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Pentagon Ponderously Slow to Field Weapons

Weapons aren’t getting to the warfighters when they’re needed.

The Pentagon has a bad habit of getting weapon systems to the warfighter well after they were needed, and late-to-need weapons are useless. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was critical of the Pentagon in a June weapon systems report. Schedules were not met, performance is not equal to defeating the enemy quickly, and the cost has risen.

The Pentagon Cannot Get Weapons to the Battlefield on Time

Delays in fielding weapon systems are not a new phenomenon. Liberty Nation News reported recently that the “US Air Force’s new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), under contract with Northrop Grumman, is skyrocketing in price.” Additionally, the first flight test of the Sentinel ICBM has been delayed two years to 2026. What the GAO described in its most recent Weapons Systems Annual Assessment is a Pentagon that “struggles” in delivering to the warfighter technologies to address “constantly evolving threats.” These delays directly impact the warfighter’s ability to respond to an enemy effectively.

According to the report:

“The average MDAP [Major Defense Acquisition Program] that has yet to deliver initial capability plans to take over 10 years to do so – slightly longer than last year. This continues a trend of increased cycle times. GAO also found that, for MDAPs that have delivered capability, the average amount of time it took to do so increased from 8 years to 11 years – an average increase of 3 years from their original planned date.”

The assessment did explain modest cost reductions resulting from reductions in inflation assumptions, quantity reductions, and some production efficiencies. However, the largest cost increases were attributed to “modernization costs, delivery delays, and testing issues.” In its recommendation for improving the speed of weapon systems delivery, the GAO focused on software development. With each new weapon system acquired, a significant amount of new software is required since an ever-increasing amount of automation is involved. However, several MDAPs experiencing extensive delays have other problems.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported recently on a significant US Navy program, the new Constellation frigate procurement. It will not meet its contractual delivery date. As the CRS explains, “Delays in completing the ship design have created mounting construction delays. The Navy acknowledges that the April 2026 delivery date, set in the contract at award is unachievable.” The US Navy is now talking about a three-year slip in the delivery date. The new frigate was hoped to be a more efficient and cost-effective acquisition. Using an established “parent” design or off-the-shelf existing Italian frigate, the Constellation was to be 85% common with the parent frigate. Unfortunately, US Navy “alterations have brought that commonality down to under 15%,” according to US Naval Institute News.

There Will Be a Gap

The Constellation class frigate replaces the 1970s-era Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate that went out of service in 2015. There has been a gap in the US naval capability to field a modern multi-mission small surface combatant, as the Navy refers to the Constellation class vessels. When delivered, the new frigate will be capable of performing anti-air, anti-submarine, anti-surface, and electromagnetic warfare missions.

No one contends acquiring major defense weapon systems is easy. Reconciling warfighter requirements with the capability to meet those requirements within a necessary time frame to address a threat is complicated. Add cost constraints, and the acquisition business is not for the faint-hearted. The US Army got its requirements for a new Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft wrong, and it cost the American taxpayer $2 billion.

However, getting weapon systems to the field of battle in time to be useful in destroying an enemy is critical to the US’s ability to be a credible deterrent. A January 2006 release of the Defense Acquisition Performance Assessment recommended what it called “time-certain development.” In other words, hold time to field constant. Design to the time to field, develop to the time to field, and manufacture based on a time to field. Time-certain development should not be confused with the program schedule. A program schedule is the sequence of planned milestones and program events, which, as has been demonstrated, are fungible.

The trend in the Pentagon’s meeting the challenge of getting weapons in the field on time is not encouraging. With all the attention the acquisition system has received over the years, delays in fielding have only gotten worse.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliate.

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