The breathless hype over the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter's soaring costs and schedule slips clouds a much bigger acquisition predicament for the Pentagon: How to stop more programs from ending up like JSF.
The Defense Department and Congress this past year unleashed an avalanche of new reforms that would fix what earlier reforms could not. But all these attempts at overhauling a broken system continue to conveniently ignore a fatal flaw in the weapons acquisition process: It is hopelessly slow and unresponsive to the military's rapidly changing needs.
Because it takes years or even decades to bring a weapon system to fruition, it gets redesigned so much that invariably it results in sticker shock. Every change, no matter how small, runs up a huge tab. When a program spans 10 to 12 years, and hundreds of modifications are made, as has been the case with the F-35, it is no surprise that costs spin out of control.
The pattern will repeat itself in other programs. Most of the Pentagon's largest and most expensive systems still operate under rules that make it virtually impossible to deliver new hardware in less than a decade.
"We have an acquisition system which still has Cold War vestiges. ... It was designed to prepare for a future war, rather than to conduct a current war," said Ashton Carter, the Pentagon's chief procurement official.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq fueled the creation of many "rapid acquisition" organizations that sprouted all over the Defense Department, the military services and the joint staff. Secretary Robert Gates had to personally oversee the procurement of some equipment--such as armored trucks and unmanned aircraft--that was urgently needed for the wars.
Eight years into these conflicts, the acquisition landscape is more confusing than ever. It is littered with rapid-response outfits, while the bulk of the money and personnel are tied to lumbering big-ticket weapons programs.
Today's huge military budgets and overwhelming U.S. dominance give the Pentagon cover to stick with the status quo. But internal rifts within the Defense Department already are surfacing about how the armed services should go about modernizing their forces without setting themselves up for more wasteful spending and boondoggles.
"We have to change the processes and the organizations that were born in the industrial age of warfare," said a senior Air Force official who asked to not be quoted by name. The Pentagon and Congress keep re-regulating and re-legislating but, fundamentally, the culture and methods that govern weapons acquisitions have not yet adjusted to the information age, the official lamented.
The Air Force, for instance, wants to begin designing a next-generation unmanned aircraft that would share many of the same high-performance features of fifth-generation fighter jets. …