As recent events and statements by virtually every senior government official makes clear, the United States faces no shortage of challenges to its security interests at home and abroad. There are new or newly-empowered adversaries, ranging from the Islamic State to North Korea and Iran and an increasingly belligerent and militarily-capable China. Both state and non-state actors are investing in a wide range of asymmetric counters to traditional areas of U.S. and Western military superiority. Not only are Russia and China deploying an array of anti-access/area denial capabilities but so are groups such as the Russian separatists, Hezbollah and Hamas. Finally, the Pentagon can no longer confidently assert that it has a technological edge over prospective competitors and enemies. As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel remarked just yesterday:
We are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space — not to mention cyberspace — can no longer be taken for granted. And while the United States continues to maintain a decisive military and technological edge over any potential adversary, our continued superiority is not a given.
The Department of Defense is embarking on an effort to ensure future U.S. military primacy. One branch of this program, to be directed by the Under Secretary of Defense for AT&L, Frank Kendall, is the Long-Range Research & Development Planning Program which, as Secretary Hagel described it is “aimed at assuring our technological edge through the next several decades.” The other, under the aegis of Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, is to identify a new long-term “offset” strategy to counter the advances in conventional armaments by Russia and China, in particular. There have been two prior offset strategies, both developed during the Cold War and directed at negating the Soviet Union’s massive quantitative superiority in conventional military forces. The first was to rely on nuclear weapons. When Moscow reached nuclear parity in the 1970s, the U.S. shifted to an offset strategy based on the exploitation of stealth, precision strike and advanced electronics and information technologies.
A number of new offset strategies have been proposed. Most seem to focus on uncovering the Holy Grail of a new transformative technology (e.g., robots, drones, lasers, nano systems). Some propose all-too-clever operating concepts for the military such as “offshore balancing.”
Virtually none of these proposals address the fundamental challenge to U.S. military dominance which is not technological but fiscal. Declining defense budgets, exacerbated by the draconian budget caps imposed by the Budget Control Act, are forcing deep reductions in both military capacity and capabilities. Because of the way the law is written and decisions made by the Obama Administration, the Pentagon is being forced to absorb the overwhelming majority of the budget cuts in two accounts, Operations and Maintenance and Acquisition. The military services are having to struggle with the impossible choice between insufficient current capacity and inadequate future capabilities.
So, how about pursuing a true game-changing strategy? Let’s fix the Pentagon’s busted acquisition system. The current system virtually guarantees that even if we fell over a technological offset we couldn’t field it quickly enough, in sufficient numbers or at an affordable cost. Russia and China are catching up technologically not because they are smarter or more inventive but because they are unencumbered by an archaic acquisition system that has repeatedly done the ancient alchemists one better by turned gold into lead.
The real game changer would be if the Pentagon could acquire and field new capabilities in half the time and at reduced cost. Of equal significance would be using commercial best practices in maintenance, sustainment and supply chain management to lower the life cycle costs for military systems.
In its third edition of its acquisition improvement effort, Better Buying Power (BBP), the Pentagon finally seems to be acknowledging that its prior approach to faster, better and cheaper acquisition based on more oversight, monitoring, reporting and top-down direction has not produced the desired results. BBP 3.0 will propose some potentially important changes to the acquisition system including more use of modular and open systems architectures, greater dialogue with industry over requirements done earlier in the acquisition process, the removal of obstacles to procuring commercial items (does this mean abandoning demands for certified cost and pricing data?) and improving the search for advanced technologies in global markets.
BBP 3.0 is a move in the right direction. But it is not a game changer. If we want a true defense revolution, get the acquisition system out of the way. Companies such as Sikorsky and Textron have shown that the private sector on their own time and with their own resources can come up with new and even revolutionary systems in a fraction of the time for a small percentage of the cost of an official major defense acquisition program. It is all but impossible to exploit the advances of commercial technologies and take advantage of commercial best practices under the regulatory, reporting, accounting and contracting strictures imposed by the current acquisition system. If we do not fundamentally change the way the Pentagon does business we might as well run up the white flag now.
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