G.I. Joe Vs. the Pentagon’s Crony Industrial Complex
A recent AP story about government cronyism saddling our special ops with flawed software is actually just the tip of the iceberg. The bigger story begins with Colonel John Boyd (1927-1997), an Air Force fighter pilot, a Pentagon consultant and quite possibly the greatest military theorist since Sun Tzu (496 BC).
In the 1960s Boyd developed the E-M theory of aerial combat, which transformed the U.S. Air Force, and in the 1980s developed maneuver warfare, which transformed the U.S. Marine Corps. But the reason you may never have heard of Boyd is because he also developed, in the 1970s and 1980s, the theoretical foundation for the “defense reform movement” (DRM). This movement valued people and their moral content above all other things. As Boyd was often quoted as saying, “Machines don’t fight wars; people do, and they used their minds.” Certain Washington power brokers weren’t keen on this movement and did their best to marginalize Boyd.
Boyd emphasized that “weapons that don’t work or can’t be bought in adequate quantity will bring down even the best people and the best ideas.” Commonsense, yes, but commonsense is at times in short supply in the U.S. military-industrial complex. Boyd was especially critical of the expensive and substandard aircraft of his era, both the fighters (F-14, F15, F-111) and the $100 million per aircraft B1 Bomber program.
Those were the untouchable projects of the generals, defense contractors and members of Congress, so Boyd’s intransigent opposition to spending taxpayer dollars on substandard hardware assured his remaining, as he was often called, the “ghetto colonel.”
However, Boyd and his acolytes — known as the Fighter Mafia — used a guerilla media campaign to attempt to circumvent the Pentagon. Although they weren’t completely successful, warriors frustrated by the military’s bureaucrats are still using their methods to circumvent the red tape.
Recently Ken Dilanian of the Associated Press reported on just such a group. The military has been trying to force special operations troops heading to war zones to use flawed government software for intelligence analysis instead of a commercial alternative they say they need. According to the report, intelligence officers say the commercial alternative, Palantir, “is easier to use, more stable and more capable” than the government alternative, DCGS, “which sometimes doesn’t work at all.”
I suspect there are hundreds of stories that could be written based on that template: The Pentagon procures some barely functional program/system/weapon; the troops find a better alternative; the higher-ups force them to use the broken system.
It’s frustrating having to use needlessly substandard gear, but that’s life in our military-industrial complex. There are often billions of dollars and thousands of careers backing these defense department equipment contracts, which provides a powerful incentive to keep using the old stuff.
The one really surprising thing about the recent AP story is that it made it into the newspapers. I suspect that has something to do with the fact that the people behind Palantir (cofounded by PayPal/Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel) are unusual in having the resources and media savvy to get past the usual Pentagon media gatekeepers.
Civilians might be surprised that the Pentagon would force troops to use substandard or useless equipment, but it wouldn’t have surprised Col. Boyd — or anyone else who has served in the military since the 1970s.
Do you recall the travesty that accompanied the rollout of the Obamacare website? That’s the fate of many computerized systems in the military. During my time in the aviation wing of the Marine Corps I was saddled with an always-outdated data entry system that was frequently slower and less effective that using pen-and-paper (which was our backup during the numerous times the system failed).
A broken computer system can be frustrating, but it never (to my knowledge) got anyone killed. The same cannot be said about the equipment failures endured by my friends in the infantry. From the Gulf War to the war in Iraq, Marines were often sent into combat with bulky, outdated and inadequate personal protective gear.
That was believed to have changed over the past decade, but it’s hard to know for sure. Between January 2004 and December 2006, the Army and Marine Corps issued contracts valued at more than $5.2 billion for body armor components. Yet an inspector general’s report found the Department of Defense had “no assurance that first articles produced under 13 of the 28 contracts and orders reviewed met the required standards.”
Over five billion dollars spent on protective gear and no one bothered to check to see if it met the minimum standards? Perhaps providing effective, working equipment should be made a higher priority.
Debates about the defense budget are often presented as a simplistic, binary contest between those who want to spend more and more and those who want to spend less and less. While those discussions are important, they are also incomplete. What is truly needed is broad-based agreement about the most effective ways to spend defense funds based on the true needs of the military.
Unfortunately, we can’t always rely on the Pentagon to help us determine the answer.
Since World War II, the Pentagon has learned (or should have learned) a substantial amount about what does and does not work when it comes to military hardware. For example, we know it’s technically impossible to build a fighter plane that is equally ideal in a broad range of missions: air-to-air combat, close-air-support, and tactical bombing, etc. Yet we still spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the F-35 Lightning II, a family of “multirole” fighters.
Naturally, this one-size-fits-all approach didn’t match the needs of the individual services. In 2013, a RAND study found that during development the three different versions had drifted so far apart from each other that having a single base design might now be more expensive than if the three services had simply built entirely different aircraft tailored to their own requirements.
To help free up the budget for this overpriced aerial Swiss army knife, the Air Force reportedly tried to kill — yet again — the A-10 Warthog, an ugly, tough, brute of an aircraft that is one of the best ever designed for close air support.
Air Force generals are working so hard to retire the A-10 that Maj. Gen. James Post, vice commander of Air Combat Command, reportedly told officers they were not to speak with Congress about the service’s attempt to retire the attack jet: “Anyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason.” Maj. Gen. Post is notable only for his frankness in admitting that procurement comes ahead of people.
The hardware-focused generals and other military bureaucrats are only partly to blame, though. The fundamental problem is the incentive structure that rewards men and women for being more focused on acquiring expensive programs than in adequately equipping our most valuable resource — the individual solider, sailor, airman and marine.
What is needed is to reform the military to make it align with Col. Boyd’s vision, so that everyone in the Defense Department — from the Lance Corporals to the defense contractors — is rewarded for putting people and strategy ahead of hardware.