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The Great Defense Deception

The Defense Industry

by Jacques S. Gansler
MIT, 346 pp., $19.95

Defense Facts of Life

by Franklin C. Spinney
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), 56 pp., free

Report of the Defense Science Board 1980 Summer Study Panel on Industrial Responsiveness Engineering, Department of Defense

Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and
252 pp., free

Politics and Force Levels: The Strategic Missile Program of the Kennedy Administration

by Desmond Ball
University of California Press, 348 pp., $27.50

Doubletalk: The Story of Salt I

by Gerard Smith
Doubleday, 556 pp., $17.95

The most important theme of President Reagan’s proposals for defense has little to do with military strategies or concepts, but rather with sheer quantities: the budget stands for more. The administration’s program is the clearest possible expression of a faith that spending more money for defense, without being particular about where or how, will make the nation more secure.

The Reagan military program has so far put forward no new concept of building weapons or organizing soldiers. With the exception of a plan to build a navy that will supposedly be large enough to challenge the Soviet fleet in “high threat environments” off the Soviet shore, it offers no coherent view of how and where force might be applied. Indeed, beyond its proposals for weapons to be built in fiscal year 1982, which begins this fall, the administration has not even revealed just what it intends to spend the money for. It has revealed only that it intends to spend a lot.

In the last budget revisions it prepared before leaving office, which included substantial increases in spending for defense, the Carter administration had proposed to raise the Total Obligational Authority for the military1 by 7.8 percent (after inflation) in fiscal year 1981, and by a further 5.3 percent in 1982. Reagan proposes to increase the budget by 12.4 percent and 14.6 percent, respectively, in the same two years.2 During the following four years, the administration intends to increase the defense budget by at least 7 percent, after inflation, every year, until it reaches $367.5 billion in 1986.3 If these intentions are realized, they will amount to a 50 percent increase in military spending, as measured in constant dollars, within five years.

This plan calls for nothing less than the largest peacetime military buildup in American history; indeed, it exceeds even the cost of America’s most recent war. As Lester Thurow recently pointed out in these pages,4 if the cost of the Vietnam buildup between 1965 and 1970 were converted to 1980 dollars, it would come to about $59 billion. Measured on the same scale, the increase in military expenditures over the next five years will be nearly three times as large. Lyndon Johnson refused to raise taxes to pay the bill for his war; ever since he has shared the blame with OPEC for causing the ruinous American inflation of the 1970s. Ronald Reagan now proposes to finance his much larger expansion while reducing taxes by 30 percent.

The gravest effects of this increase may be felt not on any battlefield but in the rest of the American economy, which needs to find new sources of capital to finance industrial regeneration. But if such concerns are put to one side and the new defense program is judged strictly on its own terms, does it then make sense? If the purpose of Reagan’s military budget is to increase the readiness, flexibility, and usable power of the American military, it must be judged a likely failure, for it threatens to repeat on a more titanic scale a pathological pattern that has dominated American military spending for at least the last twenty years.

That pattern is most succinctly described as the unwillingness to match assumptions to reality—the reluctance to bring to military plans an awareness of the uncertainties the future holds. Those uncertainties may be economic, diplomatic, or purely technical. In building weapons and laying plans that ignore the possibility of the unexpected, the nation has produced a military force that is needlessly vulnerable to changes in the situations in which it prepares to fight, and that has undue difficulty adapting to an enemy’s changes in tactics or plans.5 Nothing in the Reagan proposals attempts to correct this pattern, and several of Reagan’s plans would make it worse. That is why four years of “more” may produce American armed forces even worse suited to the real world than are the ones we now possess.

The outlines of the destructive pattern were suggested by Vice Admiral Earl B. Fowler, Jr., the commander of the Naval Sea Systems Command, in congressional testimony this spring about the Trident submarine.6 The Trident is an extremely large vessel, longer than the Washington Monument is tall. It is powered by a nuclear generator and is designed to carry nuclear missiles for retaliation against the Soviet Union. In the early Seventies, the Nixon administration approved the Tridents, which each carry twenty-four missiles, as eventual replacements for the Polaris and Poseidon submarines, which each carry sixteen. The forty-one Polaris and Poseidon subs we now have will begin reaching their scheduled retirement ages in the first few years of this decade. Nine Tridents have already been authorized, the first of which was to go into service no later than April 1979.

By the time of Admiral Fowler’s testimony in March 1981, the first Trident, the Ohio, had still not been delivered. The purpose of Fowler’s statement was to explain the troubles that had plagued the Trident’s construction at the shipyards of the Electric Boat company, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, in Connecticut. He described first a series of major technical failures. For example, navy inspectors found that Electric Boat had stocked a substandard grade of steel, with inferior crack-resistance and “weldability,” in bar sizes that could have been used in as many as 126,000 places in the Trident.7 In December 1979, the navy discovered several incomplete welds on a different kind of submarine also under construction at Electric Boat; soon afterward, it discovered that the company had no record of ever having inspected tens of thousands of welds on the Trident and other vessels. A vast re-inspection program was begun. Out of 36,149 welds that originally required inspection on the Trident, inspection records were missing for more than one quarter. When the company re-examined such welds as were still accessible, 2,772 of them, one third of those examined, proved to be defective.8

Because of such technical failings and other “unforeseen” occurences, the Tridents under construction at Electric Boat have fallen far behind schedule. Admiral Fowler predicted that the Ohio would not go into service before the end of this year, more than two and a half years behind the contract schedule, and fully four years behind Electric Boat’s original estimate that it could, with its “best effort,” deliver the vessel by December 1977. When the contracts for the project were originally signed, they called for seven Tridents to be at sea by the end of August 1983. According to Admiral Fowler’s latest estimates, the navy will have only two Tridents by that time, and will be one month away from receiving its third. On the average, the eight Tridents under construction at Electric Boat will each be more than two and a half years late.

As work has fallen behind schedule, the cost of the submarines has also soared. When Electric Boat submitted bids for the first Trident, it estimated that construction would require 14.6 million manhours. Since then, its estimate has risen to 23 million manhours, an increase of 60 percent.9 Even before the latest “slippage” (as the navy calls it) in the Trident’s schedule, the estimated cost of the first vessel went up by 35 percent. (From $1.47 billion in 1982 dollars to $2.053 billion.) Because of the slippage, the final cost is sure to be higher still.

The defense industry has known snafus and overruns before, but rarely has their effect been so apparent. The troubles at Electric Boat have undermined the fundamental premises upon which the decision to build Tridents was made. No matter which side one chooses in the metaphysical arguments about nuclear deterrence, there is little dispute about the purpose of nuclear-missile submarines: they are meant to be the least vulnerable nuclear system. Because they would be able to survive any conceivable first strike and deliver a devastating retaliatory blow, they would (in the logic of nuclear “scenarios”) give any aggressor reason to pause before launching an attack. But to do so, they must be at sea, not in a shipyard, and there must be enough of them to ensure that the Soviet Union could not disable the force if, by fluke, it found and destroyed a few.

One argument made by those who opposed the Trident was that it would be dangerous to reduce the number of submarines in the fleet by building such large, expensive vessels; they said this would, in effect, put too many eggs in too few baskets. Those who favored the Trident said that its greater range and operating efficiency would more than make up for the smaller quantity. But the basis of the argument would have changed had both sides realized how long it would take the Tridents to go into operation, and how expensive they would become.

By the fall of 1981, seven Polaris submarines will have been retired, and several more are scheduled to follow. Because of the Trident’s delays, the US now has fewer nuclear missile submarines at sea than at any time since the 1960s; because of rising costs in the project, the navy is rethinking whether it can ever afford the full fleet of fourteen or more Tridents. If the logic of nuclear deterrence means anything (which is a separate question), the choice of the Trident and its subsequent difficulties has at least temporarily diminished American security.10 They have also limited America’s flexibility in nuclear planning; if the government finally decides that the MX missile system is too cumbersome to make sense, it can’t quickly increase production of Tridents as the replacement. These harmful effects have arisen from the system’s vulnerability to uncertainties of cost, construction, and scheduling.

Both the navy and General Dynamics argue that this is merely one unfortunate and isolated case. The Secretary of the Navy said that he would exclude General Dynamics from the next round of submarine contracts and would perhaps even look to overseas shipyards. The company, for its part, claimed that ceaseless “change orders” from Admiral Hyman Rickover made the job impossible, by forcing the company to rip out completed sections and start all over again. On each side the assumption was that none of the problems could have been foreseen.

Indeed, naval shipbuilding has long been a source of special misery for the Pentagon. Yet the implication of several serious studies under review is that “surprises” of this sort are precisely what must be expected in future military programs, all the more so when the US places its emphasis on weapons that are large, expensive, and technologically complex. To fail to prepare for them is to fall into the error of the Trident planners, in which basic strategic and military calculations can be undone by “unexpected” problems in costs, scheduling, and budget constraints.

In The Defense Industry, Jacques Gansler, an experienced defense official, explains why large cost increases can be expected to continue. Gansler is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for “material acquisition” who has presented a dense but quite valuable anatomy of the collaboration between government and business to produce weapons. One of his central points is that defense contracting is a “thin” industry; for any given military product, there are at best a handful of firms capable of accepting the government’s business. Only one company makes castings for tank hulls, 11 two make aluminum tubing, one makes airframe bearings, two make periscope lenses, two make titanium “skins” for airplane wings, and only one makes the titanium extrusions found in the most complex and expensive planes.12 These companies have little extra capacity for production, and few other firms can surmount the technical and bureaucratic obstacles to entering the field. As a result, when demand goes up, as it has modestly done in the last few years and will dramatically do in the next few, prices go up faster.

  1. 1

    This is the total sum authorized for defense spending, usually referred to as the “defense budget.” The amount actually spent each year, classified as “outlays” in the budget, is smaller.

  2. 2

    FY 1981 and FY 1982 Department of Defense Budget Revisions,” released by the Defense Department, March 4, 1981, p.8.

  3. 3

    Ibid. The $367.5 figure is measured in “1986 dollars,” on the administration’s assumption of what inflation will do by then. Measured by “constant 1982 dollars,” it will be $292 billion.

  4. 4

    How to Wreck the Economy,” NYR, May 14, 1981.

  5. 5

    As will become clear, my discussion of this pattern is based on the findings of Franklin Spinney, outlined in Defense Facts of Life.

  6. 6

    Statement on TRIDENT and SSN 688,” Vice Admiral Earl B. Fowler, Commander, Naval Sea Systems Command, before the Subcommittee on Sea-power and Strategic and Critical Material of the House Armed Services Committee, March 12, 1981.

  7. 7

    Ibid., p.3.

  8. 8

    Ibid., pp. 7-8.

  9. 9

    Ibid., p.20. Admiral Fowler also noted that some of the attack submarines were, however, running slightly under budget.

  10. 10

    Since the Polaris submarines were the oldest and, in nuclear weaponry, the least powerful vessels in the fleet, their retirement is not thought to make a fundamental difference in the strength of the submarine force. The effects of the Trident delays would also be far worse if former Senator Thomas McIntyre of New Hampshire had not convinced the navy early in the 1970s to equip many of the Poseidons with Trident missiles, whose longer range enables them to patrol in a much larger area of the sea. In an analysis of the decision to build Tridents, John Steinbruner and Barry Carter also suggest that the “aging” problem of the Polaris and Poseidon submarines was greatly exaggerated in an attempt to sell the Trident program. See “Organizational and Political Dimensions of the Strategic Posture: The Problems of Reform,” Daedalus, Summer, 1975, pp. 131-151.

  11. 11

    The Defense Industry, p. 144.

  12. 12

    Report of the Defense Science Board 1980 Summer Study Panel on Industrial Responsiveness, pp. 48-49.

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