Innovating Faster, Cheaper and Smaller at the Pentagon
In January 2015 at the Atlantic Council, Air Force Secretary Debbie James delivered an address on “Bending the Cost Curve,” emphasizing that her department needed to get off the path towards Augustinian singularity. The initiative she outlined had three parts: enhancing communication with industry, expanding competition, and accelerating development processes. The secretary specifically wanted to look for opportunities where small adaptations and innovations could yield big improvements in capabilities. So how has Defense—and not just the Air Force—been doing lately? For a challenging reform effort, it’s a reasonable report card, but we have a long way to go.
Enhancing communication means actually talking to your suppliers, just like premier league commercial supply chain managers do. This hasn’t been a strength of government for some time, and at one point, the relationship was legendarily bad on the Joint Strike Fighter program. On Groundhog Day at the CSIS, the Navy Department’s head of contracting, Deputy Assistant Secretary Elliott Branch, offered one thought: ignore the lawyers as much as you can. The fear, uncertainty and doubt which the government’s attorneys are professionally incentivized to spread stifles the exchange of ideas between procurement officials and prospective contractors. The Defense Department has had some successes elsewhere over the past few years: the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle development provides a good example of how frank discussions of the art of the possible can keep a program on track. That can-do culture needs inculcation across the rest of the acquisition enterprise.
Expanding competition means finding new sources. The Air Force actually has been making it easier to compete, if not so rapidly. During the legal drama over the EELV rocket program, SpaceX suggested that the USAF start by adopting NASA’s commercial approach to risk management. Rather than scrutinizing the design of every screw in a booster, to convince the leadership that the rocket would actually reach orbit, the Air Force could just insure the payload on the commercial market. The government doesn’t need a third-party's financial wherewithal, but it could greatly benefit from the information that insurance prices convey. One of the great strengths of American business is supposed to be finance, and our insurers sure know how to insure.
Making development leaner might be more challenging. By the figuring of Camron Gorguinpour, the USAF’s director of “transformational innovation,” development times for its fixed-wing aircraft have increased about a year every decade for the past five. On that basis, it's no wonder that the service is giving Northrop Grumman ten years to design and build its first B-21 bomber. But that’s an awfully long time to wait. The new bomber is a fetching idea, but we can reasonably worry whether the design will still be relevant in 2026. Airbus and Boeing design new jetliners faster, and they’ve been leaning out those processes, but in a transformational way? Next time it wants a new manned combat plane, perhaps the Air Force can aim for five years instead of ten.
That’s because fairly, fighters, space launchers, and bombers are rather macroscopic items for which a year is not an eon in which to make progress. At the other end of the size spectrum, though, there’s certainly demand for more open, competitive, and lean. At the New America Foundation’s Future of War conference last week, Marine Commandant Neller asked why his rifle squads couldn’t get reconnaissance quadcopters on Groupons. At the same event, a very frustrated Army Chief of Staff Milley asserted that with “$17 million on the credit card, I'll call Cabela’s tonight,” and get every pistol the Pentagon needs—as long as he can bypass the lawyers.
Fortunately, there’s also a flurry of activity underway. This Wednesday, I wrote about how Congressman Thornberry (R-TX) wants to start small, letting the services prototype equipment $5 million at a time. His prototype-to-production bill won’t buy stealth bombers faster, but it might buy a demonstration of a swarm of little drones without having to consult a platoon of veto players. In that line of work, the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office is getting close to a billion in annual funding, and it's making progress with air-launched micro-drones. Perhaps someone could pull out the Joint Emergent Operational Needs (JEONS) paperwork, and write a request. It would be a start. Getting lots of stuff done on the small scale might at least provide the examples that the department needs to show the rest of the bureaucracy how better and faster can be doable.
James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. This article first appeared in the Defense Industrialist.