It Won't Fly

EVEN as US forces ready for battle in the Gulf, Washington strives to keep military spending within bounds. A major skirmish in the latter campaign took place last week. Pentagon chief Richard Cheney decided to cancel the A-12 carrier-based warplane, and defense contracting may never be the same. The A-12 project could have absorbed $57 billion in federal money and generated big earnings for General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas. Instead, these defense industry giants face the prospect of laying off some 9,000 workers involved in designing and constructing the radar-evading plane.

Mr. Cheney knew the economic and political impact of his decision. But he also knew that despite layoffs and hardships to the companies, the time had come to send a sharp signal that the budget-busting procurement practices of the past must stop. For years, arms builders have been bidding unrealistically low to win a contract, then making up the difference as the Pentagon called for expensive changes in design.

General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas are right when they argue that a fixed-bid approach to building advanced-technology weaponry like the A-12 and other stealth planes was a mistake. The companies hadn't mastered the technology involved and they didn't really know how much the project would cost.

But from the taxpayer's point of view, and Cheney's, that hardly excuses the inability to come even close to estimates and production schedules. No does it excuse the efforts of some Pentagon higher-ups - now ex-higher-ups - to so fuzz the issues that the defense secretary was put in the position of unknowingly conveying falsehoods to Congress.

Is the A-12 cancellation likely to be the first in a series? It's possible, but even as Cheney grounded one pricey piece of hardware, he said its replacement would also need night-flying, radar-evading capabilities. That sounded like a step right back into the same high-tech quagmire. Alternatives would be less costly redesigns of planes the Navy has been using for years, like the F-14 or FA-18. That certainly would fall short of the military's desires, but today's budget environment demands that Pentagon wish lists be trimmed.

Above all, the A-12 cancellation should impel serious rethinking in government and in corporate board rooms about the way weapon systems are conceived and paid for. For a starter, the Pentagon should consider better ways of assuring that a firm has a demonstrated grasp of a technology before signing it up to build a specific weapon reliant on that technology.

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