- Historic Sites
Why The Military Can’t Get The Figures Right
A former Department of Defense adviser—one of Robert S. McNamara’s Whiz Kids—explains why we tend to overestimate Russian strength, and why we underestimate what it will cost to defend ourselves
February/March 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 2
The first problem with the B-70 or with today’s version, the B-I, is that bombers are stationed on relatively few air bases. These bombers are concentrated and vulnerable and can be knocked out by enemy intercontinental missiles. Rather than deterring attack, they’re more likely to invite attack.
The tragedy is that there is no powerful interest group in favor of cost effectiveness in national defense.
We came to prefer weapons like the Polaris submarine, because that couldn’t be knocked out in a surprise attack, and the Minuteman ICBM, based in dispersed concrete-andsteel silos so that the Soviets would have had to use several missiles to destroy one of our Minutemen. As long as we had about as many missiles as they did, enough of our forces could survive to strike back.
The B-70 was very vulnerable on the ground, and it was extremely expensive compared with ballistic missiles.
What did the Air Force say in rebuttal?
They fought back mainly with political power—with appeals to their supporters in the Congress and to people who were thinking in the same terms as they were. They would say, for example, that the great thing about the manned bomber is that you could launch it subject to warning and then recall it if it was not a real attack. Our reply to that was, “The trouble is that you have to launch it on warning, because it’s so vulnerable; that’s not a virtue, it’s a by-product of its deficiency.”
In the case of the B-70 that’s why the Air Force ultimately lost. Gradually it became apparent that the bomber was terribly costly and definitely not worth it. The B-70 would be vulnerable in the air—to surface-to-air missiles—as well as on the ground.
With the Polaris submarine, the key decision, made by President Kennedy and Robert McNamara right at the beginning of their administrations, was to move very quickly to get into a position of having survivable retaliatory power. So we accelerated the production of the Polaris and the Minuteman missile and, at the same time, to help pay for it, phased out the B-47 bombers, which we perceived as being very vulnerable to a Russian missile attack.
The question “How much is enough?” was essentially a “flat-of-the-curve” argument. If you plot a curve that shows, on the horizontal axis, dollars spent, and, on the vertical axis, targets destroyed, that curve gets very flat as more dollars are spent. More missiles don’t get you more target destruction, because you’ve shot at everything that’s worth shooting at.
On a number of occasions you found yourself arguing against what the Air Force wanted, and some Air Force people felt surprised and hurt. But you had been employed to do the same kind of analysis at RAND, which was an Air Force think tank. After they’d been paying you to do this for years, how did it happen that they were surprised?
To the credit of General LeMay and other Air Force leaders, they had left RAND people with a lot of freedom to call the shots as they saw them; at RAND in those days, we were not strongly constrained to follow the Air Force party line. For example, a RAND study of the Polaris weapon system in the late fifties said to the Air Force, in effect, “This is a good weapon system—don’t fight it, because it’s really an important contribution to national defense.”
As I look back on it now, I can see that part of the price of that freedom was that we were giving confidential advice to the Air Force. We didn’t talk to the press, nor did we talk to the Army or the Navy. Our thinking was not even widely disseminated in the Air Force, although it was available at headquarters. I think the surprising thing, for them and for us, was when people like myself who had been working for RAND suddenly found themselves working for the Secretary of Defense.
The immediate precedent for the work you did at the Defense Department was the civilian research on military problems carried out during World War II, first by the British and then by the Americans. What are the earlier precedents? Did George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have the kind of help American leaders have had since World War II?
I don’t doubt that there have been many applications of “quantitative common sense” down through the ages. But the idea of independent civilian expertise on military topics, and the use of advanced methods of quantitative analysis on broad policy issues, were quite new with the RAND Corporation and McNamara’s Pentagon.
One of the first things you did at the Defense Department was to try to make it possible to compare the estimated costs of a project with the actual costs. Since your time, has there been any useful passing along of wisdom on those problems, or are people just as astonished about huge cost overruns as they were in the past?
The first thing to understand is that it’s not really a matter of astonishment. The game was, and unfortunately still is, to understate the costs in order to get the weapon sold—to tell the Congress that it will cost a billion dollars when you know it will cost ten billion.
We tried to improve methods of cost estimation so that we would have our own independent estimates before making a decision to go ahead with something. On some weapon systems, like the B-70 or the antiballistic missile system, our own cost estimates were considerably higher than what the military service in question was estimating. We informed the secretary of our estimates; a weapon system that might be a good deal at five billion might be a very bad deal at forty billion.