Exploring the Pentagon's High-Tech Wish List

The U.S. military spends billions of dollars every year to develop weapons dependent on technology not yet developed. New York Times reporter Tim Weiner describes the enormous growth in spending on hypothetical weapons systems, in lieu of basic budget items such as boots and bullets.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, where have all the tigers gone?

But first, the Pentagon's budget covers everything from cotton balls to C-130s; from a 10-pound sack of flour to an aircraft carrier like the USS Abraham Lincoln that weighs more than 91,000 tons. The Pentagon is also in the market to acquire capabilities that no existing technology or equipment can yet make possible.

Now military wish lists have helped stimulate the development of weapons systems and computer technologies that can be staggeringly original. But the expense of creating these items and others still in the pipeline has become a worry to some military leaders and Congress. Tim Weiner has been covering this story for The New York Times and joins us from New York.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. TIM WEINER (The New York Times): Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And could you describe for us what I guess is called the requirements process--how somebody says, `Hey, we need this,' and how it actually winds up or doesn't in a weapon?

Mr. WEINER: A weapons system often begins with a dream, an idea somebody has. Wouldn't it be neat if we could--fill in the blank--make a 70-ton nuclear bomber that looks like a sparrow on a radar?

SIMON: That's the B-2?

Mr. WEINER: That is.

SIMON: And that got done, right?

Mr. WEINER: Well, we're not quite sure how big it is on a radar, and it costs $2.2 billion a copy, three times its weight on solid gold. And it is technologically fragile. It's been used in combat infrequently.

SIMON: Are there some examples of something that wound up on a military wish list that got passed along to contractors on which a terrific amount of money was spent and little to show for it in the end?

Mr. WEINER: Here's a fairly mundane example. A decade ago, the Navy said, `Wouldn't it be neat if we could build a guided missile that we could fire from the five-inch guns of our new 21st-century destroyers?' They set out to build a guided missile to fire from the barrel of a gun on the deck of a ship that is five inches in diameter. It is very hard to cram all the electronics into a missile that size. They tested it; it melted. They tested it; it melted the barrel of the gun. Nine years went by. This program budgeted at $80 million, cost $400 million, and did not produce a working technology. They've gone back to the drawing board, re-bid the contract, started again.

We have, for example, future combat systems. This is a program to build 18 different weapons, robots, woven together through a military Internet for 15 brigades--about 45,000 soldiers. That was sold as a $78 billion program. The costs are now running as high as $145 billion and growing.

If you get a 20-percent ripple in cost in a weapons system that costs $1 billion, OK. If you get a 20-percent ripple in a system that costs $100 billion, that's real pain.

SIMON: Has two years and more that the US Army and other forces have been in Iraq dealing with a very different kind of conflict spurred people in the Pentagon to think that maybe the investment in high technology is disproportionate to their needs?

Mr. WEINER: People are beginning to wonder. Of course, we build new weapons to meet hypothetical enemies of the future--for example, a technologically rampant and militant China 30 years from now. So we're building a new army weapons system while the real army has a lot of sand in its gears. The money spent on the research and development and procurement of new weapons cannot be spent on the operations and maintenance of current weapons. The money for beans and bullets and boots and grease and monkey wrenches gets drained when you're building weapons that cost that much.

SIMON: Is there some concern at the same time that something like 60 years ago, the young British person who ran into some military office and said, `You know what would be nice? If we had some kind of thing that could tell us where the planes are in the air before they actually got over London? Wouldn't that be great?' I don't know if people scoffed at that idea then, but, you know, we know now that radar was the result.

Mr. WEINER: There will always be room in the United States for technological genius. There will always be room for someone with a really neat idea. The prototype for what we're doing now is less the development of radar than it is the building of the atomic bomb.

During World War II, we put our best scientists, our best minds into isolation, gave them $2 billion--the equivalent of $20 billion today--and they came up with the atomic bomb. We have a hundred little Manhattan Projects running around the country today. We're unclear of the costs of many of them because the Pentagon disguises them. What we do know is that the costs are becoming kind of a bomb themselves. And when things run into trouble or costs go out of control, no one takes responsibility. This is a problem that people are beginning to recognize at the highest levels of the Pentagon. And I think we will see in the coming year some very painful choices being made.

SIMON: Tim Weiner, reporter for The New York Times. He's currently writing a book about the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Weiner, thanks very much.

Mr. WEINER: Thank you, Scott.

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