Capabilities-Based Planning Comes Home to Roost

Kevin Drum, reflecting on the problems with the F-22 and the disaster that is the F-35 program, wonders:

But it does make you wonder why we seem to have lost the ability to build a next generation fighter that works well at a reasonable cost. Have we reached some inherent plateau of complexity that we’re not currently able to surpass? Have all the smartest engineers all decamped to Silicon Valley? Or what? These are hardly the first Pentagon programs to sink under their own weight, but they’re certainly among the longest-lasting and highest-profile failures ever. I wonder what’s really going on here.

Tim F. at Balloon-Juice replies:

In brief, the Pentagon has gradually de-emphasized the original purpose of weapons projects in favor of making the projects themselves unkillable.


Then you have feature creep. The Air Force has a pilot culture that worships derring-do by brave young men in awesome jets. The problem is that awesome fighter jets cost a lot of money, so new jets don’t come out very often, so when one does come around everyone wants to see their pet idea thrown in.

Tim also throws in some A-10 Warthog anecdotes to bolster his case.

But the core problem was the shift from contingency-based planning to capabilities-based planning that occurred in the 1990s. It seemed like a good idea to some at the time. With the Cold War over, and the discipline provided by planning against a known enemy in predictable theaters, it seemed wise to refocus defense planning around building a basket of needed capabilities — air superiority, forced entry, missile defense, and so on.

But the problem is that none of these capabilities make sense in the abstract. They all require a specific adversary with specific capabilities in specific scenarios to do a cost and benefit analysis of any given system. Capabilities-based planning unmoors defense programs from any solid analytical foundation. And so, weapons programs become free-floating, prone to whatever fads and conventional wisdom seem to be ruling the day.

Worse, without an adversary to discipline choices, programs compete against themselves. Modernization becomes an end in itself. Programs move to the bleeding edge of technology simply because in the absence of grounded cost-benefit analysis, leaders default to bigger and better.

Another issue is that we got on a glide path of modernization during the Cold War, spurred on by Soviet innovation. They stopped innovating in the mid-1970s, but we kept at it through the 1980s. And then in the 1990s. And then in the 2000s. We’ve continued to improve our weapons technology at roughly the same rate as we did during the Cold War, but now we’re not competing against any external adversary. We’re just competing against ourselves and our own expectations.

Don’t get me wrong. Congressional politics and the organizational culture of the Services contribute to our problems. But the bigger issue is that there is no disciplining counter-vailing pressure. Pork and the Services have always had distorting effects, but its only reached the current crisis point because of the collapse of any useful analytical consensus to shape choices.

And yes, this is a crisis. Go beyond airframes and look at land combat systems, at ship-building programs, at basically every major program out there. They are all floundering because there is no point at which the rubber hits the road except that at some point the money just runs out, but that is much too late to fix anything.

I’ve been ranting about this for so long that it feels like old news to me. I was warning about the problems of capabilities-based planning back in the mid-1990s. No one listened to me then (wisely probably since I was a 20-something with no experience or real knowledge, and the problem seems theoretical rather than practical), and no one listens to me now, which is less defensible given the collapse of so many high-profile procurement programs. But I’ll keep shouting into the void on this, in the hopes that somehow this issue generates the attention it deserves.

1 comment to Capabilities-Based Planning Comes Home to Roost

  • Bernard,

    We use Capabilities Based Planning much lower down in the acquisition chain to define what technical capabilities must be possessed for the program to provide value to the stakeholders. JSF’s example is the poster child for how not to do it.
    But the bigger question is DOD moving away from CBP because they couldn’t get to work? If the capabilities aren’t tied to tangible benefits we seem to get JSF. In our NASA work capabilities are tied to payload and landing mass on Mars. Doesn’t fit inside the outer mold line and weigh less than 1 Metric Tons, it can’t go to Mars. Build inside that.
    So is CBP the root cause or it’s poor application. If CBP, then how can acquisition reform move forward?

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