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Why the Air Force doesn't ask Apple for an iFighter

"What if Apple designed an iFighter?"

That's the attention-grabbing headline of a column Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal by American Enterprise Institute scholar Arthur Herman, and it's difficult to tell if he's actually serious or if the whole thing is a big joke.

Remember the good old days, Herman asks, when defense acquisition was a beautiful and seamless ballet that functioned perfectly because it was run by magical fairies who rode unicorns over bridges made of rainbows? The War Department and its vendors used to laugh and play and frolic in soft meadows as they delivered low-cost, high-performing products ahead of schedule that out-performed their original requirements. Everything was so wonderful!

Then something happened -- though Herman doesn't say what -- and suddenly we got today's expensive, inefficient, highly political and often absurd military-industrial-congressional complex. If only we could return to those happy, golden years! Ah, but Herman has a prescription for how we can: Revisit the worst, deadliest, most destructive conflict in human history -- that'll get us off the nut, boy!

If only Washington could replicate the lessons of World War II, there'd be no more Comanches, no more Future Combat Systems, no more Littoral Combat Ships, no more F-22 Raptors, no more F-35 Lightning IIs, Herman argues. In the good old days, the U.S. military modernized from a sleepy interwar garrison to history's greatest force for good. How'd we do it? Per his column:

We did it not because we spent a lot of money, but because the dollars spent followed four simple business principles.
"Not because we spent a lot of money" -- on arms and war materiel in World War II? As the world's Arsenal of Democracy? When defense spending constituted nearly 40 percent of the Gross Domestic Product? When raw materials and fuel were in such demand the government had to ration them? Yeah, he's right, money played no part.

Continues Herman:

First, we recruited the most productive and innovative companies and manufacturers to help. In 1939, most weapons for the U.S. Army were built in government arsenals or by contractors in small batches—much as they are made by a handful of big defense contractors today. The war brought in car makers like General Motors and Ford, electronics firms like GE, RCA and Westinghouse, and companies like Boeing and Lockheed that still made their living designing and building civilian aircraft. Companies that had never made a tank or machine gun or bazooka ended up producing them by the thousands—and brought their engineering expertise to every step.

The future of military technology is the kind of high-tech engineering in which American companies already are the established leaders. So why not let the Air Force ask Apple to design an iFighter? Or let the Navy ask Google to design the software architecture to power its ships and submarines? That company's skunk-works innovation team, Google X, has now developed a car that drives itself on the streets of San Francisco. Why not tap that expertise for the Pentagon's future unmanned systems?

Probably because Apple has never built an airplane and Google has never built military hardware. And the Army is already using Google's Android OS in some of the handsets it's testing for its network.

Meanwhile:

We kept the loop between users and makers tight. Defense contractors in World War II never forgot that their ultimate customers weren't the Air Force or Navy, but the men sailing or flying them into harm's way. At Roy Grumman's factory on Long Island, pilots would stop by his office to make suggestions on how to improve his fighter planes. Out of that came the F6F Hellcat, which eventually shot down more Japanese planes than any other fighter.
Yep, that's the problem with today's defense industry -- not enough ties with the Pentagon and the military services.

Continues Herman:

Today, multiple layers of bureaucracy oversee every stage of major weapons system. Not to mention a Congress that feels free to dictate what's made and where, and even makes the Pentagon build weapons and maintain facilities it doesn't want—for instance demanding a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. By contrast, the success the Army and Marines have had with the mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle or MRAP shows what happens when the Pentagon throws out the bureaucratic rule book and takes on a more World War II-style business model.
Quite right -- let's take a look: The Pentagon needed vehicles that could save troops' lives -- yesterday. It staged a massive effort with multiple vendors to turn out multiple copies of the trucks that would fill the bill, shoveling out cash from a pile of American debt. They got the job done. Now the Army and Marines have a $40 billion fleet of heavy vehicles they'll probably never use again and want to replace with a whole new breed of light trucks.

That's the problem with war procurement -- war is unpredictable. War is wasteful. And more than anything, war is expensive. It was expensive when mass-producing propeller-driven aircraft and diesel-powered tanks, and it's even more expensive when you're fielding stealth strike fighters whose pilots have to worry about the potential cyber-vulnerabilities of their new network-enabled weapons. Paying for it all with borrowed money makes everything even more expensive.

Herman's idyllic view of World War II-era procurement excludes the waste uncovered by then Sen. Harry Truman, whose watch-doggery helped save taxpayers as much as $15 billion, per the Truman Library -- during the war. Which was so significant in its day it raised his national profile enough for him to become vice president.

It ignores the reality that the U.S. had a huge industrial base that could be impressed to switch from building cars to building bombers -- and that the bombers of that era could be built in such a factory. If Secretary Panetta today called up the Ford Motor Company and asked it to rush into building B-2 Spirits, the executives in Detroit would slam down the phone and say, "Damn crank calls."

The qualitative differences matter. G.I. Joe fought World War II on foot, wearing woolen pants, with a wooden rifle, spooning rations out of a can. Today's "Battlestar Galactica" troops clad in high-tech armor step into battle off a helicopter, having flown from a base with three flavors of ice cream in the chow hall, in an Army that wants to wire every soldier into a sophisticated, unified network.

This is why there is a dedicated defense industry -- because if the Air Force asked Apple to build an 'iFighter,' it would be starting from scratch. Lockheed and Boeing aren't. A steel mill in Pittsburgh can't just crank out a Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyer -- you need Bath Iron Works up in Maine or Ingalls down in Pascagoula. When longtime House Armed Services Committee institution Rep. Duncan Hunter (the elder) tried for years to help a guy build his own fighter jet in his own backyard, it didn't go so well.

No one is under any illusions that the Iron Triangle has, as we've observed before, a few slight imperfections. Herman's heart may be in the right place; he calls for DoD to help vendors with supply chain management, simpler requirements and higher volume, lower-cost orders. And there are valid concerns about whether the U.S. is losing or has lost its World War II-style "surge" capacity to respond to a crisis. But let's be clear: Although today's defense acquisitions may be broken, everyone involved, from the generals to the politicians to the CEOs, nonetheless continues to get what he wants. So if the system were ever to improve, it'll be because it moved forward, not backward.

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