Watchdog: Pentagon Buys Weapons Backwards

Courtesy Lockheed Martin

The federal agency charged with catching U.S. government waste said in a new report that the Pentagon has squandered millions in taxpayer dollars on expensive and complex weapons systems by spending first and asking questions later.

The new report, prepared by the Government Accountability Office and published Friday, focused on the shortcomings of the Missile Defense Agency's Ballistic Missile Defense System but hit on a controversial strategy used in other major defense purchases: concurrency.

Concurrency is broadly defined as the practice of not waiting for a proposed weapons system to be fully tested before putting it on the final production line.

When all goes well few, if any, faults are found during testing and minimal changes must be made to those weapons that have already rolled off the factory floor. That way, the military gets its hands on the most advanced operational systems much faster than it would otherwise.

When problems are found, however, taxpayers are usually on the hook for not only the upgrades that need to be made to the systems still in development but for retrofits for those that were already thought to be finished products - at price tags that can run into the billions.

"While some concurrency is understandable, committing to product development before requirements are understood and technologies mature or committing to production and fielding before development is complete is a high-risk strategy that often results in performance shortfalls, unexpected cost increases, schedule delays and test problems," the GAO said.

Instead of concurrency, the GAO suggested the Pentagon take a "knowledge-based" approach in which there is little or no overlap from technology development to product development to final production.

By the GAO's estimate, a single problem found in a new variant of the missile system that was in the middle of production caused the cost of testing its capability to quadruple, from $236 million to around $1 billion.

Concurrency is also a major factor in the most expensive weapon system purchase in history, the Pentagon's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. That program, which will provide three branches of the military nearly 2,500 of the world's most advanced fifth-generation stealth fighters, is expected to cost over $1 trillion over the next half-century and the costs keep rising. The F-35 officially went into production in 2003, but the first ever test flight didn't take off until three years later.

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top weapons purchaser, said in February that the plan to buy the F-35 was so flawed it amounted to "acquisition malpractice."

"I can spend quite a few minutes on the F-35, but I don't want to," Kendall said at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Putting the F-35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice, OK? It should not have been done, OK? But we did it."

In a report last month, the GAO found that the Pentagon had taken steps to reduce concurrency with the F-35 by delaying the purchase of some planes, but that had predictably increased the overall cost of the program.

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