Wednesday’s Book Review: “New Weapons, Old Politics: America’s Military Procurement Muddle”


New Weapons, Old Politics: America’s Military Procurement Muddle. By Thomas L. McNaugher. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1989.

A muck-raking analysis, the author uses case studies to illuminate concerns at the heart of the ongoing debate over defense acquisition, especially a slow and heavily bureaucratic approach to development, a preference for new weapons over well-organized and trained forces, a cost for technology out of bounds, and the implications of a military/industry alliance that does not want much in the way of change. He asks for changes that have few allies, especially less centralization in procurement, less haste in developing new weapons, and greater use of competition.

At the time this book was published in 1989 the Department of Defense spent more than $100 billion a year to buy weapons systems, and McNaugher makes the case that everyone recognizes that the process is remarkably inefficient. Efforts at reform, however, have long been balanced against those of the status quo. Machiavelli said it best in The Prince: “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” The yin and yang of forces in favor of or opposed to changing the system has ensured that this is a perennial problem, according to McNaugher.

The author takes a chronological approach to the issue. He begins with the period after World War II when new technologies emerged and gained primacy in the Cold War. American leaders realized that the costs of maintaining military parity with the Soviet Union would be prohibitive over the long term. As a democratic society without the desire or the capability to press millions into service to the state, officials of the United States sought to make up the difference with better weapons systems. Whatever was needed to assure victory in a confrontation was appropriate, and R&D for new weapons systems expanded exponentially in relation to other costs for the DoD and the rest of the government.

This was a messy and inefficient process, everyone knew it, but tolerated it in the crisis years of the 1950s. Once the Kennedy administration worked through its early crises with the Soviets, SECDEF Robert McNamara tried to rein in the system, achieve efficiencies where possible, and enforce better management. It was partly responsible for the debacle of the C-5A procurement for a widebody transport aircraft. The landscape was littered with other weapons systems that failed. The FB-111, as an example failed because it was supposed to be all things to all people. It could dogfight and bomb as well as be both a Navy and Air Force warplane.

By the time that the Nixon administration took office in January 1969 concerted efforts at reform came, spearheaded by David Packard who modified the acquisition process somewhat with some success. In the process, the McNamara reforms were largely modified or overturned altogether. McNaugher notes that with every attempt at change the breech between the technical needs of engineers versus military planners widened. These issues had to be balanced against the pressures of Congress based on political concerns. Indeed, McNaugher examination of weapons procurement since World War II demonstrates that with every reform effort there seemed to be greater imposition of political pressures into the weapons acquisition process.

Managing the iron triangle of defense acquisition—cost, schedule, and performance—is a never-ending challenge, McNaugher demonstrates this case studies, drawing back periodically to offer lessons learned. He finds that the overwhelming bureaucracy of the DoD is a major part of the problem. So is the incessant politics prevalent between the military services, the military-industrial complex, and the other power centers in Washington. The overstretch of technology also comes up for criticism, as does the need for professionalization of the procurement work force.

McNaugher’s recommendations for reform read like déjà vu all over again. He argues for less centralization in the procurement process, less haste in pursuing innovative technologies, and greater competition between firms vying for government contracts. These reformers have diagnosed the same problems and offered a version of the same solutions. The problem is the implementation of these perfectly reasonable reforms. It remains an issue nearly thirty years after this book was originally published.

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