The List: The World’s Biggest Military Boondoggles
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has taken drastic measures recently to cut the Pentagon's bloated weapons projects. But other countries are struggling with their own defense albatrosses, too.
TYPE 45 DARING-CLASS DESTROYER
Budget: $10.6 billion for six ships
The plan: Advertised as the “world’s most advanced warship” by defense contractor BAE Systems, the T45 is the Royal Navy’s next-generation air defense platform. The destroyers will be armed with the newly developed Primary Anti-Air Missile System, whose surface-to-air Aster missiles are said to be capable of destroying a fist-sized target traveling at Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, from 19 miles away.
But this destroyer’s problems more than match its ballyhooed capabilities. The T45 has been plagued by delays and massive cost overruns — the project is two years behind schedule and 29 percent more expensive than estimates initially suggested. The HMS Daring, Britain’s first T45, was rushed into service late last year without a missile system — all but crippling the ship — and won’t be fully operational until as late as 2011. Recent reports suggest the Ministry of Defence wants to put a T45 in the Thames River during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games to ward off any attempts at an airborne terrorist attack.
SS-NX-30 BULAVA SUBMARINE-LAUNCHED BALLISTIC MISSILE
Budget: $500 million and counting
The plan: Russia’s minister of defense hopes to have this missile operational by the end of 2009, but even after 10 years of work, it’s still not clear the kinks have been ironed out. A variant of the land-based Topol-M missile, the Bulava is a three-stage projectile with a theoretical range of 8,000 kilometers. Allegedly hardened against electromagnetic, physical, and radioactive interference, and possibly capable of making in-flight evasive maneuvers, the missile is touted by some supporters as unstoppable.
The Bulava can carry up to 10 nuclear warheads, each with a 150-kiloton yield. It was created in part to modernize the sea-based arm of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, but mostly to restore the country’s pride and self-confidence after the political and economic instability of the 1990s. The missile’s only downside may be that it just doesn’t work. Out of the Bulava’s 11 flight tests, six — including the latest one this month — have failed. Back to the drawing board.
THE 085 AND 089 PROJECTS
Status: In development
The plan: The Chinese are known to have considered a domestic aircraft-carrier program in the past, and have even purchased old Soviet-era carriers to take apart and examine. Beijing made waves in April when it announced ambitious plans to construct its own “large surface-combat ships” and other sophisticated naval weapons systems as part of a massive ongoing modernization campaign. The government claims it will finish two carriers in the next decade: a lighter, 60,000-ton craft (“085 Project”) by 2010, which would house between 30 and 40 J-10 fighter jets — or 10-20 Russian Su-33s — and the big kahuna (“089 Project”), a world-class, 93,000-ton nuclear-powered super carrier for 2020.
But can China deliver? Critics say the country has neither the technology nor the skills nor the time to achieve its targets. It could conceivably field a small carrier fairly soon — a military hardware expo on July 4 revealed mock-ups closely resembling a Soviet Kuznetsov-class vessel. That type of carrier, however, doesn’t feature the steam catapults necessary to launch heavier, more sophisticated planes off the deck. China would have to design such a system from scratch or modify its existing maglev technology to fit. The albatross potential here is considerable.
Budget: $4.7 billion and counting
The plan: The French Navy is eager to procure a second aircraft carrier to replace two that were scrapped in recent years. The asbestos-infested FNS Clemencau (pictured) was decomissioned in 1997, and the Foch was sold to Brazil in 2000. With a displacement of 75,000 tons, the Porte-Avions 2, known as the PA2 for short, will likely be powered by electric engines and should have room to carry roughly 50 aircraft. The project began as a joint effort between France and Britain, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy withdrew from the agreement last year, saying he wouldn’t make a final decision about ordering a new carrier until 2011.
Critics complain that postponing the PA2 project would leave France without a single carrier when the FNS Charles de Gaulle gets a refit starting in 2015. But the delays could actually play to the country’s advantage. The PA2 was to use Britain’s experimental Queen Elizabeth-class design — an unpopular architecture that ruled out any possibility of a nuclear-powered engine.
New design studies being conducted this year suggest that France might ultimately reject the British design altogether, start from scratch, and include all the features it wanted the first time around. The bad news? France has allocated only $280 billion to its entire defense procurement budget for the next decade, and 30 percent of that will already have been spent by the time Sarkozy makes up his mind.
A400M TRANSPORT AIRCRAFT
Budget: $27.7 billion
The plan: Under a contract awarded to the European Aeronautic Defense and Space company, the A400M military transport aircraft is being designed for nine countries. The plane boasts four special turboprop engines (allegedly the largest ever made in the West) and can take off and land on short runways. It is built to hold as many as 120 soldiers in full battle gear, up to 66 stretchers for evacuating the wounded, or nine military cargo pallets.
But the versatile plane isn’t going anywhere fast. Nearly 200 of them are on order, yet the project is almost four years overdue and $7 billion over budget. At this point, the nine customers could cancel their orders, get a partial refund amounting to $8.5 billion, and reinvest it in much cheaper American C-130Js. But they won’t, because while the contract doesn’t explicitly contain a “buy European” clause, this is the European Union’s opportunity to prove it has its act together on defense. It may have to wait a while.