A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Pesky Proper Nouns

Out on the campaign trail, John McCain has been criticizing Barack Obama for proposing cuts in defense spending. But his criticism relies on a potentially misleading quote. And we found that McCain is dinging Obama for reducing spending on a program that McCain plans to eliminate entirely.

CNN and MSNBC both report that McCain told supporters in Lee’s Summit, Mo., that:

McCain, Sept. 8: …during the primary he told a liberal advocacy group that he’d cut defense spending by tens of billions of dollars. He promised them he would, quote, “slow our development of future combat systems.”

McCain is referring to a message Obama recorded for Caucus4Priorities, a liberal group that advocates for lower defense spending. Here’s the full 1:35 message:

Cutting future combat systems? That does indeed sound alarming. But that’s mostly because it’s impossible to hear anyone speak a capital letter.

In an e-mail sent to reporters, the Obama campaign says that Sen. Obama was referring to Future Combat Systems (or FCS). FCS is an ambitious new, integrated computer and weapons system which would require an estimated 63.8 million lines of computer code, the complete replacement of the Army’s inventory of heavy tanks, light armor, and armored personnel carriers along with the development of entirely new unmanned drones. Army officials told The Washington Post last year that the $200 billion price tag makes the FCS “the most expensive Army weapons program ever.”

Unfortunately, at the moment, FCS is more theory than reality. A 2005 Government Accountability Office report delivered a blistering indictment of the program:

GAO, 2005: The FCS has demonstrated a level of knowledge far below that suggested by best practices or DOD policy. Nearly 2 years after program launch and about $4.6 billion invested to date, requirements are not firm and only 1 of over 50 technologies are mature-activities that should have been done before the start of system development and demonstration. If everything goes as planned, the program will attain the level of knowledge in 2008 that it should have had before it started in 2003. But things are not going as planned. Progress in critical areas, such as the network, software, and requirements has been slower than planned. Proceeding with such low levels of knowledge makes it likely that FCS will encounter problems late in development, when they are costly to correct. The relatively immature state of program knowledge at this point provides an insufficient basis for making a good cost estimate. Independent estimates should provide more information but are not yet completed. If the cost estimate for FCS is no more accurate than traditional estimates, the impact of cost growth could be substantial, given the program’s magnitude.

The Congressional Budget Office expressed worries about the program’s costs, noting that, according to the Defense Department’s projections, FCS would account for about half of the Army’s entire procurement budget by 2015 (while the equipment that FCS would replace has never accounted for more than 20 percent). What’s more, the CBO estimates that the actual costs may be as much as twice what the Army projects.

In fact, Obama isn’t the only senator running for president to have doubts about Future Combat Systems. In July, McCain economic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin gave The Washington Post a copy of McCain’s plan for balancing the budget. Among the proposed spending cuts was this one: “There are lots of procurements — airborne laser, Globemaster, Future Combat System — that should be ended.”