In a recent conversation with David Ignatius before a prestigious audience at the Atlantic Council, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), General Martin Dempsey, spoke at length about defense budget issues, international partnerships and future military requirements.* Among the topics he addressed was what the military needed from industry. General Dempsey described the defense industrial base as an enabler of our capability, one that provides us with reversibility if we get the future wrong. But, “it is part of the force that is least likely to be open to change.” This, he asserted, is a fact of life.
The Chairman went further, saying that what he wanted to see coming down the assembly line was something that “could turn out to be a Swiss Army Knife and not a stiletto.” This cannot be accomplished with the current stovepiped approach to defense industrial production in which shipmakers make ships, aircraft manufacturers make airplanes, etc. To accomplish this paradigm shift, General Dempsey suggested a vision of a global network approach to defense acquisition that borrowed from the successful experience the Pentagon has had in networking military forces. General Dempsey opined that “when we network our capabilities we dominate, prevail and succeed and often at less resources. I do not know how you take that approach and apply it to the defense industrial base.”
Why does the Chairman assume that the defense industry is opposed to change? Many major defense companies in the United States — Boeing, General Dynamics, Textron, ITT, AgustaWestland and Pratt & Whitney to name just a few — have major commercial operations. They respond to the winds of change in the commercial marketplace on a daily basis.
Why does the Chairman think that defense companies do not know about and practice networking? Even those companies that focus entirely on the government as their client understand the basics of modern business such as how to create networks of capabilities. Defense companies have turned networking into an art form. Just look at the current Joint Light Tactical Vehicle competition. BAE Systems both leads a team and is a major subcontractor on one of the other teams, this one led by Lockheed Martin. Global networking is something every one of these companies knows about and practics every single day.
Therefore, if the Chairman wants to figure out why the defense industry appears to him to be resistant to change he should look closer to home. Specifically, he needs to consider the impact of an avalanche of rules, regulations, processes and procedures on the ability of industry to operate in an efficient and agile manner. The factor which correlates most closely with the seeming reduction in innovation in defense programs and the lengthening development cycles over the past thirty years is increased government regulation and oversight. The more regulation and oversight, the more cumbersome and costly the process becomes. Studies have shown that the regulatory burden alone on defense programs is between 18 and 50 percent of total costs.
The defense department’s ability to network military capabilities was the result of a deliberate process to remove bureaucratic barriers and encourage collaborative behaviors. Remember Goldwater-Nichols? Perhaps what is needed to network defense industrial activities is to do away with the current service-specific approach to acquisition. Is it any wonder that shipbuilders only build ships — not true by the way — when their sole customer is the U.S. Navy?
General Dempsey, here is a suggestion: if you want a flexible defense industrial base, the first step is to get the government off industry’s back. Then go ask industry to make you a Swiss Army Knife. I bet they can.
* The video of the conversation can be found at http://www.c-span.org/Events/Joint-Chiefs-of-Staff-Chair-Talks-About-Military-Cuts/10737426147-1/.
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