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Buy THAAD, Get Warranty

When you buy a car, usually one of a family's most expensive purchases, you get a warranty if it's new or "certified."

When the Pentagon buys weapons it rarely gets any kind of warranty. After all, these are complex systems, using advanced technology and they are, well, going to be used in war zones. It's hard enough to get insurance as a war correspondent for your own self. A warranty on a tank or on body armor would be mighty hard to convince anyone to issue.

So when the head of the Missile Defense Agency told reporters that Lockheed will offer a warranty on the THAAD anti-missile system we could barely swallow our applewood bacon. Lt Gen. Patrick O'Reilly said he was also withholding a $419 million production contract until Lockheed demonstrates a safety switch built by subcontractor Moog will work as designed. It's a pretty important device, meant to stop accidental launches. And, as O Reilly noted, it is built into the system at the beginning of the production line, so you can't start the line in hopes the problem is addressed before the rest of the system makes it down the line.

The first international customer to get THAAD, the United Arab Emirates, plans to buy as much as $7 billion worth of the system and has been informed of the problems, O'Reilly said. He indicated that the Arab government is understanding.

These actions are symptoms of at least three factors afflicting the defense industry and the Pentagon. As several senior Pentagon acquisition officials have said in the last year, quality control has grown into a serious issue for prime contractors and their subs. Combine that with the painful budget crunch that seems to grow heavier with each passing month and you've got a Pentagon that feels empowered to squeeze contractors as hard as it can in pursuit of cost savings and to enforce contracts. And Lockheed Martin, THAAD's maker, is willing to do a great deal to preserve revenue from the F-35 program and giving a warranty on another important program probably looked like a good and innovative way to keep the Pentagon happy. Warranties are unlikely to become a standard feature of most weapon systems, but it's fair to say that companies are likely to show themselves much more flexible in their dealings with the government than has been the case since Sept. 11, 2001.

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