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.
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!
The risks inherent in these delays are tolerable because nobody else can even attempt to build a comparable system—and if they did, they’d fail too. No need for the U.S. to deliver the latest weapon system on time, because nobody else will have one either.
In fact, the safest approach is to never deliver anything at all, leading the way for friend and foe alike to also deliver nothing. Acquisition malpractice? More like acquisition best practice. You’re welcome, America.
Ironically, the best way to keep BLOAT secret is to publish data about cost overruns and schedule delays. No reasonable observer would believe the Pentagon wasted that much time and money on purpose, particularly since a virtual Greek chorus constantly bemoans the outcomes of weapon system acquisition efforts.
Want to further solidify the secret? Launch a perpetual series of blue ribbon panels, Government Accountability Reports and academic experts recommend solutions which are either ignored or implemented without effect. Mission accomplished.
Thoughtful critics might object that the Taliban and Al Qaeda would still not have jet fighters even if the F-35, for example, had entered service on the original timeline (2010) and budget ($200 billion).
For that matter, even at half the cost and half the time of the original estimates, a comparable airplane would have remained out of reach for Osama Bin Laden and his colleagues.
Such an analysis weakens the Vast Conspiracy theory, but as any conspiracy nut can attest, facts that weaken the conspiracy theory actually strengthen the conspiracy theory. Welcome to my nightmare.
Looking for a fact that actively reinforces the conspiracy theory? A recent story by Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week shows the F-35’s impact is precisely what we would expect from a BLOAT strategy. “Leaders of smaller air forces are worried that they could be priced out of flying fighter aircraft by rising acquisition and operational costs,” Sweetman writes.
He goes on to observe that “countries that once fielded large forces are recognizing that they cannot cover all their historic missions as they switch to the Joint Strike Fighter.”
It’s a brilliant move, really. If the JSF is the only jet in the sky, that makes it also the best jet in the sky. Thus, an enormous price tag could contribute more to air superiority than stealth, supercruise and thrust-vectoring combined.
Of course, if the costs, delays and assorted fiascoes associated with defense acquisition are part of a purposeful misinformation campaign, inspired by Sun Tzu’s observation that all warfare is based on deception, then we must assume that high-speed, low-cost acquisition projects are possible and exist somewhere, presumably supporting operations where a deterrence strategy is ineffective.
In order to avoid undermining the BLOAT strategy, these efficient projects would need to keep a low profile since their existence would definitively prove the conspiracy is real. Strap on your tinfoil hat, because here comes proof.
According to GAO report 07-620, the Special Operations community consistently delivers new gear without encountering the same types of budget and schedule problems that plague their non-special counterparts. How do they do it? By instituting tight budgets, short schedules, a commitment to simplicity and a close connection between developers and users.
Fortunately, mainstream acquisition programs seldom follow that route, otherwise BLOAT would quickly deflate.
The existence of BLOAT as national policy is strictly speculative, but the data seems to support the theory. However, if the security reviewers approve this article for publication, then you’ll know BLOAT is not really the heart of our national defense strategy, because nobody would ever let such an important secret into the public sphere.
Or maybe that’s precisely what they want you to think. Maybe allowing this to be published enables the secret to hide in plain sight, because releasing this article proves BLOAT isn’t real … which proves it is real … which also proves it isn’t. I think you know what I mean.
Dan holds three engineering degrees and is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. His book FIRE: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation, is scheduled to be released by HarperCollins on April 29. 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.