It wasn't that long ago that the U.S. essentially dominated the defense industry. From fighters and helicopters to airlifters and armored personnel carriers, the only reasons anyone did not buy American were that they couldn't afford it, were banned for being Communists, or they were trying to protect their own domestic capability, regardless of the cost to their taxpayers.

Some people still think that is still the picture today. It's not. In this issue, we look at international lightweight armor technologies (DT10) and the global use of autonomous vehicles at sea (DT4)—and it certainly doesn't seem that the U.S. is leading in either area. The first is fundamental to the future of protected vehicles and the second to the design and operation of surface combatants.

But the U.S. is still dominant in aviation, you may argue. The answer is, “for now.” The Joint Strike Fighter promises to continue the tactical aircraft reign for decades, but with no firm price, in-service date or operating cost predictions, “promise” is the operative word.

So how did the U.S. not retain near total dominance in defense advancements, despite the fact that it outspends the rest of the world on science and technology, development and production? The answer may lie in the wreckage of more than a half-dozen major U.S. programs in the last 20 years that burned billions of dollars and delivered a fraction of the promised capability, if at all. Consider the B-2, Comanche, Ground Combat Systems and the Zumwalt destroyer, just for starters.

To be sure, not many defense programs outside the U.S. have performed much better. The Typhoon, as one observer likes to put it, “will be great when it's finished”—a process that has taken more than 20 years to date. The U.K. has had to cut its Type 45 destroyer fleet in half. But at least Typhoon is in service with an active upgrade program (as are Rafale and Gripen) and the U.K. has twice as many Type 45s as the U.S. Navy will have DDG-1000 destroyers.

What, then, is the difference?

First, there is the sheer size of the U.S. military and the cost of always trying to outfit it with leading-edge technology. Force size is a decision above the acquisition planners' pay grade—but it is also not possible to indefinitely increase the capability of each aircraft, ship or vehicle without also increasing total program cost.

Nevertheless, there is a powerful temptation to pursue ambitious programs that promise more capability for the same or less money, and the failure to deliver this is where the death spiral begins.

Instead, with smaller numbers of programs, personnel and budget allocations, defense technology should be focusing on what is unique, such as signatures and aerodynamics, and harvesting what is not unique from other technology bases and supply chains, military and otherwise.

Even then, technology can't do the impossible. Adding a totally new capability to a system—stealth in an everyday tactical fighter, survivability to a Humvee replacement—is going to cost money. Force size may have to be reduced to pay for it, and the U.S. has been far more unwilling than other allies to do so.

In the end, it is folly to try to make technological magic compensate for the lack of a real national strategy, defined as “aligning goals with resources.” That is what got the U.S. and others where they are now, and it is not a good place.

—Bill Sweetman