Humans have been obsessed with biggest, largest, most expensive, and other ways to blow resources, since the time immemorial. Earliest religious mythology refers to the attempts to build a tower to heaven – typically unsuccessful. Early civilizations around the world undertook giant constructions – Taj Mahal in India, pyramides of Egypt, various temples and churches of the Mediterranean. Even today we are doing it, despite their waste – because humanity in general has always been excellent and fooling itself; this goes for individuals as well.
Projects costing more than 1 billion USD almost always face large cost overruns. Only one in a thousand mega-projects succeeded within time and on budget. Yet they are seldom – if ever – predicted. Engineers and technologists are always excited to build “newest”, “largest”, and “best” items of the kind. Politicians receive publicity and money; unions delight in generating jobs, and public enjoys the spectacle. All this optimism leads to overestimation of benefits and underestimation of costs. At the same time, huge projects serve to shift public attention from failings in other areas, from broken promises and real problems. They also often serve as an ego trip, making people feel good about themselves even when they are in deep problems otherwise.
Large dams are one example. They cost a lot, face large cost overruns, and often do not return the investment. In fact, while dam builders forecast the cost-to-benefit ratio of 1,4 (that is, benefits exceed the costs by 40%), half of the dams built have cost overruns that exceed that factor. Another example are large weapons systems – majority of weapons in procurement have faced cost overruns, and militaries have resorted to cooking the books to keep true overruns secret. Overall, experts making forecasts about megaprojects can be grouped into “fools” and “liars” – fools are optimists who look at future through rose-tinted glasses, ignoring hard facts and uncertainity. Liars deliberately mislead the public for private gain.
Western navies are currently facing similar issues. United States and other NATO navies lack small ships that can chase Somali pirates or defend against ongoing Muslim invasion of Europe. But they have ample multi-billion aircraft carriers, destroyers and large frigates, which either sit around uselessly or get used for tasks that cheaper vessels could do far more effectively – not to mention more efficiently. United Kingdom, with its two aircraft carriers and numerous destroyers and submarines, lacks patrol ships it needs to protect its shores from illegal immigrants. It had to send one of modern frigates into Mediterranean to deal with migrants in rubber dinghies.
One reason is that expensive weapons are seen as an example of prestige. Battleships were kept in full-tilt production for over half a century, even though major fleet action was very rare. At the same time, all major navies have underfunded production of far more crucial ships such as submarines, merchant escorts and similar. One exception to that rule was the German Kriegsmarine of World War II (but not the World War I Kaiserliche Marine). That, however, was not because of a doctrine – but rather because, with earlier-than-expected onset of the war (Hitler expected war no earlier than 1946), and most resources being soaked up by the Heer and Luftwaffe, it could not afford building large capital ships. In 1941., aircraft carrier supplanted battleship as the main signpost of naval power, as well as the naval capital ship – only to be replaced in the latter role by no later than 1950. with the advent of nuclear attack submarine. Yet even today navies are spending billions to build aircraft carriers that serve no real purpose, because carrier is seen as a symbol of power and prestige. Stealth aircraft serve the same purpose.