In the words often attributed to the late Senator Everett Dirksen, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money." Senator Dirksen never actually said that, but surely, that phrase has been uttered around the Pentagon at least once. The Defense Department has multiple instances where literally billions of dollars have been wasted. Here are some examples:
- Future Combat Systems (FCS) – The Army's attempt to create a high-tech set of 18 pieces of equipment and an extensive command-and-control network yielded only one vehicle before then Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled it. That vehicle was the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle (SUGV) used as an automated scout to protect troops from IEDs and other roadside threats. The final tally including termination costs ended up at $29 billion, with the majority of that as sunk costs. According to defense industry consultant Loren Thompson, "Most of the things the Army has tried to spin off from FCS have gone nowhere."
- Rah 66 Comanche – The RAH-66 Comanche was projected as a stealth helicopter that could avoid radar detection. Its roots trace back to the 1980s, and as warfare technology advanced beyond the initial assumptions, required upgrades and modifications sent the program into a spiral. The Defense Department never did arrive at a working model and the program was killed in 2004 after $6.9 billion in spending.
- VH-71 Kestrel – The attempt to replace the aging fleet of helicopters that get the President to destinations efficiently and safely failed with the VH-71 Kestrel project. Commissioned in January 2005 for $1.7 billion, the projected cost shot up to $14 billion by 2008 when President Obama redirected the funds to upgrading the current fleet instead. Upon finding that upgrading would cost even more money than building the VH-71s, the Defense Department abandoned the program and cut losses at $4.4 billion. At least we recouped $164 million by selling the completed VH-71s to Canada.
- Sea-Based X-Band Radar (SBX) – The SBX was expected to be the world's most powerful radar, a floating offshore system designed to detect and track incoming missiles through space and guide intercepting missiles to destroy the enemy missiles. SBX could indeed find distant objects with powerful magnification, but the field of vision was too narrow to be useful in any practical situation involving missiles with decoys. Having soaked up $2.2 billion in funds, it sat idle at Pearl Harbor for more than eight months in 2013.
- Airborne Laser – Another failed component of missile defense, the Airborne Laser project involved converting Boeing 747s into planes that could fire powerful laser beams and destroy missiles shortly after launching, before they could release decoys. Unfortunately, the relatively short range of the lasers would require the converted 747s to fly too close to enemy borders where they would be sitting ducks for anti-aircraft missiles. The laser components also posed a significant safety threat to pilots. The program was scrapped after absorbing $5.3 billion.
- XM2001 Crusader – The XM2001 Crusader was a cross between a cannon and a tank that didn’t do either job particularly well. It was intended to have superior mobility and reliability but had neither. The program was scrapped in 2002 after $2 billion in sunk costs.
Even projects that produce functioning weapons can be easily classified as wasteful. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program has cost $400 billion and, including building and maintenance costs over the fighters’ lifespans, the bill will top $1 trillion. The fleet exists, but it can only fight in a sunny daytime war — it is not reliable at night or in bad weather.
Examples exist in the other services, such as the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) that has been plagued with multiple project problems and is of questionable use in combat.
What causes this waste? Staggering levels of bureaucracy, shifting specifications, unchallenged assumptions, poor oversight, incomplete planning, poor concepts, the inability to kill a local project because of the jobs created and economic expectations — any combination of those combine to throttle true innovation and stop keeping our defense spending focused and within a reasonable budget.
However, if you think that operational waste is bad, just imagine the programs that aren’t funded. The apex of unfunded lunacy might have been the so-called "Gay Bomb." In 1994, the Wright Laboratory put in a bid for $7.5 million in Pentagon funding to develop a non-lethal weapon containing female sex pheromones. The premise was that dropping this bomb on troops would cause them to "become irresistibly sexually attracted to each other." Make love, not war, indeed.