This year marks the 50th anniversary of a seminal lecture at Cambridge University about modern society by British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow. Snow argued that the elites running postwar society were divided into two distinct cultures: those who had studied science and those who had studied the humanities. The latter group, he said, tended to dominate politics, and as a result government was run by people ill-equipped to grasp the great scientific and technological challenges of the modern age. Barely a week has gone by in Washington since the new millennium began that we have not gotten fresh evidence of how right Snow was.
But every once in a while somebody with scientific credentials actually manages to make it into a position of authority, and the Obama Administration has blessed the Pentagon’s acquisition shop with two such gems. The new Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics — the AT&L — is former Rhodes Scholar Ashton B. Carter, who holds a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University. His deputy, Frank Kendall III, holds among his three advanced degrees as masters in aerospace engineering from Caltech. You can review their impressive resumes here and here.
What’s striking about the reaction to Carter’s and Kendall’s appointments is how many people seem to think the Pentagon would have been better off with process experts in its top acquisition jobs — in other words, people who are steeped in the regulations and folkways of the government’s baroque weapons-buying process. But even a cursory review of what went wrong with big weapons programs over the last eight years reveals that the most common problem was failure to grasp the intricacies of complex technological systems. What the Pentagon needs at the top of its acquisition system are experts who have some understanding of the technologies they are buying, and that’s what Carter and Kendall provide. As their resumes reveal, they aren’t just geeks. But valuing acquisition experience above technological expertise in picking the Pentagon’s weapons czars would be, as architect Louis Sullivan might have put it, like forcing function to follow form. It’s the product that really matters at AT&L, not the process.
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