The Department of Defense (DoD) has a lot of standing commissions, boards and advisory groups; at least 65 according to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. This does not include a host of special commissions and temporary advisory boards directed by Congress including the five Base Closure and Realignment Commissions, the military commissions to try Guantanamo detainees, the National Defense Panel that provides an independent assessment of the department’s Quadrennial Defense Review, the recent National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force and the forthcoming Commission on the Structure of the U.S. Army. Some of these, such as the Defense Science Board and the Defense Policy Board, conduct extremely useful, high-level studies and analyses that influence defense policy, acquisition strategy and even critical military programs. Others could easily be eliminated — and should be.
One of the “best of breed” is the Defense Business Board (DBB), a 2002 addition to the panoply of Pentagon boards and commissions. According to its charter, the DBB provides the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense, as well as other senior leaders, trusted independent and objective advice which reflects an outside private sector perspective on proven and effective best business practices for consideration and potential application to the defense department. The DBB has produced a remarkable series of studies that provides both a compelling case for reforming the Pentagon’s policies, practices and habits in multiple domains as well as a set of clear roadmaps for how to make DoD more efficient, thereby reducing defense costs by tens of billions of dollars annually.
Since its inception, the DBB has made it a practice to tell truth to power. One recent DBB study observed that if the defense department were a corporation or a nation, it would be on the verge of declaring Chapter 11. Like GM and Chrysler before their bankruptcies, DoD’s costs have been increasing even as the size of the military shrinks. In briefing the Board’s review of a study on revamping defense acquisition regulations, DBB member and task force chairman Arnold Punaro bluntly asserted that in order for the DoD to acquire platforms and weapons systems on time and at an affordable price, it needed to gather up the thousands of pages of regulations and “put a match to it.” While not going as far as Mr. Punaro’s somewhat tongue in cheek recommendation, both the Pentagon and the House Armed Services Committee have efforts underway to weed the incredible thicket of acquisition regulations. The DBB has also proposed such sensible reforms as replacing the hundreds of thousands of very expensive uniform personnel doing non-military jobs with lower cost government civilian or private contractors, applying world-class business practices to DoD activities in order to get more “bang for the buck” for the warfighters and implementing a rapid acquisition approach for fast insertion of new IT systems and software.
In one of its most recent reports, the DBB explored ways that DoD could incentivize the commercial sector to help it with rapid product innovation. As many senior defense officials will admit, the military is no longer the engine of innovation it was during the Cold War. Increasingly, state of the art products and services, everything from cold weather gear to electronics, jet engines and robots, are coming from the private sector and being adapted by the military for its purposes. The private sector can produce world-class products in a time frame and for a cost that are fractions of what can be achieved by the sclerotic defense acquisition system.
Defense companies too have demonstrated what can be achieved in the way of rapid and innovative product development when they are not under the system’s thumb. The helicopter maker Sikorsky used its own resources to design and build a radically new type of helicopter with a wealth of innovative technologies, the S-97 in just four years. Similarly, Textron and AirLand Enterprises took just two years to build the Scorpion, a light attack and ISR jet aircraft. Designed for ease of production and low cost, the Scorpion maximizes the use of components from existing aircraft.
In its latest study, the DBB has attempted to tell the Pentagon how to leverage the innovative energy of the private sector and, in particular, that of companies which don’t typically do business with the Department of Defense. In particular, the task force concluded that “DoD lacks sufficient understanding of business operating models and drivers of innovation,” a point I have been asserting for years. The report calls on DoD to act more like a normal customer, buying commercial items without overlaying on the transaction all of its unique rules, reporting requirements and standards. Items developed and produced by private companies with their own money for the commercial marketplace should be treated as such by the Pentagon. It also means ending the war on profits; no profits, no incentive for the commercial industrial base to support DoD.
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