The Pentagon Wars

The Pentagon Wars
Genre Comedy
Based on The Pentagon Wars
by Col. James G. Burton
Screenplay by Jamie Malanowski
and Martyn Burke
Directed by Richard Benjamin
Starring Kelsey Grammer
Cary Elwes
John C. McGinley
Olympia Dukakis
Richard Benjamin
Music by Joseph Vitarelli
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
Executive producer(s) Martyn Burke
Danny DeVito
Michael Shamberg
Stacey Sher
Gail Lyon (co-executive producer)
Producer(s) Howard Meltzer
Gary Daigler (co-producer)
Location(s) Washington, D.C.
Cinematography Robert Yedman
Editor(s) Jacqueline Cambas
Running time 1 h 43 min
Production company(s) HBO
Distributor HBO
Original network HBO
Original release
  • February 28, 1998 (1998-02-28)

The Pentagon Wars is a 1998 HBO film, directed by Richard Benjamin, based on a book of the same name (The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard) by Colonel James G. Burton, USAF (retired). Starring Kelsey Grammer, Cary Elwes and Richard Schiff, the film is a dark comedy describing the development of the M2 Bradley fighting vehicle.

Tagline: They aimed to build the ultimate fighting machine. They missed.


U.S. Army Major General Partridge (Grammer) appears before the House Armed Services Committee to defend his recent actions; the story is told mostly as a series of flashbacks:

In its latest effort to curtail excessive spending by The Pentagon, Congress appoints an outsider, USAF Lieutenant Colonel James Burton (Elwes) to observe the testing of several new weapons in development, including the Bradley. Burton reports to General Partridge, who is overseeing the Bradley.

Portrayed as an innocent, Burton quickly becomes disillusioned by the "real" way the development process works, in an atmosphere of corruption and/or bureaucratic inefficiency.


Insisting on getting fully up to speed on the Bradley, Burton delves into the mountains of paper documenting the Bradley's development history:

Originally developed as an armored personnel carrier to replace the M113 by Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Smith (Schiff), the Bradley is subjected to changing (and often conflicting) demands by a panel of armchair generals. Over the course of several years the vehicle is transformed into a hybrid of a troop carrier, a scout vehicle, and an anti-tank weapon platform. To make room for the weaponry and munitions, its complement of troops is reduced from eleven to six men; and despite its firepower, it has to be made of lightweight aluminum in order to be fast enough to serve as a scout vehicle. The Bradley carries TOW antitank missiles, but its aluminum armor is much too weak to withstand a strike from a typical Soviet anti-tank weapon, much less a shot from an enemy tank. In the incredulous summation of Burton and his assistant, Sergeant First Class Fanning (Viola Davis), the finished Bradley is "a troop transport that can't carry troops, a reconnaissance vehicle that's too conspicuous to do reconnaissance, and a quasi-tank that has less armor than a snowblower, but has enough ammo to take out half of D.C."

By the time Major General Partridge is put in charge of the project, the Bradley has been in development for seventeen years, at a cost of $14 billion.


In attempting to meet the demands of his superiors, Smith had labored for eleven years, having only been promoted to colonel years prior; when the Bradley is finally approved, he gets his long-awaited promotion to brigadier general. Smith is a living example of how difficult, if not impossible, it is to develop weapons in an above-board manner; now, as he acerbically explains to Colonel Burton, since completing weapons is the only path to promotion, or lucrative positions in the private sector, the majority of the Pentagon's officials prefer to fake test results, and pass defective weapons and equipment on to the troops in the field.

At the Pentagon, Partridge and other generals and admirals are assembled for a meeting led by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in response to recent stories in the New York Times regarding cost overruns, waste and fraud over development of military hardware that works poorly. Weinberger says he is used to reading such criticisms, but perturbed to hear that several weapons systems described as successful to him by the Pentagon are actually "over-priced piece[s] of junk." He questions general after general regarding the progress of current hardware in development only to be told no problems are occurring with any projects (several of the projects named, including the M247 Sergeant York anti-aircraft gun and the A-12 Avenger II aircraft, were canceled after the events depicted here). Burton's attempt to address the Bradley are quickly silenced by Partridge. Partridge assures Weinberger that the media is "looking for problems where none exist". Weinberger, appeased but uneasy, reminds them of several real threats – terrorist groups operating in Lebanon, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the ongoing conflict with the Soviet Union – that demand that these weapons become operational.

Burton is disbelieving of Smith's claims, until he insists on testing whether the Bradley can stand up to fire under combat conditions the very first of which was manipulated using an inferior anti-armor round. Remaining skeptical, Burton orders the men to fire the same round at a simple steel door, which dented but failed to penetrate. Partridge and his two cronies, Colonel Bach (John C. McGinley) and Major Sayers (Tom Wright), manipulate every test result – for example, by filling the fuel tanks with water instead of gasoline, filling the ammunition with sand instead of propellant. Burton's research into the survivability of the Bradley is questionable; when he is secretly given a classified British Army document which shows that aluminum armor would produce toxic fumes when struck by anti-tank weapons. Burton purchases several sheep from a local rancher and places them in the vehicle in an attempt to prove the danger of the armor; the sheep are killed by toxic fumes inside the vehicle when its hull combusts. However, his tests are further impeded when Bach and Sayers confiscate the truckload of dead sheep. Burton confronts Master Sergeant Dalton (Clifton Powell), in charge of the testing range, who admits being ordered to manipulate the test results, but bitterly tells Colonel Burton that every officer who tries to conduct honest tests eventually buckles under the pressure to gain his next promotion.

But Burton refuses to approve the Bradley without a live-fire test, insisting that the current version of the vehicle is a death trap. Eventually, Partridge pulls strings to get Burton fired and relocated to a position in Alaska. Burton simply sends the information to everyone who is technically involved in the project, this information leaks to the press, and the resulting scandal leads to the current hearings.

The hearings are humiliating to Partridge, who is totally ignorant of the Bradley overall. Knowing nothing about the vehicle's safety, durability, armament, costs and length of development. When its time-frame since conception going as far back as 1968 and ballooning costs are revealed to the Committee, they are appalled. Despite Partridge's denials, the House Committee approves Burton's request for a live-fire test. The night before the test, Burton visits the barracks on the range, and tells Dalton and his men that, regardless of whatever orders they have received from Partridge or his cronies, it is their duty to their fellow soldiers to make sure the test is performed honestly. Driving home his point he tells the soldiers how he "met" a veteran named Phil in a VA hospital, who has been in a coma for twenty years, one of the many horrific casualties caused by defective M-16 rifles issued to American soldiers during the early years of the Vietnam War.


On the day of the test, which Partridge, Bach, and Sayers fully expect to confirm their side of the story, Dalton and his men have actually made sure the Bradley is in fighting condition. When hit by an anti-tank round, the vehicle explodes spectacularly. Dalton and his men confide to Burton that they had already put the Bradley in the right state before he gave them the speech and were with him very early on ever since.

In a postscript, it is explained that the Bradley was extensively redesigned in response to Burton's demands, which significantly reduced casualties from its use during the Persian Gulf War. However, the system was too strong: Partridge and his cronies earned their promotions and lucrative private sector jobs, while Colonel Burton was forced to retire.


Historical background

The book chronicles a broader history from the 1950s to the mid-1980s, encompassing the time when the "Reformer Movement" sought to bring the Pentagon equipment acquisition process to a requirements-based system rather than the then-prevailing equipment-based system that leans on supplier promises.

The reformers were led, philosophically, by US Air Force Colonel John Boyd and Franklin C. "Chuck" Spinney, and went on to include members of both houses of the U.S. Congress. They were receiving input from disaffected members of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. This largely uncoordinated group used the media to disseminate the true evaluations of equipment acquisitions that were going over budget and over time with lower than expected performance. Meanwhile, they created the atmosphere that led to acquisition of useful equipment such as the A-10 Thunderbolt II and F-16 aircraft, which were disliked by the "establishment" Pentagon hierarchy.


Some events shown in the movie never happened, as the director took artistic license with the original book, which was accurate.


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