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Here's What the Pentagon's Top Cost Estimator Has to Say About the Death Star

VICE News asks the head of the Pentagon's cost assessment shop about the Death Star, the Empire, droids and what they tell us about buying weapons in the real world.

by Ryan Faith
Dec 21 2015, 3:20pm

Photo by Hanz Klaus Techt/European Pressphoto Agency

The Pentagon's office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, occasionally referred to as the Pentagon's bean counters, helps (or tries to help) the Department of Defense keep a lid on costs by vetting or challenging the cost estimates provided elsewhere in the department. If you think the Pentagon's programs are heinously expensive, you can only imagine what they'd be without anyone double-checking the numbers.

The office, known as CAPE, is run under the leadership of Dr. Jamie Morin, a civilian whose position is considered equivalent to a four-star general, the highest peacetime military rank. Morin, who is just a bit past 40, has been overseeing the office for about a year and half. Prior to his time at CAPE, he was Comptroller of the Air Force, where he earned the nickname "Darth Vader." Which actually works out well, because he's known to be a big fan of Star Wars. Which also happens to be our good luck, since he has agreed to share some insights with VICE News on what Star Wars can tell us about buying really, really big and expensive weapons systems that have a hard time living through a two-hour movie, and whether the saga is all a parable about the need for good human resources and vendor management practices.

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VICE News: According to one estimate, the Death Star (a.k.a. DS-1 Orbital Battle Station) cost $193 quintillion ($193,000,000,000,000,000,000) before it could even waft out of its space dock. Yet the flyaway cost of a vehicle isn't really where the big expense comes in: a lot of that comes from crewing and ongoing maintenance. One analysis puts the tally of the total number of people on board at 1,556,296 (plus another 843,342 dependents and non-crew personnel). Given that you're not just paying wages, but room, board, air, and water, what's a range (or at least a bound) for the full cost of the Death Star, counting the way the Pentagon does costs for major systems?

Jamie Morin: Well, let me start by noting that we don't have the engineering level of detail we would like in order to produce a reliable cost estimate on either building or operating a DS-1 Orbital Battle Station. You are absolutely right that the operations and support costs are always a substantial part of a weapon system's true costs, and that, at least here on Earth, we have traditionally had a hard time predicting those costs. I have no reason to believe it was any easier a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. I'd also note that authoritarian regimes often have just as hard a time getting reliable data for costs as we do, though Force powers might help.

Recently, the Department of Defense has been working very hard to get a hold of those costs, helped by some legislation from our Senate, the Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009. Obviously, we understand the costs after we have a system, but to make the best possible decisions about what to buy in the future, we need to be able to project those costs. My team has stood up an office dedicated to operating and support costs, and we're working with each of the military services to track and capture the data of what's causing costs in the operating of current systems to give us a true data-based way to forecast future costs.

It's those efforts that have led to the F-35 being called a trillion-dollar program. It's not that the aircraft themselves cost $1 trillion, it's that the cost to own and operate a plane intended to replace a large swath of our existing planes will tie up lots of the Department's money for a long time to come. A trillion is not as big a number as a quintillion, but it's still a lot of money.

Historically, we have seen operations costs for our major systems come in roughly between 50 and 70 percent of the total cost of buying and maintaining that system, with ships generally coming in at the top of that range. If we think of the Death Star as a ship, and we accept the previously published $193 quintillion acquisition cost estimate, then $300 quintillion might be in the right range for a lifecycle cost estimate. However, it's important to note that lifecycle cost estimates for weapons systems depend heavily on how long you intend to keep that system in your inventory. Based on the Empire's past experience, they may not want to assume that they can keep their orbital battle stations around very long.

VN: Aside from some absolutely wicked capabilities against Hardened and Deeply-Buried Targets, the Death Star seems like bit of overkill, only really justifiable as a weapon of mass deterrence. Once you add in the costs for operations, maintenance, personnel, and all that, it's a pretty hairy number. Is the Death Star evidence of an Imperial requirements process in dire need of discipline?

JM: Here in the Pentagon, we need to be careful about casting stones about a requirements process in need of discipline, although I think we have made progress in recent years. I'd be interested in seeing the Empire's Analysis of Alternatives for the DS-1, since it doesn't seem like they really considered all the options at their disposal for subjugating entire systems, and like the president, I don't endorse the destruction of entire planets.

The Empire's Death Star projects also run counter to one of the most important moves the current US Secretary of Defense is taking with our acquisition system: focusing on payloads, not platforms. With the Death Star, it's one platform with one weapon. And that one platform takes a huge amount of infrastructure and is really only good for one mission.

If we can get to the point where instead of trying to make every single platform exquisite, we buy a workable vehicle that we can then add on new sensors, weapons, and incremental upgrades, we will have a much more flexible platform, as well as an easier acquisition task. The archetypes here are the B-52 bomber, which we bought 50 years ago to deliver nuclear weapons but in recent years has been flying with smart bombs and cruise missiles for conventional fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, or what special operations forces have done with the C-130.

Another current example is the Virginia-class submarine. That sub is a substantial but not revolutionary upgrade on the Los Angeles-class submarines that we built in the 1980s. But now we are taking that base sub and adding new modules that can carry more missiles and other capabilities, and we keep improving its sensors to make it even more effective.

VN: Given that such a big slice of the total costs of ownership for the Death Star comes from crewing it, do you see the increased use of droids, like R2D2, or the 400,000 support droids on the Death Star, as the way to go in the future to help manage costs? 

JM: There is no question there's a chance to lower costs by relying on droids, or automation more broadly. A lot of time gets spent speculating on autonomy and its ramifications for warfare, but unmanned vehicles also allow us to change how we do a lot of critical support stuff. For instance, a large amount of our equipment is tied up for training troops on it. That's hugely important; it's one of the great advantages the US has: few nations have the resources to give their military members even close to the kind and quality of training that we do in the US.

But all this training requires a lot of time and money. If there's not a person physically sitting in an airplane for training, we don't need as many airplanes devoted solely to training that person. And then we don't need as many people maintaining those training airplanes we don't need anymore. And so on. The rise of unmanned systems is likely to initiate some changes that we haven't yet begun to understand. One thing does seem certain — if our future droids are anything like the R2D2 toys that I played with as a kid, we're going to need to buy a lot more AA batteries.

VN: There is a disturbing lack of railings and personnel protection gear in Imperial facilities. You've got 1.5 million people on the Death Star, and all those corridors and canyons without any non-skid flooring and rails. On one hand, the Empire may have saved in design and construction by not dealing with any Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, but on the other hand, couldn't you save a bundle in personnel replacement costs by just putting in some basic safety features?

JM: I am confident the Empire's personnel policies are pretty coercive, and Episode VII just confirmed my supposition. In the US, we're 40 years into the all-volunteer force, where only volunteers join our military, and it has been a huge success. But we're still continually working on how to make the most of our people, and how to keep military service attractive to the best and brightest in our society. One of the things Secretary Ash Carter has [done] is look at how to make the military attractive to people who may not want to spend their whole life in uniform but who have skills that will serve our nation well. It's something we constantly need to work on. Also, we do have handrails in the Pentagon.

VN: Finally, if there's one thing that stands out about the Empire's personnel management practices, it's Darth Vader's extremely robust zero-defects policy for his top leadership. Using the Force to telekinetically strangle people for failing and then filling the freshly-vacated posts with bystanders is arguably the most aggressive implementation imaginable of policies like the Pentagon's "up or out." Are there lessons the Pentagon should take from Lord Vader's management style?

JM: I admit to having sat in some of the Pentagon's famously long meetings and tried to see if I happened to have gained the ability to telekinetically choke out a really boring briefer. It hasn't worked yet.

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Of course, in the spirit of avoiding spoilers or ruining other movie surprises, VICE News won't be betting on any procurement lessons from the newest installment in the Star Wars series, but don't think we're not keeping some questions in mind for the next round. Among other things, was taking receipt of an entire clone army (in the prequels) without seeing any sort of contract or specifications a really bad idea? Does it explain why they can't shoot straight?