In a recent op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Arthur Herman suggested that the Pentagon's procurement woes could be solved (in part) by opening up the defense contracting business and putting civilian businessmen and entrepreneurs firmly in charge--just like we did in World War II.
Through the prism of history, American defense production in the Second World War has become the stuff of legend. Quickly ramping up for the effort, U.S. firms churned out an amazing amount of war material, enough to equip not only the 16 million Americans who served in our military, but tremendous quantities of planes, ships, tanks and guns that were used by our allies.
The list is both impressive and staggering: In just over three years, U.S factories built over 75,000 Sherman tanks, used by U.S., British and Soviet forces (among others). Our shipyards built two dozen Essex-class fleet carriers between 1942 and 1945, while airplane manufacturers produced thousands of fighter and attack aircraft that flew from their decks. To transport war goods to far-flung outposts, we cranked out one new Liberty ship every day. Automobile companies switched from producing cars to aircraft, allowing the us to manufacture almost 20,000 heavy bombers, far more than all the Axis powers combined. And the story was repeated over and over again, in every category of war implements. America truly was the Arsenal of Democracy that doomed facism to the ash heap of history.
Yet, while our war production was both historical (and military decisive), it wasn't necessarily innovative or revolutionary. The civilians who led the procurement effort were quite adept at manufacturing weapons that were efficient, reliable and easy to maintain, but in some cases, their products suffered from material or manufacturing defects, or they were vastly inferior to their enemy counterparts on the battlefield.
Consider the M-4 Sherman tank, the mainstay of allied armored forces in World War II. Developed just before Pearl Harbor, the Sherman was more than a match for German tanks inn the early days of the war. But thanks to Army obstinance and a procurement system focused more on production that system refinement, the Sherman quickly fell behind the next generation of German tanks, the Panther and the Tiger.
With their high-velocity 88mm main gun, the Tiger and Panther could make quick work of a Sherman. Most of the U.S.-built M-4s were equipped with a 75mm gun that could not penetrate the frontal armor of their foes. By the time of the Normany invasion, many U.S. armored units had to rely on air and artillery support to defeat Panzer units, along with the sheer number of Shermans on the battlefield.
In some battles, U.S. tank crews would gamely engage the German tanks head-on, while their colleagues maneuvered around to fire on the Panthers or Tigers from behind--the only area where armor on the German tanks was thin enough to be penetrated by a round from the Sherman's main gun. Meanwhile, an American model that was capable of fighting the Germans on equal terms (the M-26 Pershing) was delayed by development problems and outdated Army doctrine on the roles of tanks, tank destroyers and anti-tank guns in maneuver warfare. The British Army suffered similar problems with their Shermans; noting the M-4s tendency to catch fire, Brit tank crews nicknamed them "Ronsons," after the cigarette lighter that lit "first time, every time."
How inferior was the Sherman? Consider these statistics from the Third Armored Division, which fought its way from the hedgerows of France to the heart of the Third Reich. In eleven months of heavy fighting, the unit lost over 700 Shermans destroyed and many more that were damaged, but repaired and returned to service. The units cumulative tank loss rate from D-Day to VE Day was roughly 700 percent. Only the ready availability of replacement tanks and crews(and the ability of maintenance personnel to repair damaged Shermans) kept the division in the fight.
And the Sherman isn't the only example of poor procurement during the golden days of World War II. Confronted by mounting bomber losses over Europe, the civilian acquisition whizzes commissioned General Motors to develop a long-range escort fighter. What eventually emerged was something call the P-75 Eagle, an ungainly contraption that was cobbled together with components from other aircraft, complete with contra-rotating propellers. The P-75 never lived up to expectations and was mercifully cancelled, after someone else hit on the idea of putting a British Merlin engine in the P-51 Mustang, a fighter that no one initially wanted.
U.S. torpedoes represented another procurement debacle. Early in the war, it became evident that torpedoes fired by our submarines had serious problems; they ran "deeper" than programmed, causing many to pass harmlessly beneath their targets. And when they ran at the correct depth, their fusing often failed. During one engagement early in the war, a U.S. sub fired eight torpedoes at Japanese ships; only one torpedo functioned correctly. It wasn't until 1944 that the problems were fixed, and submarine crews finally had a reliable weapon to use against Japan's Navy and its merchant fleet.
Even the vaunted Liberty ships had their problems. Using modular construction techniques, the transport vessels were literally welded together, section by section. Many suffered from structural cracks due to poor welds and the low-grade steel used in structural components. Several Liberty ships actually broke up in heavy seas, carrying their crews to the bottom. Some merchant sailors dubbed them "Kaiser's coffins," after the industrialist who produced them.
To be fair, our procurement system produced far more successes than failures, and even the pre-war team created some remarkable weapons systems (the B-17 bomber comes to mind). But America's real genius was in our rapid transformation from a peacetime to a wartime economy, and the stunning output that ensued.
Could we do the same thing today? Sadly, the answer is "no." The weapons of today are infinitely more complex and the expertise to produce such implements rests with a handful of companies. During World War II, Newport News Shipbuilding was only one of several yards that could build an aircraft carrier. Today, when the Navy needs a new carrier, Newport News is the only company that can handle the job.
There's also the question of who might be interested enough to enter the defense sector. Many of today's high-tech companies already have a presence in the military IT sector. As for the hardware component, the recent trend has been towards consolidation, rather than expansion. It would take billions of dollars to create such an enterprise, with meager prospects for success.
Consider the sheer number of companies that produced aircraft for the military during World War II, a group that included Boeing, Vought, Lockheed, Grumman, North American, Douglas, McDonnell and Consolidated (among others). Today, only Boeing and Lockheed survive as aircraft manufacturers. Grumman, which merged with Northrop a few years back, is primarily a defense IT firm. The rest were absorbed by rivals--or went out of business--long ago.
Apple certainly has the resources and technical expertise to enter the defense sector, but why put up with a difficult customer when you can make billions selling iPods and iPads to consumers? Besides, most of Apple's manufacturing capability is located overseas, which doesn't mesh well with production of sensitive military hardware.