The recent decision by a panel of senior Pentagon officials to begin production of the Air Force’s stealthy F-22 fighter aircraft is another indication that George W. Bush’s high-flying rhetoric about transforming defense is just that … rhetoric. It seems the Bush administration has no real intention of reforming the military.
The aircraft, at $200 million a pop, is the most expensive fighter built. Although very capable, the plane was designed during the Cold War to fight a threat from advanced Soviet aircraft that never materialized. In the post-Cold War world, the air-to-air threat is so limited that the United States can maintain crushing dominance of the skies by producing an upgraded version of the existing F-15C fighter and modernizing the AWACS battle management aircraft.
The F-22 decision was not the first sign that Bush’s defense transformation is dead. The Pentagon also recently decided to continue to build the problem-plagued V-22 tiltrotor aircraft for transporting Marines from ship to shore. The fixed-wing aircraft takes off like a helicopter, tilts its propellers, and then flies like a plane. The Defense Department decided to keep producing the aircraft in low quantities until it can figure out how to redesign the plane so that it can be operated safely. Deciding to build an aircraft that is 10 years behind schedule, $15 billion over original cost estimates, and may not be safe was highly questionable.
For both the V-22 and the F-22, the Pentagon keeps increasing estimates of the cost, slipping the schedule, and reducing the number of planes to be purchased. But those two weapons are not unique. The U.S. defense industry — plagued by a mixture of socialism, industrial policy and excessive regulation — continues to build new generations of weaponry that often cost double that of the previous generations, are consequently fewer in numbers, and take 15 to 20 years from program initiation to production.
In contrast, in the commercial sector — in which market forces often operate — each generation of products is lower cost, higher quality, and produced in a shorter time. (Imagine the competitive price, efficiency, and reliability of military aircraft if the PC industry made them.)
But recent decisions to produce costly or unneeded weapons that were designed during the Cold War are not the only reason to believe that Bush’s seemingly earnest desire to transform defense is doomed. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, either because of ineptitude or because he never really bought into the Bush campaign pledges of defense reform, has squandered any opportunity to radically transform U.S. defense forces, the weapons they use or how those weapons are developed and produced. At the time of his nomination, Rumsfeld was billed as a savvy insider who knew how the game in Washington was played. An adroit bureaucrat, however, should have known that two paths existed to achieve any reform. Unfortunately, Rumsfeld has mixed the worst aspects of both paths.
One path to success in Washington is to know what you want to do, hit the ground running and ram your policies through Congress before the vested interests supporting the status quo can rise up in opposition. This path requires secrecy and a popular mandate for the particular policies that can be used against the vested interests.
The second, slower path is to study the problem and find the right solution, build a consensus in the bureaucracy for change, and schmooze Congress by making it feel like it’s a part of the process. This path requires openness and inclusion and a willingness to broker a compromise with the vested interests in the bureaucracy and Congress.
In reality, Rumsfeld had only the second path as an option. He did not have a popular mandate for defense transformation. Since the Cold War ended, Americans pay less attention to national security issues. More important, Bush did not win an overwhelming mandate in the election to promulgate any of his policies, let alone defense reform.
Yet Rumsfeld has impeded the achievement of his own goals through the second path by being secretive and only belatedly working to develop a consensus in the bureaucracy and Congress for transformation. In fact, instead of schmoozing Congress, Rumsfeld has dumped kerosene on the fire. He had to be warned by the bipartisan leadership of the Armed Services committees about his delay in submitting the defense budget to Congress and has developed proposals to reduce the Pentagon’s constitutionally required accountability to Congress by cutting requirements for testimony and reporting. Furthermore, even under the second path, Rumsfeld studied the transformation issue to death and then recently turned it over to the bureaucracies of the military services to solve. This passing of the buck makes it likely that no meaningful reform will occur.
Is Rumsfeld this naïve or is he trying to quash a reform program that was never his idea in the first place? Richard Armitage developed the ideas for defense reform for the Bush campaign but he is now at the State Department. In the end, it doesn’t matter because the result is the same: Defense transformation will be a lot less than advertised.