Military Playground


EVER SINCE JULY, the United States Army has been trying to get the Pershing II missile into the air. In its first test, the missile blew up. In the next two tests, it didn't leave the launch pad. Last week, to the inestimable pleasure--and relief--of the Army officials watching Pershing's latest test, the thing actually flew. Unfortunately, grumbled an Army spokesman later, the missile "failed to achieve the desired accuracy"--it missed its target.

High-priced military hardware--like the Pershing--makes Reagan Administration pulses pound with enthusiasm. The armsracing Californians who run the Pentagon have ushered in a host of shiny new weapons systems: the B-IB bomber, the MX missile, the M-1 tank, the F-18 fighter, and a whole military-industrial complex--full of other guns, planes, helicopters, ships and missiles. The Administration's emphasis on military technology has dramatically increased the Pentagon's already-bloated procurement budget. From 1981 to 1983, procurement spending rose nearly three times as fast as total defense spending. But because of incompetent management in the Pentagon, much of this money will be wasted.

The main problem is that contractors have thoroughly exploited the generosity of recent defense budgets since the Pentagon has made little effort to monitor them. In the face of Reagan's armaments binge, inflation in the aerospace industry has soared. Contractors have no reason to try to control labor costs, because they can usually demand higher prices under "cost-plus" contracts designed to protect manufacturers from unexpectedly high expenses. As a result, the difference in average earnings between aerospace workers and those in the rest of the economy have jumped 50 percent since 1970.

The real bonanza, though, is in spare parts. An Air Force audit revealed that Pratt and Whitney has quietly increased the price of one part, a turbine air seal, from $16 to more than $3000, supposedly to correct an accounting error in the original price--the audit uncovered scores of such "corrections." Overall, the defense industry has, for the past two years, sustained an inflation rate of 20 percent--more than double the national average.

SUCH RECKLESS WAGE AND PRICE increases inevitably translate into cost overruns. Cost overruns in defense procurement have been so huge for so long that they've almost lost their power to shock--but not quite. In the past 30 years, only 10 percent of all new weapons systems have been brought in under budget. Between March and July, the cost of one system--the Maverick air-to-ground missile--increased by 25 percent. McDonnell-Douglas told the Navy last month that the cost of another new weapon, the F-18 fighter, would increase by a third from its original price tag.


The Pentagon has had even less success controlling quality: many of our expensive new toys just don't work. The wayward Pershing II is only one example. A guidance system for the Army's new helicopter (the AH-64) breaks down three times as often as Army specifications permit. The F-18 recently failed its testing program, but the Navy is going to buy it anyway.

The M-1 tank, however, is the most egregious example of Pentagon profligacy. It costs three times as much as the M-60 tanks it's designed to replace, but the Army assures us it's "the best tank in the world." That's a dubious claim: the West German Leopard II outperformed the M-1 in competition, but the Army refuses to use a foreign tank. The M-1's much-touted Chobham armor is much more effective than previous armor, but it is so expensive that it's only being put on the front. The M-1's gas turbine engine makes it lightning fast. But such engines require a lot of air, which the M-1 takes in through a defective filter that tends to get clogged with sand. And they also need a lot of fuel (much more than the M-60), so the M-1 has to be followed into battle with a fuel truck Each of these miracle fighting machines costs a meager $2.7 million.

Indiscriminate spending on clunkers weakens America's defenses. But when it comes to buying military equipment. Congressional and Administration hawks are guilty of the same crime they charged Great Society liberals with trying to solve a problem by throwing money at it.