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The Navy wants to kill the Snakehead drone. Why won’t Congress let it die?

The half-baked undersea military program is set to cost taxpayers more than $500 million over the next five years.

Reporting | Military Industrial Complex

Hopes were high for the Snakehead. The innovative underwater drone was meant to save a lot of headaches for the Navy, scouting ahead of fleets and reporting back on potential dangers in the murky depths. Many thought it could also trick enemy radar or even fire torpedoes and missiles — no small feat for a vehicle that would keep American soldiers well out of harm’s way.

But, as practical problems reared their ugly head, the Pentagon decided the state-of-the-art drone was too good to be true. In its budget request for next year, the Navy asked Congress to scrap the program, saying that the move would save more than 500 million dollars over the next five years. The House accepted the request, leaving the Snakehead off its budget authorization bill.

But the Senate Armed Services Committee had other plans. Arguing that the Snakehead "could provide an important capability to the fleet once fielded," the panel allocated 100 million dollars for next year to fund more research on the program.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the committee and namesake of the bill, defended the move as forward-looking in a statement to Responsible Statecraft. "It’s Congress’s job to ensure the Department of Defense doesn’t make pennywise, pound-foolish decisions," Inhofe said. "[Underwater drones] have potential; the Pentagon just needs sound systems engineering and a little creativity."

The situation may seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, shouldn’t the Pentagon be the one fighting to keep all of its options open? But experts say that Congress’s incentives can change once programs reach a certain level of development, leading lawmakers to keep projects on life support despite serious concerns about their effectiveness.

“Congress, in general, is reluctant to cancel ongoing programs that are being developed and built,” said Dan Grazier, a senior defense policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight. “Because systems that are being developed and built have a constituency in the form of the contractors and, quite frankly, the political representatives for the areas in which the work is being done.”

Miriam Pemberton, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and an expert on Pentagon spending, agrees.

“When Congress steps in to inflate these budgets even more, despite what the defense establishment is saying we need to secure ourselves, then you're looking at congresspeople who are just interested in getting more Pentagon money for their districts,” Pemberton said. “This is completely endemic to the process every single year.”

The Snakehead is still early on in its development, and the Pentagon has not yet awarded a contract to produce the drone, making it unclear which districts stand to gain the most from the program. But experts say the device would most likely be built in Connecticut, which is well-known for its submarine production.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who sits on the committee that hopes to save the Snakehead and has previously voted for higher defense spending, did not respond to a request for comment.

A Navy spokesperson declined to comment on the legislation but said that the service’s budget request is “strategy-based, analytically driven, and reform-minded to maximize the value of every dollar entrusted to us by our American taxpayers.”

Ship-building boondoggles

The Snakehead is far from the first program to get love from Congress despite doubts about its utility. Take, for example, the Zumwalt-class destroyer. Originally meant to focus on shore bombardment, the highly advanced ship earned cheerleaders on Capitol Hill. This support came in no small part from the fact that two separate shipyards — one in Maine and one in Mississippi — would be kept afloat by the project, according to Mark Thompson of POGO.

Costs for the battleships quickly ballooned as contractors worked to outfit the vessels with as much cutting-edge technology as possible. But all of those bells and whistles ended up turning the ship into a disaster. The final version has been riddled with technological issues, famously breaking down in the Panama Canal during the ship’s first trip to its home base in San Diego.

The Navy never asked to scrap the program completely, but it did drop its request for 30 of the destroyers down to just three in the late 2000s. Congress demurred, likely out of hopes that it could squeeze some value out of a program that would now cost almost eight billion dollars per ship

The Littoral Combat Ship faced a similar path. The vessel has been plagued by mechanical issues but kept afloat by contractors and friendly lawmakers. In the end, the Navy decided to cut its request from 55 ships down to 35, at least four of which have already been retired. The final cost for each LCS was 600 million dollars, a far cry from the initial 200 million dollar estimate.

But even among these recent examples, the Snakehead stands out. Unlike other programs, the Navy was ready to jettison the whole thing — not just cut production down to a fraction of the original proposal. That seems to be a bridge too far for Congress, according to Grazier.

“It's really rare to see a program in development get completely canceled to the point that it doesn't operate at all,” he said. 

“The Pentagon isn’t shy” 

The first Snakehead prototype was christened in February, raising hopes that the ambitious program was on the right track. But those hopes were quickly dashed due to practical concerns, and the Pentagon asked to scrap it only two months later.

According to the Navy, the problem is simple: There just aren’t enough submarines in service that have the technology to launch the underwater drone. Without enough launch pads, the Snakehead would be a lot less useful than its boosters would have hoped.

With the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Navy at odds about the program, only time will tell if the underwater drone will actually enter into production. The Snakehead revival will face two major hurdles in the coming months. First, it has to clear a floor vote in the Senate, then its boosters will have to persuade House leaders to come around on the program when the bill goes to conference.

Lawmakers should take this chance to jettison the program for good, argues Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“The Pentagon isn’t shy about asking for everything under the sun for weapons systems,” Ellis said. “So when they tell Congress that a system isn’t going to work and isn’t worth further investment, lawmakers should pay heed.”

Tevah Gevelber contributed reporting.

A Snakehead prototype being lowered into the water. (Editorial credit: NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs)
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