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Reviewed: the Pentagon Wars – Reformers Challenge the Old Guard

This article was been published more than 6months ago. The information contained herein may be outdated.

Author: James G. Burton
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Year: 1993
ISBN: 9781612516004

I came to this book having thoroughly enjoyed the movie of the same name, expecting more of the same. While the salient points are present in the book, the book is quite serious in tone, whereas the movie is comedic all the way through, making the book a significantly different beast.

In the Pentagon Wars, Burton relates the story of how a small group of reformers within the officer ranks of the US military strove to effect fundamental change to how the US military performed procurement, from a larger sense of a need to shift battlefield tactics from the all-out assaults and war of attrition of the first world war, the Korean war, and the Vietnam war, to more adaptable and flexible maneuver warfare.

Through a series of examples spanning from the development of the F15 and F16 fighter jets to the Bradley Fighting Vehicle (described as “A troop transport that can’t carry troops, a reconnaissance vehicle that’s too conspicuous to do reconnaissance, and a quasi-tank that has less armour than a snow-blower, but carries enough ammo to take out half of D.C.”), Burton spins a tale that might very well be familiar to anyone dealing with public procurement projects.

In particular, it deals with the issues of confirmation bias and tests designed to yield the desired results, while overstating performance, understating costs, and professing exacting knowledge of how a weapons platform will perform in a given situation, while pointing out the real results, costs, and severe miscalculation of knowledge of how e.g. the Bradley would perform when hit.

Though the subject matter is dry, Burton is able to write an engaging and interesting book that educates the reader, not only on how things used to be done, but also sheds some light on how things are still done. A current example is the massive increase in weight for the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, compared to the F16, which is what it is slated to replace.

To his credit, Burton not only offers criticism, but also some real proposals for improvement which, had they been followed, would have benefited not only the US armed forces, but their allies around the world who use the same weapons platforms. Extensive reading lists and references to sources are also present, in the best of academic tradition.

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