Costs a Bundle and Can't Fly

For the past decade, numerous career military officers and
defense analysts--whose politics run the gamut from left to right--have held
that U.S. combat in the twenty-first century probably won't mean grand,
conventional battles with large standing armies. And September 11 suggests that
these experts are right: Rather than a "rogue state" raining down ballistic
missiles on us, or hordes of Red Chinese flexing regionally hegemonic muscle,
low-tech operatives of an unorthodox army turned airplanes into bombs. For its
part, the United States, in taking the fight to the parastatal entity behind the
terrorist attacks, won the first round with a combination of highly mobile
special-operations forces and the venerable B-52.

So what does the Bush administration do? Ask for a jacked-up defense budget:
an increase of $120 billion over the next five years (an extra $48 billion for
fiscal year 2003 alone). The increase exceeds any other nation's entire war chest.
It includes tens of billions of dollars for weapons systems that aren't likely
to see any action, because they're rooted in a long-gone era and, to make matters
worse, they won't roll off the assembly lines for some time. "For 45 years of the
Cold War, we were in an arms race with the Soviet Union," says retired Admiral
Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information. "Now it appears we're in an
arms race with ourselves."

Of course, it would be nice if the administration funneled some tax dollars
into programs that are of real use to troops or into new systems that would
actually work on today's altered landscape of war. After all, as Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last year, "every dollar squandered on waste is
one denied to the war fighter." No such luck. Indeed, in one case, the
misappropriated dollar is not only denied the soldier but goes to a weapon more
lethal to us than enemy ordnance.

The V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft under the aegis of the U.S. Marine
Corps, has killed more Marines than the Taliban has. It's perennially in an
"experimental" stage. Four prototypes have crashed in the past 10 years, killing
a total of 30 men, including the program's most experienced hand. Not long after
the last crash, which occurred in December 2000, a report from the Pentagon
understated in calling the Osprey program "not operationally sustainable." Even
Dick Cheney, as defense secretary under the elder George Bush, tried to quash it.
The current administration could have followed the March 2000 recommendation by
the Congressional Budget Office to find safer and better applications for the
technology developed in the program--a move that the CBO estimated would save
$6.6 billion over the next decade. President Bush, however, wants Congress to
give the Marines another $2 billion for the program. Meanwhile, the Air Force has
requested $124 million for work on its own version of the disaster-prone
aircraft.

How exactly this represents "transformation" of the U.S. military is unclear.
But arguably even more puzzling is the blizzard of new dollars for the Army's
$9-billion Crusader self-propelled artillery system. This 42-ton behemoth--meant
to replace the Paladin self-propelled howitzer--is a screaming contradiction to
the doctrine of "maneuver warfare" that Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki
espouses. It is so unwieldy that neither the C-5 Galaxy nor the C-17 Globemaster,
the two biggest aircraft in the military's cargo fleet, can carry a complete
Crusader system. Although the CBO and the General Accounting Office (GAO) have
reported that there is a more cost-effective alternative in the German-made
Panzerhaubitze (PzH) 2000 self-propelled howitzer--replacing the Crusader with
the PzH 2000 would save taxpayers $6.7 billion--the Crusader proceeds apace with
an additional $467 million.

Elsewhere in the Pentagon, if anything's ripe for a cutting, it's the Air
Force's F-22 Raptor program. Already drowning in $9 billion worth of cost
overruns, the plane that holds the dubious distinction of being the costliest
fighter aircraft ever built does not, in the view of most experts, do anything
very different from the Joint Strike Fighter, also in development. Nor is it a
huge improvement on the existing F-15's and F-16's. While the Center for Defense
Information believes that the F-22 program is too far along to eliminate
altogether, a strong case can be made for reining it in, as the cost of each
aircraft has ballooned by 24 percent in the past year alone. According to the
CBO, restricting production of F-22's and relying more on existing F-15's would
save $10 billion over the next decade. For 2003, however, the Air Force wants
$5.3 billion--an increase of $1.3 billion--for 23 new pairs of Raptor wings.

When it comes to cost-prohibitive aircraft, the Air Force doesn't have a
corner on the market. The Bush administration has also rewarded the ineptitude of
the Army's Comanche helicopter project, which is currently in its sixth
incarnation. Initiated in 1983, the Comanche program has yet to deliver much in
the way of results; at one point, hopes were high that an aircraft might actually
be produced by this year, but the latest estimate is that the rotors may turn by
2004. As far as the GAO can tell, the only thing about the Comanche that flies is
its price of production--and soar it has, from $43.3 billion in 1999 to $48.1
billion in 2001. The CBO estimates that buying new models of helicopters that are
proved to work would enable the Army to save $6.3 billion and still meet its
mission requirements. The Bush administration, however, is pumping another $910
million into the Comanche--prompting one senior Pentagon analyst to wonder if
"this money can be followed and frozen by law enforcement as part of the war on
terrorism, as the program is clearly as much a threat to the U.S. military as
any marauding armed force in the world."

Indeed, it is curious that Bush--who professes outrage at the dubious dealings
of Enron and Arthur Andersen--feels so confident asking Congress for all this
and more (don't forget the $7.8-billion request for additional work on missile
defense) when the Pentagon's accounting practices make Enron and Andersen look
like sticklers for detail. In recent years, the GAO and the Defense Department's
inspector general have found trillions of dollars' worth of unsupportable
accounting adjustments; the books are in such disarray that the Defense
Department can't even be effectively audited. And it isn't just the Bush
administration that's culpable. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle
are enabling punch-drunk procurement by voting to keep and even expand programs
in the name of local jobs--all at the expense of the national interest.

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