Serving U.S. Army Lt. Colonel Danny Davis has been attracting notoriety following his courageous statement that senior military commanders have been systematically deceiving the American people about the war in Afghanistan. As he points out, breezy assertions of “momentum,” and “progress,” as well as “hard fought achievements,” are belied not only by his personal observations in the field but also by easily available public information, most strikingly the remorseless up-tick of casualty statistics and enemy attacks even after the “surge” of the last few years.
But Davis has also cited an example of official military mendacity unrelated to Afghanistan that deserves more attention, since it is part of a pattern that will not go away when the troops come home. In 2007 he was assigned to work on an enormous army weapons program known as Future Combat Systems. It consisted of an assortment of manned and unmanned air and ground vehicles linked by computer networks that could automatically identify enemy targets so unerringly, according to proponents, that our vehicles would need little armor.
Despite repeated test failures, witheringly chronicled in regular reports from the General Accounting Office, senior army commanders testified with equal regularity that all was well, even
displaying what was essentially a dummy in front of the Capitol as a “real” armored component of FCS. As Davis states in his leaked unclassified report “Dereliction of Duty,” when faced with “failure after failure in physical tests” the generals “willingly and knowingly misrepresented the matter to congress.” The program relieved taxpayers of some $20 billion before defense secretary Robert Gates finally cancelled it in 2009.
Unfortunately, procurement mendacity did not begin with that ill-starred program, nor, seemingly, did it end with its timely demise. Former inmates of the defense establishment may recall staunch official denials of bygone scandals such as the C-5A air transport cost overruns, memorably revealed by a senior air force management official, A. Ernest Fitzgerald – a commission of truth that promptly got him fired – or the Divad anti-aircraft gun, heroically defended by its army sponsors even after it mistook an outhouse fan for an enemy helicopter and ceased to function in wet weather.
It might be hoped that the urgent needs of our troops fighting in Afghanistan would spark a note of realism regarding the systems developed to help them. Sadly, such is not the case. The home-made bombs constructed with farm fertilizer and torch batteries that are the Taliban’s principal and devastatingly effective weapon have sparked many a multi-million dollar countermeasure on our part. One such is a surveillance system grandiosely christened Gorgon Stare. Developed at a cost of $320 million, and carried on Reaper drones, it allegedly enables us, as one air force general boasted when it was first unveiled, “to see everything” over a ten square-kilometer area, including insurgents planting bombs.
However, a December 2010 report on Gorgon Stare by a specialized air force testing unit, the 53D Wing at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, deemed the system “not operationally effective” and “not operationally suitable.” Its camera images could not distinguish humans from bushes, nor one vehicle from another. It had severe problems determining where it was. It broke down an average of 3.7 times per sortie. The testing unit strongly recommended it not be deployed. Undeterred by the news that their system didn’t work, the Air Force deployed Gorgon Stare to Afghanistan in February 2011, certainly not enough time to have fixed its major technological shortcomings. Nevertheless, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Larry James has declared without a blush that Gorgon Stare has been a “tremendous success since it was introduced last spring,” a claim that was repeated to me in response to detailed questions on whether the Air Force has overcome the fundamental problems unearthed by its own testers.
I emailed a marine currently deployed in the battleground of northern Helmand if his experience justified General James’ confidence. “I’ve never even heard of Gorgon Stare, let alone seen it in use,” he replied. “We’re essentially using the same technology that men used in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam to defeat mine and booby trap threats – the eyeball and metal detector.”
Withdrawal from Afghanistan must mean that commanders will not longer feel the need to claim battlefield successes that are not there. It would be nice to think that the compulsion to make no less misleading claims about vastly expensive weapons programs will also disappear, but history suggests otherwise.
ANDREW COCKBURN has been covering the US military for more than three decades. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org