Doing the same, expecting better

Why do people continue doing stupid things?  Consider the development of weapon systems for the US military:  Chuck Spinney made the cover of Time magazine back in 1983 — that’s 25 years ago — for documenting to Congress that the acquisition system was getting worse at an increasing rate.  Anybody who thinks he was wrong, or who thinks that things have improved, is welcome to post a refutation (observing, of course, our comment policy).

Reality has not escaped the people who work in the system.  What we have, in other words, is a stupid system composed of bright people,  lots of bright, well-educated, and often experienced folks working diligently to try to solve the wrong problems.  This fact isn’t lost on the project development community, which, from time to time, produces some brilliant insights on itself, and, even more interestingly, publishes them.

Dan Ward, Gabe Mounce, and the other members of the group that call themselves “rogue project leaders,” for example, have been writing about the  absurdity of the system for years, and getting their stuff published in the primary venue for the field, Defense AT&L.  I guess that may be the lone ray of optimism in this dreary debacle.

Dan’s latest, “Call Me Sisyphus,” is well worth a read:

Since more than 46 years of reasonable, intelligent-sounding solutions have failed, perhaps it is time to try some unreasonable solutions.

He begins by quoting an article by Maj. Frederick Stark in Air University Review:

“The cost of growth in military hardware is increasingly the subject of national debate. Critics of the Department of Defense cite massive cost overruns on major weapon programs, usually aircraft, as evidence of mismanagement and waste. … We are currently paying eight times the cost per pound for fighter aircraft that we did in the 1940s. We are paying four or five times as much as we did in the 1950s. … These are production costs. Development costs have grown even more.”

Then Dan lets you in on the fun — this was published in 1973, ten years before Spinney’s testimony.  Although Dan didn’t point it out, it took the F-22 22 years to go from the initial studies to initial operating capability (IOC).  The next fighter in the pipeline, by the way, is the F-35.

What’s the solution?  Dan is right that more control mechanisms (mandated reports, plans, procedures, reviews, etc.), more “reform,” more tinkering is just going to produce longer delays, higher costs, and even greater mismatches with the world situation when its products finally appear in the field.  As he points out, though, we used to be pretty good at developing weapons, and some organizations can still imagine and create products that meet the needs of their customers.  Toyota, as he notes, is not only good at this, they’re getting better.  Going in the opposite direction from DoD, as it were.

It’s also worth pointing out that Toyota operates in a highly competitive environment where stupidity gets selected out.  It may take a while, as GM and Chrysler are now demonstrating, but let competition work and the result is inevitable.  Of course, competition is exactly what we don’t have in DoD program development.  After source selection, which for the F-22 was in 1991, the program became a monopoly, which leads to an observation that I made years ago in Neither Shall the Sword (p. 68):

If you can’t afford two sources for a system, you certainly can’t afford one.

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Filed in Uncategorized | 23 responses so far

23 Responses to “Doing the same, expecting better”

  1. Sven Ortmannon 18 Jan 2009 at 10:49 am 1

    “As he points out, though, we used to be pretty good at developing weapons…”

    Really? The USN had many embarrassing moments and many poor designs. The first U.S. dreadnoughts had no steam turbine and took too long till service, the torpedo development of the inter-war years was an unmitigated disaster, gun development in the inter-war ears was incredibly slow (comparable to M777 indeed), tank development in the interwar years and during WW2 was mediocre at best (with a single bright moment in late 1942 when the Sherman was good for a few months).
    I’ve recently seen a presentation by an angry small arms industry expert ripping apart the poor development and procurement of small arms by the U.S. – lagging behind the competition by up to several decades with a single good moment (introduction of M1 Garand with an imposed worse caliber).

    Little military procurement has ever been done well. The Swedish post-WW2 air force was/is good at procurement, but I know few if any other examples.

  2. loggie20on 21 Jan 2009 at 5:19 pm 2

    This is a true statement: “stupid system”.

    This is partly true “composed of bright people, lots of bright, well-educated, and often experienced folks”.
    Bright people yes. “Well-educated” maybe but they are not system engineers. The truly short skill.

    The issue is not only are the capabilities identified wrong, no one knows the next enemy nor their capability, the technology to deliver the capabilities are never the best cost effective solutions, and the designs to deliver the faulty performance are another variable making it impossible to say good things about the people operating the processes other than they put their careers ahead of the safety and success of US soldiers.

    There is no apparent minimization or maximization function much less some attempts to optimize the scarce resources the taxpayer has to spend. In short the problem is: no one asks;” is this worth the expenditure of the taxpayers’ dough?”

    If that underlying question were posed things would work much better.
    Instead every weapon is so vital, but not engineered right, to the common defense and the careers that they are all cheap at 5 times the cost and 30 years late.

    This is a good observation: “Dan is right that more control mechanisms (mandated reports, plans, procedures, reviews, etc.)…..,” won’t work, because the controls now do not prevent any waste the Program Executive Officers and Milestone Decision Authorities are part of the above problem.

    They do not ask the hard questions, because their job is to facilitate keeping the waste flowing, as if the industry which cannot perform is a national treasure needed for the survival of the free world. Rather bizarre to keep failure floating along.

    In terms of F-22 and F-35 good thing none of it means a hoot to the common defense.

  3. wlodekbon 25 Jan 2009 at 9:56 pm 3

    I see three scenarios to arrest the defense procurement downward spiral.

    1. Terminal Velocity. Defense spending does not get better but neither does it get worse. Weapons systems continue to be planned and executed. In the absence of serious military engagement, or even threat, the existing procurement system produces just enough weapons to stave off any serious debacles. This condition can continue until 2 or 3 occurs.

    2. Reform to beat an adversary. Governments faced with threats to their own predominance and even survival have managed to reform internal systems at the expense of entrenched interests.

    3. Belt Tightening. If the US economy tanks or internal opposition to military spending were to increase, then a greatly reduced defense budget would force the military to try to do more with less (as opposed to the current system of doing less and then asking for more)

  4. MickeyPvXon 26 Jan 2009 at 2:45 pm 4

    Saw an interesting show on TV the other day called, “Flight of the Osprey,” about our favorite aircraft, the V-22. I halfway thought they would give it some decent scrutiny, but in the end brushed off articles such as Col. Riccioni’s. Said something like, “well the last incident was almost ten years ago,” and, “we wouldn’t want to fly something that we didn’t think was safe.” Never said anything about the inherent problems of tilt-rotor aircraft in general, and declared it, “combat proven,” because of its cushy missions in Iraq. And of course, equal cost comparisons were nowhere to be found.

    As for the most advanced and super-duper airplane in the world (F-22), how ’bout that combat record? 4 years in the service in a wartime environment with how many combat sorties? How ’bout that.

    And finally, some guy wrote an article in our squadron and called the F-35, “the most cost-effective fighter aircraft in history.” We press on…

  5. Hoist40on 26 Jan 2009 at 5:33 pm 5

    Reply to Sven Ortmann

    The first two US dreadnoughts were restricted to a maximum of 16,000 tons by Congress and they could not fit both eight 12 inch guns and turbines into that tonnage. Turbines required a longer engine room then reciprocating engines which would have made the ship too heavy. The designers did a great job building a dreadnought on the same tonnage as their pre-dreadnoughts

    As to the interwar years, the military had no where near the money it gets today. The Army in particular had to cut back active forces so badly that they could not even man all the active units they had on paper. Development money for new weapons was tiny which is why development of so many weapon systems used in WW2 were started soon after WW1 but either put on hold or developed at a very slow pace and were rushed into production only once the war was started.

    I am not saying that there were not problems with earlier procurement but mostly it was because of big restrictions on money. Today money is spent in amounts that would make earlier amounts look pathetic.

  6. Maxon 27 Jan 2009 at 8:37 pm 6

    “Today money is spent in amounts that would make earlier amounts look pathetic.”

    Agreed, I wonder if any state at any time in recorded history
    has spent so much, (in total and a function of GDP) as
    the US does now, and actually achieved so very little,
    in terms of decisive and lasting military objectives.
    Particuarly in relation to tangible priorities and it’s
    imminent self decline. Rome comes to mind.

    Now here’s a data point that suggests
    a scociety worth fighting & killing for,
    going broke, and dieing to defend,,,.

    It’s a beutifull thing, feel the pride ?


  7. loggie20on 28 Jan 2009 at 5:58 am 7


    More money won’t fix things. Less money will only mean the best “players”, not the best talent will survive.

    Military spending is bad. It takes tax dollars, whether those dollars are collected today or thirty years from now, away from more productive use.

    Yeah the PM selling MV 22 will state the free world cannot survive without it while he fails phony tests and the real world shows it won’t do any job.

    Worse than the spending is the performance of the offices serving the MICC that don’t kill things when they run out of talent, money or technical abilities. They are either incompetent or frauds. It is at least immoral to puruse a career that one is not able to do.

    The F-35 is running hugely over the costs estimated to get it to work. Maybe if those costs were known in 2002 the airplanes’ many variants might have been abandoned. Maybe the costs were not known, but this ain’t the first time or the only time weight drove up development time and various costs. Maybe they made up a cost estimate that was misrepresentative to sell the versions. Maybe that is hiding fraud behind lying figures.

    Maybe undue optimism which is a nice way of saying liars.

    The money crunch is here.

  8. loggie20on 28 Jan 2009 at 6:04 am 8


    To a fellow building a career that will pay well from 22 to 66 years of age around the F-35 it is the best thing since the P-51 or sliced bread.

    It will be so important to the MICC and the establishment it will be cheap at 5 times the costs and with 3 times the waivers, deviations and failed OT&E evaluation points.

    Don’t really have to mean anything to anyone but the Sci Fi writers.

    The issue I have with DoD procurement is that the PM offices and the MICC they fund are the object, not a thing to do with the common defense.

    It is good work and they will do everything they can to keep the revolving doors lubricated.

  9. jallanton 03 Feb 2009 at 9:44 pm 9

    There may be some hope. Secretary Gates’s essay in Foreign Affairs is a step in the right direction.

  10. Maxon 05 Feb 2009 at 9:02 am 10

    “The F-35 is running hugely over the costs estimated to get it to work.

    The latest critical analysis by Englhart and Johnson, pegs F-35 manuvering and general flying qualities as comperable to
    the (latter 1950s develped venerable f-105 Thunderchief.

    A great read, by iconic members of this following.

  11. Maxon 05 Feb 2009 at 11:58 am 11


    “the time has come to consider whether the specialized, often relatively low-tech equipment well suited for stability and counterinsurgency missions is also needed.”

    Good link.
    The above paragraph underscores the dellema as far as the MICC is concerned, and strikes our own sense of irrony as well.

    “Reletively low tech” by nature implies inexpensive, easily manufactured
    or otherwize aquired and LOW Profit margins, lest one fall into
    the infamous $ 1200.00 tiolet seat critisism scenario.

    Which most of us recognise and acutely understand as being about is as counter productive to the larger interest of the MICC as lasting “world peace.”

    In further illustration,
    I like the analogy of multinational drug companies and medical research,
    the LAST thing they ever want is a CURE for ANYTHING, but rather a treatment to administer and pay for in perpetuity which suits their bottom line.

    Getting back to the MICC, as some astute contributors have
    made the point, effective means, methodolgies, stratigies, tactics and implements to bring about decisive and successfull resolution to conflict is counter productive to the over reaching financial priority.

    Hype, retoric, posturing and lip service not withstanding, I can’t see the US ever getting past that, at this stage, unless something changes.

    Bankruptcy and ensuant anarchy as witnessed with the Soviets will do it, but at enormous pain, and costs.

    Which brings us full circle to essential human nature.
    If you follow me.


  12. loggie20on 05 Feb 2009 at 4:30 pm 12

    Something about F-35 reminds me of the Thud, shows my maturity , eh. Big single engine intakes at wing roots, etc. Only squat and too expensive!

    It is possible Gates gets it. He has witheld most of the F 22 long lead production money appropriated against DoD wishes for the AF-MICC cabal for 20 ships more than anyone can justify tactically.

    However, his USD AT&L John Young has spent the transition period excusing overruns and schedule slips and petulently rebutting GAO’s criticism of the past 8 years of MICC waste. Young needs to go along with the several service acquisition executives. Soonest!!

    Suppose Obama tells JCS and the MICC: ‘no more high tech responses that don’t solve any tactical or strategic problems?’.

  13. Rob Pon 05 Feb 2009 at 6:12 pm 13

    Loggie (and everyone else),

    Is the problem that the military IDs requirements that cannot be met in under 3,5,10 years of R&D which by then makes the product obsolete or something that the creators of Babylon 5 wouldn’t dream of, thus making it hugely expensive? Or is it (as I believe) that too many lobbyists, including Congressmen and retired military salesmen, want a piece of the action on what is intially a good idea if approved and fielded in a timely manner? Or is it both and more?

    So far I am all for not allowing Congressmen anywhere near the military decision-making process except to say yes or no to the project; not “yes if you build this much of it in my state at this cost…”. This feels like a good first step.

    As a second step, do we prohibit retired military personnel from pimping products to the military? Do we require uniformed military program managers to be engineers, not political science majors? Any other ideas?

  14. loggie20on 05 Feb 2009 at 7:02 pm 14


    My observations:

    The military ID’s the wrong problems. They are looking for a repeat of Iwo Jima for the marines, Midway for the navy, daylight bombing for the Air Force and Third Army’s race across Europe for the army.

    Worse, the “problems” are all JCS should identify, the techies should do the solving. That is not how it is.

    There is no innovation in JCS who do strategic capability planning other than to get to your second step which is make sure there is a 45 year career for the officer corps 20 to 30 in uniform and the rest in a company schilling for the uniformed guys.

    No chance of spec’ing Babylon 5 type stuff the industry exists only for itself and does not deliver.

    The too many lobbyists keep it going. I am not convinced whether the money is the egg or the chicken. But it is the reason for the MICC.

    The system, MICC, exists for itself. Patriotism, wrapped in the flag for the good of the soldier is the last refuge of the scoundrels.

    I get a kick out of the guys like John Young who point to requirements changes. My experience is: all the spec change notices run are to soften the technical delivery so the designers don’t lose money and default.

    It does point out that the JCS and service requirements process is broken. How could the republic survive with the F-22 20 years late if it was so necessary?

    Who can you trust?

  15. senor tomason 06 Feb 2009 at 12:38 am 15

    ” do we prohibit retired military personnel from pimping products to the military? ”

    It would definitely be a good idea to prohibit retired military personnel from employment with defense contractors. There is a conflict of interest there.

  16. Maxon 06 Feb 2009 at 8:17 am 16

    Rob P
    “Is the problem ”
    “Or is it both and more?”

    “John Kenneth Galbraith, the distinguished and irreverent Canadian-born but U.S.-nationalized economist, observer of American national mores, preconceptions and faults, and a sometime U.S. government official, wrote the following of his government experience in Washington and New Delhi in the 1960s.”

    “[It is] a rigidity with its strong commitment to error.””


  17. Maxon 06 Feb 2009 at 8:25 am 17

    Why we need more F-22s and the newer F-35 desperately
    to insure the survival of western (American) civlisation.

    One-third Russian fighter jets old and unsafe: report

    MOSCOW (Reuters) – About one-third of all Russian fighter jets should be written off as obsolete because they are unable to fly, the Kommersant business daily reported on Friday, quoting defense ministry and military officials.

    Russia grounded all of its MiG-29 fighter jets last December after two of the aircraft crashed near the same airfield in eastern Siberia in just as many months. One pilot died.

    Flights of MiG-29s have resumed since then, but hundreds are simply too old even to take off, Kommersant said.

    “Russia’s Defense Ministry for the first time recognized that around 200 of its MiG-29s are not just unable to cope with their combat tasks, but simply cannot take off,” the paper said.

    Now this from the USAF;
    It would be laughable except for the FACT it’s YOUR HARD and increasingly scarce TAX money being SQUANDERED.

    “Largest deployment of F-22s under way”

    HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii (AFNS) — Twenty-four F-22 Raptors and hundreds of Airmen deployed to the Pacific region for a three-month deployment in support of the Pacific global deterrence mission.

    “Twelve F-22s deployed from Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, arrived Jan. 18 to Andersen AFB, Guam, and the week prior 12 F-22s from Langley AFB, Va., began arriving at Kadena Air Base, Japan.”

    “The F-22s and Airmen are part of ongoing rotations of forces to ensure security and stability throughout the region. Members of both squadrons will conduct air combat training with Air Force and other U.S. military assets in the region. “

  18. senor tomason 06 Feb 2009 at 12:22 pm 18

    “Pacific global deterrence mission.”

    Pacific global deterrence mission? Are they expecting the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor again?

  19. loggie20on 06 Feb 2009 at 3:00 pm 19

    senor Tomas,

    Think MiG Alley over the Formosa Straits, the next excuse to pillage the US taxpayer is Red China.

    You should see the debate over whether Red China spends more than $40B or 120B US equivalent and whether these estimates are any more resaoned than the scares over the Russian spending.

    It is all to prepare to fight the Battle of Britain over Taiwan. As if that equalled the common defense.

    So there is need for enough F-22 to contain Red China should they want to call the trillion in T Bills or what? And Russia over Ossetia and the same time.

  20. loggie20on 06 Feb 2009 at 3:04 pm 20


    Ike is quoted as being very surprised at how big mistakes were accpeted and almost ignored when he came to command Torch in 1942. A staffer view of the ops guys.

    Also Galbraigth chaired the strategic bomber study which could not support the Air Force claims that it contributed to the end of Nazi Germany.

    Maybe the quote was related to the money going to airpower which had no precedent in WW II.

    Except the nukes on a super rigid society. What if the Emperor had said fight on?

  21. Maxon 07 Feb 2009 at 9:00 am 21

    “Maybe the quote was related to the money going to airpower which had no precedent in WW II.”

    I suspect there may have been a technical glitch with that link,
    that put the quote in perspective.

    However I’m very impressed by the depth of you perceptions and knowlage.

    Trying again;

    “He was not the only one, he said, who fell afoul “of a major feature of our foreign policy. That is its institutional rigidity, which holds it on course even when it is visibly wrong. So it was on Vietnam, as is now accepted. So it was on … military alliances with the poor lands. … So it was [and continues to be] on such matters as the enlargement of NATO or the continuing trade and travel sanctions on Cuba, or, as this is written [in 1999], on a sensible response to the more liberal tendencies now evident in Iran. … [It is] a rigidity with its strong commitment to error.””

    Now, If that worked this time, here’s some further evidience that supports the basic premis, that, the USA continualy encourages and rewards mediocracy and mistakes. As I strongly suspect, and suggest is all a variation of overt blatant corruption, in order to sustain the Warfare/Wellfare state in perpetuity and literally “a way of life” basicaly ever since WW-2.

    Apart from that though, it’s all good.


    “WASHINGTON – Defense contractor KBR Inc. has been awarded a $35 million Pentagon contract involving major electrical work, even as it is under criminal investigation in the electrocution deaths of at least two U.S. soldiers in Iraq.”

    “The announcement of the new KBR contract came just months after the Pentagon, in strongly worded correspondence obtained by The Associated Press, rejected the company’s explanation of serious mistakes in Iraq and its proposed improvements”

  22. loggie20on 07 Feb 2009 at 8:53 pm 22


    Gross mismanagement, willful misconduct and gross negligence are not reasons to turn KBR away from the trough.

    Just as killing 30 people during the test program and then putting flight restrictions (so it may not kill its crews and passengers as often) on it so it cannot go near a hot LZ is no reason to kill the V-22. There are profits at stake!

    Heck, taking an extra ten years to develop a military system is revenue enhancement, and the good congress has reinstated fixed price (quibble about failed performance to get a greater profit than with cost plus a set percent) which is also good for business and does nothing for the technical ineptitude of the MICC.

    And during production any deviation, waiver or failed acceptance test is greeted with an ECP to add to the profits.

    Any civil servant who questions the gravy train gets shifted off to more meaningless work away from the waste and abuse, no room in the MICC pentagon side for anyone looking out for the soldier.

    The reason congress passed whistleblower protections is so that a brave and persistant civil servant might take on a few of the low level minions on in the corrupt organization which is called the MICC.

  23. jdillardon 01 Mar 2009 at 2:02 pm 23

    As a former PM or Assistant PM of a couple of highly successful, combat-proven weapon programs still in production, and one who has written about his own frustrations with the “system,” I’m dismayed that many of the comments here lack appreciation of the complexity of weapon system acquisition. Most if not all commenting here, have never managed a project of any real size, and have thus not had to balance the demands of our hugely bureaucratic requirements (JCIDS), funding (PPBES), and Acquisition Management decision support systems simultaneously. Moreover, the article, and critics of “the system” seem to ignore that our fielded weapon systems are the best and most coveted in the world. Would you rather fight with another nation’s gear? I tend to think our system procurement enterprise takes longer and costs more than initial forecasts because of what it seeks to achieve: war-winning equipment with a technological edge over the competition. We chase technology, change requirements, and have no incentives to save money (it’s so easy to spend other peoples’ money). But curiously, I also find the same cost and schedule “overruns” in other industries where lives are at stake — like pharmaceutical and aviation projects — where bureaucratic processes (FDA, FAA, etc.) also seem to suffer slow progress. I’m glad we splurge on performance for our warfighters, but I share the disappointment that we can’t forecast budgets and schedules better. Here again, I find few who can. The celebrated Boeing 777 project overran by 150% (we didn’t find that out until 2003), and Toyota examples… Please — these folks still take an average of three years to design a car — which is a fairly mature and stable business. Don’t forget that GD, Boeing, L-M, NG, and Raytheon are our industry counterparts who make similar product lines year after year, but with radical differences between product lines. Do you blame industry, government, or both? Spinney was a great observer — but critics aren’t respnsible for anything. Revolving doors? Perhaps — but the Procurement Integrity Act and other statutes prohibit marketing to the military by former members — I find it all no more corrupt than our banking and mortgage system, that seem to be costing a great deal more of late — and many other enterprises within our capitalistic culture. The quality of these posts would soar if anyone had a positive recommendation to make. Maj Dan Ward and his wonderful rogue buddies usually keep it pretty positive. If you’re not engaged with the “system” you want to see changed, you may well be part of the problem. Have a policy idea that will make a positive impact?? By all means share it with me. John Dillard, Colonel, USA (Ret)