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Time to Correct Dysfunctional Navy Procurement

Pentagon bloat frustrates both Congress and ordinary taxpayers. Many on the left perceive of the Pentagon as a cash cow whose budget they can divert in order to fund ever more expensive entitlement programs. That strategy may delay a final reckoning about systemic economic issues, but it comes at a significant national security price.

Because of high seas and stormy weather, I had a bit of a Gilligan’s Island experience and was stranded for three days last week on a ship to which I was to lecture for only around four hours. Over subsequent days, I got to spend a good amount of time with the commanding officer, the executive officer, officers, and crew. While that ship appeared to be in better condition than most, there were problems with its electronics and computers. Indeed, stepping onto almost any U.S. ship is to step back in time when it comes to computers. Most computers are old and decrepit. If sailors and riders are lucky, they will handle at least Windows 98. Internet is spotty at best: It can take over an hour to send an email because of bandwidth issues, and even Google or Wikipedia can be difficult to access. It is one thing to complain about slow Internet access, but the sad fact is that slow computing is the symptom of a larger problem.

Officers were ready with an explanation about why it is that pretty much every ship lags behind. When the Navy decides to order a ship, it essentially pre-pays because the budget is set at the start. Ships can take years to construct. Construction on the USS Gerald Ford, our country’s next aircraft carrier, began in 2005. When the ship is launched in 2015, its computers will already be a decade out of date. Technology certainly has advanced in the interim. When the Pentagon looks at the ship and decides it needs current capability rather than the capacity of yesteryear, it can cost tens of millions of dollars—if not hundreds of millions of dollars—to retrofit and redesign the original plans. It is not uncommon, therefore, for the Navy to be faced with a choice between a ship which is becoming obsolete almost as soon as it is launched, or one that will have exceeded its budget by 50-100 percent.

If there is a workaround, it is in contracting which mandates contemporary standards upon launching. It would be up to shipbuilding companies to gauge needs ahead of time rather than plan for the past. Such a change would require a new way of doing business in Pentagon acquisitions. Let us hope that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel can find a way, because the cost of facing China or any other rising powers with a substandard fleet in this era of declining budgets will ultimately have an even higher cost.


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