Waste: America's Secret Deterrence Strategy?

What if the Pentagon's cost overruns are on purpose?

By Dan Ward

In 2009, I published an oddball little piece of nightmare fiction entitled “Acquisition as Deterrent.” In this admittedly oddball story, the unnamed main character has a terrible dream in which he discovers a disturbing secret …

That the schedule delays, cost overruns, excessive complexity and ineffective performance frequently associated with American military technology projects are deliberate, not accidental.

“Decades ago, we made a strategic decision that American military weapon development projects should be expensive, complex and lengthy,” an imaginary 12-star general explains. “The more time and money we spent, the better. We did this in order to discourage other nations from imitating us.”

“It’s a brilliant strategy, really,” the general continues. “By spending billions of dollars and countless decades building hugely complex weapons systems—some of which never work and others of which barely work—we send a not-so-subtle message to our adversaries. ‘You can’t do this.’”

“Heck,” he concludes, “we can barely do it—and we’re the United States of America.”

Five years later, I’m beginning to wonder if it wasn’t a dream after all. What if American military strategy involves deliberately overspending for the sole purpose of placing weapons out of reach of the rest of the world?

What if we spend decades and billions on cancelled and troubled projects, creating the appearance of difficulty and incompetence, in order to deceive our enemies and dissuade them from building advanced jets, tanks and ships?

Making the unaffordable status quo appear inevitable creates a strong disincentive to hostile actors, so there is a genuine national benefit to convincing the world advanced weapon systems cannot be built in less than 25 years, even if we could actually do it in 18 months.

I like to think this brilliant strategy has a cool codename like Operation BLOAT, short for Budgets Limit Opponent’s Acquisition of Technology. If BLOAT is real—and I hope it is—it explains why Allied pilots never had to engage Taliban pilots in dogfights over Afghanistan and why Al Qaeda never built a fleet of stealth bombers and submarines.

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In fact, Operation BLOAT ensures the U.S. military will never again face a Soviet-size opponent equipped with a full set of tanks, jets and ships.

Any large nation who tries to follow America’s example will have great trouble fielding new gear, particularly if they steal our designs and try to build knock-offs. Meanwhile, smaller nations and assorted terrorist groups won’t even try in the first place.

Thus, instead of confronting massive militaries, U.S. forces only have to fight small units equipped with little more than AK-47’s and improvised explosives. Such combat is ugly to be sure, but it’s better than a full-scale World War III.

If BLOAT is not our actual strategy, it should be. The defense acquisition community has a longstanding track record of development projects that “require more than 15 years to deliver less capability than planned, often at two to three times the planned cost,” according to a 2011 Harvard Business School report.

Since that’s how things are going anyway, why not do it on purpose and reap the strategic benefits? I don’t see any problem with that logic.

Also, as my original nightmare story pointed out, BLOAT is entirely consistent with Sun Tzu’s dictum to “appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” Who am I to argue with Sun Tzu?

Just as nuclear missiles accomplished a Cold War deterrent mission without ever launching, today’s wildly expensive and delayed acquisition programs make the world safer without ever delivering a thing.

The trick, of course, is to make sure nobody suspects the real motive, which is much easier than it sounds. All the Pentagon has to do is inject enormous delays and cost overruns into otherwise top-priority projects—done!

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Dan holds three engineering degrees and is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He is the author of FIRE: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force or Department of Defense.