The death of Robert McNamara stirs thoughts about the past: Vietnam, Cuba and, yes, military acquisition policy. The USA's longest-serving secretary of defence, from 1961 to 1967, was also probably its most driven to reform how weapon systems were developed and produced. Unfortunately, much like his war legacy, any successes on the acquisition policy front are overwhelmed in memory by several notable failures.

McNamara inherited a Department of Defense in 1961 that had no systematic way of formulating and prioritising requirements to justify the expense of billions of dollars in annual spending on weapons. The former Ford chief executive and a team of "whiz kids" quickly developed a planning construct based on a five-year defence plan that remains a benchmark document even today.

McNamara's key objective in weapons spending was to create efficiencies by combining requirements, forcing an unwilling army, for example, to buy the air force's new-fangled M-16 rifle. This proved wise in the long run, but the rifle's early tendency to jam in mud led to tragic losses in the jungles of Vietnam.

Aerospace was a favourite target for McNamara. While his TFX fighter failed and his acquisition strategy for the C-5A led to scandal, both efforts carried the seeds of later acquisition reforms that proved effective after the military services were given time to adjust.

Source: Flight International