No More Defense Business As Usual

On Jan. 7, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney killed the A-12 Avenger Navy bomber, the biggest weapons system ever aborted by the Pentagon. The $52 billion-plus project was woefully behind schedule and massively over budget. But that has rarely stopped an arms project in the past. The s.o.p. has been that when a contractor runs into trouble, the government coughs up money to bail it out.

Cheney has signaled that those days are over. Scarcer dollars must be spent more carefully. And as the Soviet threat has receded, so has the pressure to churn out ever-more-technical weaponry no matter the cost.

Defenders of A-12 contractors McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics argue the Pentagon should never have required fixed-price contracts for a complicated project still in the development stage and riddled with a host of unknowns. But no one forced the companies to sign. It's commonly assumed in the defense establishment that the contractors knowingly underbid to win the development contract, expecting to make up any losses on the sales of finished planes. But they got caught short when the cold war thawed and expected orders were trimmed back while the A-12 development problems got worse. At that point, they sought their traditional government handout. And Cheney, to everyone's surprise, said no.

Waste and mismanagement are deeply ingrained in weapons procurement. That can't be changed without a serious commitment from the top. Cheney's decision signals he's prepared to make it.

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