The Pentagon As A Machine For Cost Overruns

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

When it comes to Pentagon weapons systems, have you ever heard of cost "underruns"? I think not. Cost overruns? They turn out to be the unbreachable norm, as they seem to have been from time immemorial. In 1982, for example, the Pentagon announced that the cumulative cost of its 44 major weapons programs had experienced a "record" increase of $114.5 billion. Three decades later, in the spring of 2014, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the military's major programs to develop new weapons systems -- by then 80 of them -- were a cumulative half-trillion dollars over their initial estimated price tags and on average more than two years delayed. A year after, the GAO found that 47 of those programs had again increased in cost (to the cumulative tune of $27 billion) while the average time for delivering them had suffered another month's delay (although the Pentagon itself swore otherwise).

And little seems to have changed since then -- not exactly a surprise given that this has long been standard operating procedure for a Pentagon that has proven adamantly incapable not just of passing an audit but even of doing one. What we're talking about here is, in fact, more like a way of life. As TomDispatch regular William Hartung has written, the Pentagon regularly takes "active measures to disguise how it is spending the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars it receives every year -- from using the separate 'war budget' as a slush fund to pay for pet projects that have nothing to do with fighting wars to keeping the cost of its new nuclear bomber a secret."

When it comes to those cost overruns, Exhibit A is incontestably the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a plane whose total acquisition costs were pegged at $233 billion back in 2001. That price now: an estimated $1.4 trillion for far fewer planes. (Even the F-35 pilot's helmet costs $400,000 apiece.) In other words, though in test flights it has failed to outperform the F-16, a plane it is supposed to replace, it will be, hands down (or flaps up), the most expensive weapons system in history -- at least until the next Pentagon doozy comes along.

Today, Andrew Cockburn, whose recent book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (just out in paperback), is a devastating account of how U.S. drone warfare really works, suggests in "The Pentagon's Real $trategy" that this is anything but a matter of Pentagon bungling. Quite the opposite, it's strategy of the first order.