What with the large budget cuts for domestic programs and the substantial increases for defense, the cry will soon be up for defense procurement reform. More competition will save money, right? And by the way, why does it take the Defense Department so god-awful much time to get weapons built and deployed? While you're at it, Cap, fix that too, will you?

The problem is, however, that an ideal method of defense procurement, rascal that it is, always seems to duck out of sight just as we come around the corner upon it. Say one secretary of defense tries to speed up a few programs, so the tanks won't be obsolete by the time they're deployed. But before you know it, something goes wrong -- cost too high, the engines inhale sand -- and everybody jumps on the poor gent for inadequate planning, foreshortened testing and insufficient competition. Clearly that guy didn't understand defense procurement.

So his successor sweeps clean, and decrees that there will always be a careful pace -- no early procurement until all development is completed -- and all kinds of testing to make sure eager-beaver program managers are not rushing into any problems. And while we're at it, the new secretary decides, we'll pay for several different companies to develop each weapon to encourage competition and really hold those defense contractors' feed to the fire before they get a big procurement contract. A few years later, enthusiasm for his reforms begin to wane as people begin to see that we have spent all our money on lots of competitive prototypes and elaborate tests, but the tanks and aircraft that are actually out with our troops are being handed down from father to son while the Soviets snicker and point from their shiny new turrets and cockpits.

Off with the secretary's head, and let's have some adequate planning around here, comes the cry. His successor is a manager, from the Harvard Business School by golly, and he tells us firmly that -- instead of staging competitions among prototype weapons, which takes a lot of time and money -- we'll do it all with paper. We'll have lots of review boards to grade and score industry's written proposals, and everybody will do scads of computer simulations. While they're at it, Congress and OMB join in, they can all file Arms Control Impact Statements, Mission Element Need Statements, Environmental Impact Statements and Impact Impact Statements, and we'll get some rationality into this process. As the delays get worse and the costs go up, the nation turns its weary eyes to a new secretary of defense, who will take charge and speed up a few programs, so the tanks won't be obsolete by the time they're deployed . . .

A stylized tale, perhaps, but the point is that more messes have been created in defense procurement over the years by the ideologically fervent, trumpeting one or another universal reform and thus overcorrecting for the mistakes of their predecessors, than by any other members of the military-industrial-congressional menage.

For example, a few years ago -- in the name of bringing hard-nosed cost-conscious business mamagement to shipbuilding -- the civilians in the Office of the Secretary of Defense forced the Navy into a new way of buying ships, called "Total Package Procurement." Neglecting that they were dealing with a brand-new shipyard that was using extremely innovative modular building techniques and that was having predictable problems in finding an experienced labor force (in Pascagoula, Miss.), the procurement reformers got control of those stodgy old admirals and taught them a thing or two about management. The Navy, for the first time was required to obtain a single firm fixed price for an entire class of dozens of ships whose construction would span many years.

Chaos ensued, for a number of reasons, but the rigidity of the reformers' rigidity of the reformers' dream contract both magnified the confusion and crippled the search for solutions for nearly a decade. The lesson, however, is not that one should never use such fixed-price contracts -- just that that kind of fixed-price contract doesn't work for shipbuilding. Development and procurement techniques should vary enormously for different weapons and diifferent states of the relevant technologies. Ecclesiastes, as usual, has it right -- to all things there is a season: a time to run development and procurement concurrently, and a time to pause and test; a time to squeeze costs, and a time to push capabilities; a time to start fresh, and a time to modify what already have.

There is no bright new idea that can substitute for putting able and experienced people in charge of weapons development and procurement, people who know the business who have a feel for these nuances. Yes, oversee them from the White House and Congress the way any good board of directors would -- make sure they are pursuing the nation's objectives, not those of the bureaucracies beneath them. Fire them if they foul up. But don't take up all of your time, and theirs, fiddling with the details of their jobs and trying to get them to treat the procurement of everything the same way.

Above all, keep in mind the only known statement about military procurement that is both brief and true -- enunciated, remarkably enough, by a lawyer (addressing another subject): "Man was born to formulate general propositions," Holmes wrote, "and none of them was ever worth a damn." g