OPINION | Pentagon only just beginning to repair delays to major weapons programs

Cutting one aircraft carrier. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier John C. Stennis arrived in Newport News in May 2021 for an overhaul and refueling that typically takes four years. Last week, news broke in budget documents sent to Congress that the carrier will need to be out of commission for another 14 months. That means the Stennis won’t be able to return to duty until October 2026, more than five years after it arrived.

Delays have been the Pentagon’s dance partner all spring. One weapons program after another has slipped behind production schedules, costing taxpayers more and reducing military readiness. The problems stem from selecting systems that are too complex, sophisticated and expensive to maintain, and relying on a small number of prime contractors with little competition. On June 17, the Government Accountability Office, in its annual review of 76 major procurement programs, said the Pentagon has been “alarmingly slow” in getting weapons to the services.

Consider these warnings: In an extraordinary public report in April, Secretary of the Navy Carlos del Toro announced: Nine The Navy’s ship programs, including the new Columbia, have been delayed by one to three years.Del Toro specifically blamed delaying contractors — General Dynamics Electric Boat, Huntington Ingalls Industries and Fincantieri Marine — and even suggested the US should consider building some of its warships overseas.

Delays are similarly rife in the Air Force. The first flight of a new intercontinental ballistic missile, named Sentinel, is already two years behind schedule, and its price tag, once touted at $100 billion, has jumped another 37 percent. The news prompted a little-used Reagan-era law requiring Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to certify that the program is worth pursuing. Meanwhile, the Air Force’s new trainer plane is more than two years behind schedule, and the service has halved its 2025 purchase to help manufacturer Boeing catch up.

Deliveries of Boeing’s new KC-46 Pegasus tankers were halted earlier this year due to problems with the refueling boom, one of several delays plaguing the aircraft vital to U.S. military presence around the world, and dozens of F-35 fighter jets are parked at Lockheed Martin facilities awaiting a long-delayed software upgrade.

Breaking the hammerlock that a few prime contractors have on the Pentagon’s budgets and schedules will not be easy. Del Toro is right to urge Congress to buy more ships and their subsystems from fast-moving foreign manufacturers. Lawmakers such as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) are right to urge the Navy to move some shipbuilding away from overcrowded shipyards on the coasts and instead utilize smaller civilian facilities along the Great Lakes, where the shortage of skilled labor is less acute.

Inside the Pentagon, there are clear signs that prime contractor profits are slowing. In April, the Air Force terminated a 50-year contract with Boeing, instead hiring a Reno-based company called Sierra Nevada to build its next-generation command and control aircraft, known as the Doomsday. Pentagon officials like to talk about “off-the-shelf” equipment, but Sierra Nevada has done more than that: It has bought five of the planes. Already used The Korean Air 747 has been modified and is currently undergoing maintenance to prepare it for the mission.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Randy A. George deserves credit for canceling the new reconnaissance helicopter program in February. He also deserves credit for pointing out that the aircraft’s missions “can be accomplished more cheaply and effectively” by relying on unmanned and space-based sensors. In May, the Space Force canceled a contract with RTX (formerly Raytheon) for a missile warning satellite because of delays and cost overruns. And it was encouraging this month when two Defense Department agencies named four small businesses to build a new armed drone that can fly 500 miles using commercially available systems. “Widening the opening to include more nontraditional aerospace companies is our best opportunity to meet our per-unit cost targets, project timelines and production volume goals,” a Defense Department official said.

The move to consider anything other than prime contractors is long overdue and welcome, but in a Pentagon that plans to spend nearly $1 trillion on defense next year, it will be the exception, not the rule.

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