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Charles Seife Headshot

A Military Fable

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It might seem that four hundred billion dollars doesn't go as far as it used to. On Friday, the Pentagon grounded all of its brand new and enormously expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter planes -- and that's not the most embarrassing defense-project news this year. A report released earlier this year revealed that the Navy's newest ship has run aground, their radar-destroying missile has (classified) deficiencies that make it virtually useless, and the Army's new mine-resistant ambulance won't be able to carry any soldiers taller than 5-foot-11. Business as usual.

Big defense projects have a long and storied history of going awry. As this recently unearthed Aesop fable shows, it's a problem that's been around for millennia.


Once upon a time, there were three little pigs. Out in the open, they were terribly vulnerable to an attack by the big bad wolf, so they decided to build houses.

The first little pig said, "I'll build my house out of straw." The second little pig said, "I'll build my house out of sticks." The third little pig said, "I know... let's pool our resources and design a shelter that can suit all our needs. We can protect ourselves and then sell versions to all our allies so they can all be safe from the emerging wolf threat."

The first little pig said, "Great idea! But we've got to do this right. In the modern wolf-fighting environment, a house needs to be stealthy. Otherwise wolves will be able to see us for miles around." The second little pig nodded, and chimed in, "Stealth makes sense, but if our design's going to keep us safe, the house needs to be maneuverable. There's rumors that Baba Yaga is working on a hut with legs. To compete with that, our house needs vertical takeoff and cruise control or we're just sitting ducks." The third pig said, "Fine. But the most important thing is that the house needs to operate in littoral environment, as that's where the wolf power is going to be concentrated in the second half of the century."

As soon as they agreed on the specs for their new home, the pigs put out a request for proposals. A well-known nest builder, Robin of Loxheed, eventually got the contract. The Joint Next-Generation House-X would cost a pretty penny, but the design was a real beaut -- it had depleted uranium construction with reactive armor, an integrated predator-sensing suite, the latest laser AHAP (anti-huffing/anti-puffing) countermeasures, and a whole lot more. The pigs ordered 36.

Of course, there were a few cost overruns; what else would you expect? After a few design changes -- and a delay or two -- the prototype was ready.

Just in time. With no warning, the wolf was at the door. (The predator-sensing suite wasn't combat-ready, having accidentally led to the demise in trials of four innocent hedgehogs, a badger, and a magpie -- who, quite frankly, shouldn't have been on the proving grounds in the first place.) Not the front door, but the tiny aluminum emergency hatch that was installed after engineers discovered that the the massive armor-clad front entrance wouldn't open if conditions were rainy or if the outside temperature rose above 86 degrees Fahrenheit. The lock on the hatch was scheduled to be installed in the third quarter of next year (the original design led to corrosion), so the wolf wiggled right in, catching the three pigs completely unaware.

Luckily, the chimney was functional, and the three little pigs clambered up as fast as they could. The wolf, having grown a little too thick around the middle over the years, got stuck. As the wolf struggled to free himself, the pigs scurried away into the woods, cursing Robin of Loxheed under their breath -- and vowing to downsize their order of Joint Next-Generation Houses to 24 units.

Moral: when defense and pork are allowed to mix, you're better off living in the sticks.