Assault robots, human-machine collaboration and combat teaming, so-called autonomous systems, wearable electronics, the electromagnetic railgun, lasers, new systems for electronic warfare, space operations and cyberspace conflict; yes, even the F-35. These are among the key technologies, concepts and weapons systems identified by Deputy Secretary Robert Work in his appearance at last week’s Reagan Defense Forum as central to the Pentagon’s Third Offset Strategy.
But Secretary Work was quick to warn that the Third Offset Strategy is not primarily about technology. Rather, it will be strategy-based and technologically oriented with operational and organizational constructs that give U.S. forces advantages that offset adversaries’ superior numbers. A major reason for this approach is that future adversaries are likely to be able to close technological gaps with the U.S. rather quickly. But even if they can match the U.S. military in terms of systems and platforms, they lack our advantage in people. According to Mr. Work, “… our greatest advantage is the vibrant technological community in the United States, and the vibrant technological communities in our defense industrial base. We will ride that advantage.”
Not if you don’t do something about the Pentagon’s sclerotic acquisition system, Mr. Secretary. When it takes the acquisition system years to formulate the requirements and write, compete and award a contract for commercially-based software systems that evolve in a matter of months, there is no way that DoD will be able to maintain an advantage in cyberwarfare over prospective adversaries. The Secretary of Defense can make all the pilgrimages to Silicon Valley he wants, but when companies used to taking risks and the possibility of failure, making markets, driving technical standards, owning their intellectual property and reaping the rewards of their innovation run into the Pentagon’s acquisition system they are likely to walk away.
The problem is not a lack of good ideas; the Pentagon is inundated with them. Nor is it the inventiveness of U.S. companies, including in the aerospace and defense sector. The problem is the inability of the acquisition system, broadly understood, to translate good ideas into fielded capabilities rapidly and at an acceptable cost. This is particularly significant because, as Secretary Work points out, the U.S. can no longer count on retaining military-technological advantages for decades. Five years maybe. Unfortunately, we have an acquisition system based on, or even addicted to, long program time lines. Nor has it demonstrated of late any real capacity for cost savings other than by reducing quantities acquired or giving preference to low price over best value in contract awards.
Similar points were made by no less than the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain, in a commentary published today as part of the roll out of the committee hearing on defense reform. Senator McCain argued that by any relevant measure, the Department of Defense is failing at its core tasks: planning for, waging and winning the nation’s wars. In particular, Senator McCain focused on the fact that as the number of Pentagon bureaucrats has exploded (and along with this the department’s overhead costs) and regulations have proliferated, the acquisition system’s efficiency and effectiveness has declined. In fact, most of the acquisition problems identified almost thirty years ago by the Packard Commission are still with us.
According to Secretary Work, the Third Offset Strategy has been in process for years, since current Defense Secretary, Dr. Ashton Carter was the Under Secretary of Defense for AT&L. Yet over that same time, the acquisition system has become less agile, more complex and, based on a mountain of anecdotal evidence, increasingly hostile to the private sector. Even as Carter, Work and the Pentagon bureaucracy was developing clever new ways of doing long-range planning and setting up offices in Silicon Valley, they were encouraging the development of an acquisition culture that was less innovative, risk averse, bound by regulations and addicted to micro-management.
Secretary Work’s remarks contained an unintended irony. He asserted that the essence of the Third Offset Strategy is based on alleged U.S./Western advantages in people and innovation such that “if we force, for example, an adversary who is an authoritarian power to adopt the organizational and operational concepts that this will cause, it will cause changes in their military and ultimately in their society that will make it less likely that we will fight against each other.” Looking at the Pentagon’s requirements and acquisition system as a surrogate for foreign authoritarian powers, he might be right. The DoD bureaucracy has resisted the kind of changes to organization, operating concepts and values that 21st Century technologies and associated business best practices have produced in the commercial world. The trouble is that our authoritarian powers may prevent the deployment of the new technologies and the creation of appropriate strategies and operating concepts necessary in order to pose the strategic challenge to foreign authoritarian powers that Secretary Work describes.
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