied these two organizations consider it no accident that the record of their missiles has been so much better than the Pentagon’s average, in both performance and cost.
“For as long as we have written records, the major improvements [in weapons] have come from outside this system,” says one civilian expert. On his list are radar, the jeep, the first modern tank, the Browning automatic rifle, the nuclear submarines the regular Navy opposed— and the legendary P-51 fighter of World War II, which President Roosevelt had to force on the Army Air Force because it came from outside.
The priority of the system is to keep dollars moving, men on direct charge, management careers on track.
ON THE THIRD OF HIS VOYAGES, JONATHAN SWIFT’S Gulliver alights in the kingdom of Balnibarbi. There he finds a civilization that is given over to hypothesis and speculation and has lost touch with common sense. Its citizens are ill-clad, because their tailors design clothes with compass and quadrant rather than fitting them to the wearer. Its houses tumble down, because, in their fascination with the intricate geometry of the floorplans, they cannot be bothered to check that the angles are square and the roof is sound. In his description of the scientific academies that abounded in that nation, Swift captured the essence of the search for magic in modern American defense:
In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments and tools for all trades and manufactures; whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last forever without repairing; all the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase a hundredfold more than they do at present, with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and in the meantime, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their schemes, driven equally on by hope and despair. □