And how about some portholes along the sides for individual firearms? So the fellas can stick out their guns and shoot people!” – General Vice, The Pentagon Wars (1998)

We’ve all seen our share of great war moviesSaving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers (technically a series, but bear with me here), Full Metal Jacket – and more than our share of bad ones. The good ones are as memorable as the bad ones are forgettable, but obviously for different reasons. But no film captures the essence of working within the military bureaucracy quite as well as the 1998 movie, The Pentagon Wars.

Based on the book of the same name, the film recounts the events surrounding the development of the U.S. Army’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle, with much of the focus on two characters: U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel James Burton (the author, played by Cary Elwes) – who was tasked to conduct an independent evaluation of the Bradley project by Congress – and U.S. Army Brigadier General Robert Smith (Richard Schiff) – the beleaguered project manager for most of its 17 years (and $14 billion) in development. The movie is a tragicomedy. Even in its hilarity, it’s likely a film the acquisition community would rather forget.

Most of us can see a little of ourselves in Burton, a real-life military reformer who played a significant role in the development of the A-10 Warthog and did his best to drive improvements in the Bradley before it entered service in 1981. We recognize the design-by-committee approach that spurs so much laughter among viewers. We understand the uninformed, top-down directives that turn the best laid plans upside down. And we all know what it’s like to be pushed to our limits by the randomness of senior leader decision-making. It’s funny, but it’s not.


Eventually, the Bradley built a reputation as a key component of the big five that fueled the Army transformation of the 1980s. As the film reminds us, the path there was a rough one at times. But the Army is hardly alone in its struggles with acquisition. The path the Bradley traveled is one with which each of the services is intimately familiar.

The U.S. Navy’s littoral combat ship – euphemistically referred to as the little crappy ship – has long been a focal point of controversy. A recent ProPublica investigation revealed a program fraught with problems, in which “sailors and officers complained they spent more time fixing the ships than sailing them.” By 2015, the program – which could approach a lifetime cost at or near $100 billion – began to experience a series of very public failures that “exposed the limits of the ships and their crews,” which were often directed to sail despite being not fully prepared to go to sea.

In 2015, the USS Milwaukee was three weeks into its maiden voyage when it had to be towed back to port for repairs. The ship the Milwaukee was supposed to relieve, the USS Fort Worth, spent the next seven months in unscheduled maintenance – for the same mechanical issue suffered by the Milwaukee – after the commanding officer was deemed unfit for command. By 2016, when a series of engine issues left the USS Freedom docked for the next two years, senior Navy leaders recognized “the beginning of a pattern that came to punctuate the life of the LCS program.”


Even as the Navy struggled with the LCS debacle, the U.S. Air Force was coming to terms with their own acquisition nightmare, the F-35 Lightning II, the fifth-generation fighter that boasts the most advanced sensor suite ever fielded. But the program has been plagued by cost overruns and delays, and a litany of other problems that led former Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall to profess, “We’re not going to repeat… what I think, quite frankly, was a serious mistake…” In short, the service had learned valuable lessons from the F-35 program about how NOT to buy a fighter jet.

Though arguably the most advanced fighter in service today, the F-35 program has become – like the Bradley and the LCS – a focal point for acquisition reform efforts. Launched in 2001 with plans to field 2,852 aircraft at an estimated cost of $233 billion, the program suffered from “risky development strategy, shoddy management, laizzez-faire oversight, countless design flaws, and skyrocketing costs.” Two decades later, the F-35 is the Defense Department’s most expensive weapon system program, estimated to cost more than $1.7 trillion to acquire, operate, and sustain over 400 fewer aircraft than originally planned.

According a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, much of that cost – as much as $1.3 trillion – will be consumed for operations and maintenance, the latter of which “rests entirely on Lockheed Martin and the sub-contractors it hires.” This contributes to ongoing readiness issues with the airframe, and the ability of the Air Force to influence that is hampered by a proprietary supply chain database. When it flies, it’s an amazing aircraft. When it flies.


I had an epiphany this week while reading a recent Navy Times article concerning the LCS program, “Can the U.S. Navy save money by accepting the LCS as a sunk cost?” Two decades into the program, reality may have finally set in and the Navy has resigned themselves to the inevitability of the Little Crappy Ship. But there’s more. Acceptance. Maybe we’ve been looking at the acquisition process wrong all along. It’s not flawed. It’s a grief process.

1.    Denial.

You had a strong product vision and a sound roadmap, but you get this nagging sense – some people call it “data” – that tells you something is wrong. But you can’t accept that. You had a plan.

2.   Anger.

Eventually, you can’t ignore the data. Costs are up, production is delayed, the system doesn’t work as designed. But the prime contractor doesn’t just want to get paid, they want to get paid more. For less. That just doesn’t sit well with you.

3.   Bargaining.

Then you realize the prime contractor has all the power. They have the designs. They control the supply chain. They own the labor force. You’re in over your head and you know it. Maybe you can talk your way out of this hole.

4.  Depression.

But you can’t. The prime contractor has you cornered like an Iraqi sewer rat – which are notoriously skittish – and there’s nothing you can do about it. They hold all the cards, and you are out of options. It’s a sad place to be.

5.   Acceptance.

There comes a time when you just say the hell with it. You could say the Serenity Prayer but that won’t do anything to change your situation. At least you didn’t take any bribes from Fat Leonard. You’ve got that going for you.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.