We’re getting less for more $
- Last Updated: 10:41 PM, May 6, 2012
- Posted: 10:25 PM, May 6, 2012
One crown jewel of the defense industry is about to shut its gates forever. Its closing should set off alarm bells about how long our military will remain the world’s best.
Boeing’s fabled Wichita plant — where we built B-29s during World War II and the B-52 in the Cold War — will end operations next year. For more than 70 years, it’s been a vital part of the Wichita community and a symbol of America’s role in saving the free world not once but twice.
Instead of helping to build the new KC-46A airborne tanker, its 2,100 workers will be jobless — and a national landmark will fade into memory.
Why is it closing? There just aren’t enough orders for military planes. That’s not just a function of the Obama Pentagon’s deep budget cuts (with more slashing on the way). It’s another sign of a disease that’s eating at the heart of America’s ability to produce the weapons and equipment its military needs: a Pentagon acquisition process that steadily delivers less and less for more and more money.
Cost overruns are wasting billions of valuable dollars that should be going to replace and modernize our aging planes, bombers, ships and missiles. With the next round of cuts coming in 2013, it may seal the future of our defense industry for good.
For years, people have joked about B-52 crews flying planes that are older than they are. Now that’s true of more and more of our military hardware — and in many cases the computer software, too. (IBM designed the F-22 Raptor’s software in 1983.)
President Obama likes to claim that, even after his cuts, the Pentagon’s budget is still bigger than the next 10 militaries combined. But most of that goes for personnel and force readiness or war-fighting (until recently, almost $125 billion a year worth for Iraq and Afghanistan).
Buying equipment covers only a third of the budget, and much of that goes for a handful of costly programs, such as the F-35. Less and less goes to designing and building weapon systems for the present, let alone for the future.
Back in 1960, America’s aerospace industry employed some 700,000 workers making combat aircraft, working on six military fighters in production, with seven more in development. Today, fewer than 200,000 make limited numbers of just four manned fighters: the F-15, which dates back to the 1970s, F-16, FA-18 and F-35, with none in development.
We’re down to just one facility for building and refitting tanks (in Lima, Ohio), which the Army wants to close down for three years to save money. Likewise, only two shipyards can build nuclear subs, and only one (in New port News, Va.) can build and refuel nuclear carriers.
Our shrinking defense industrial base means not just disappearing jobs — by one congressional estimate, coming defense cuts will kill 150,000 jobs in the next 16 months — and devastated local economies. It also sharply limits our ability to keep up with trends in military technology and beef up our forces in the event of a major conflict.
Stopping the rot involves one long-term reform and one immediate fix.
Long term, we’ve got to change this broken acquisition system. It’s overregulated, too slow and too bogged down in a few massive projects, like the F-35 and the DDG1000 Zumalt destroyer. We need one that spawns lots of competitive designs and prototypes, as happened during World War II and the Cold War.
The famed arsenal of democracy was built by bringing the civilian sector’s most innovative companies into military design and production. That meant not only such commercial-aviation companies as Boeing and Lockheed but also such automakers as Ford and GM and such electronics firms as GE and Westinghouse.
Today, a complicated Pentagon acquisition system drives away those kinds of companies. Until we see Google creating the major software platforms for our Navy ships and subs and Apple designing the Pentagon’s iFighter, we’ll know our acquisition problem hasn’t been fixed.
Right now, however, Congress must hold off on more damaging Pentagon cuts until we can rethink what we’re going to need and where we’re going to get it. We can’t let more closed plants and a lost industrial base be the net result of bad budget choices. Our nation’s security depends on it.
American Enterprise Institute visiting scholar Arthur Herman’s new book, “Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II,” hits stores tomorrow.Follow @NYPostOpinion