A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, another military superpower spent way too much money on massive planet-busting weapons that didn’t work well. Maybe the Defense Department could learn something from this before it finds an X-wing crammed up its thermal-exhaust port.
Meet the biggest cautionary tale in the world of defense procurement: the Death Star. Thanks to the Pentagon’s in-house acquisition journal, Defense AT&L Magazine — not usually a venue for fan fic — we have a detailed explanation as to why. Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Ward provides a nerdy-but-accurate examination of the Empire’s acquisition flaws in building the moon-sized death ray:
In the Star Wars universe, robots are self-aware, every ship has its own gravity, Jedi Knights use the Force, tiny green Muppets are formidable warriors and a piece of junk like the Millennium Falcon can make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. But even the florid imagination of George Lucas could not envision a project like the Death Star coming in on time, on budget.
But it was entirely predictable. A project so big and complex, Ward writes, will invariably stretch the oversight capabilities of acquisition staff. In this case, it led to manufacturing delays and prevented the Empire from realizing that one of its thermal-exhaust ports was a de facto self-destruct button.
Moreover, for all the expense poured into it – $15.6 septillion and 94 cents, to be precise — the Death Star is destroyed twice, and in its two iterations only ever manages to get off a few shots.
Star Wars holds lessons about what to buy as well as what not to. Ward contends that the humble droid mechs represent a better acquisition path than Death Stars. They’re sturdy, battle-tested systems that are affordable and live up to their billing.
R2D2’s better at flight maintenance than taking out planets, but at 4,245 Republic Credits, he’s undeniably a bargain. By contrast, the Empire didn’t end up getting much use out of the Death Star, for all it spent on it.
Anyone who’s paid attention to the Defense Department’s acquisitions woes will get Ward’s point. Really expensive weapons that we haven’t gotten much use out of? Check.
Gigantic laser beam faced with delays and overspending? Take a look at the Flying Lightsaber.
Hopelessly complex and expensive systems? Try Future Combat Systems.
Ward’s analysis of Imperial weapons-buying flubs can be read as a reiteration of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ approach to acquisition. Buy the weapons that work. Buy the weapons that are relevant to the threats at hand, and the most likely ones of the near future. Big isn’t always beautiful. Practical is.
If the rumors of another round of Star Wars sequels are true, maybe we can look forward to watching the Empire go bankrupt after convincing itself to buy two Death Stars, on the theory that different models will drive down costs.