The Pentagon’s latest study on the defense industrial base confirms what
has become increasingly obvious to experts and observers: the Defense Department
and its top contractors are hindering the entrance of new firms into the marketplace.
Sizeable increases to the defense budget alone are not enough to widen business
opportunities for non-defense contractors, which often have a hard time breaking
into a market where a handful of big players rule.
The defense industry as it exists today—dominated by a cluster of giant
conglomerates—may not be nimble enough to adapt to new requirements for
future weapon systems, experts noted.
An important question for the Defense Department is, “Can the industry
support transformation?” said Kent Kresa, chief executive officer of Northrop
Kresa, who runs the nation’s third-largest military contractor, said
that the Defense Department should revamp antiquated regulations and ensure
intellectual property is protected, in order to attract non-traditional suppliers
into the defense sector.
Companies such as General Motors, Texas Instruments and IBM have exited the
defense industry, “even though the government has tried to make defense
work more attractive to non-defense companies,” Kresa said in a speech
to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
The reluctance of many businesses to get involved in the defense industry is
“not encouraging,” Kresa said. “Today, smaller firms are hesitant
to deal with the government. Most are not equipped to navigate the demands of
federal acquisition regulation. Many firms fear the loss of their intellectual
property or other restrictions on their use.”
A study due out this month—sponsored by the office of the deputy undersecretary
of defense for industrial affairs—says that the current makeup of the
industry is adequate to meet near-term national defense requirements, but also
alerts to potential shortfalls in the industry’s ability to meet the needs
of the future.
Military priorities, such as chemical-biological defense, cyber-warfare and
the growing demand for high-speed communications are unlikely to be satisfied
entirely by large defense firms, said the study, which Kresa cited in his remarks.
According to the study, smaller firms historically have contributed the most
to defense innovation. Approximately 35 percent of future technologies are likely
to come from non-traditional suppliers. Foreign firms are expected to supply
about 18 percent.
“The conclusion is obvious,” Kresa said. “We in the defense
industry have to become more proactive in working with smaller and non-traditional
suppliers, both domestic and foreign. ... By broadening our technology pool,
we will be able to better tackle the daunting challenges that we have.”
The weaknesses in the defense technology base include the lack of adequate
bandwidth, the vulnerability of computer systems and the high cost of satellite
launches, Kresa said. Another vexing problem is the incompatibility between
U.S. and allied forces.
“The government, for its part, needs to make it more attractive for commercial
and foreign suppliers to participate,” he said. As incentives, for example,
the Defense Department could create more R&D opportunities, relax export-licensing
regulations and relieve smaller companies of the burden associated with acquisition
Specifically, the Pentagon should make it easier for large prime contractors
to work with small commercial suppliers while waiving FAR (federal acquisition
regulations) requirements, Kresa said. “Small suppliers could then use
the [large] systems integrator’s resources, without having to support
the overhead requirements to deal with the government procurement system.”
Large companies, he said, are better qualified for “network centric warfare
and interoperability,” but may not be as capable in niche technology areas.
If the Defense Department wants to see changes in the industry, Kresa said,
“the most critical element is the development of an acquisition process.”
Much can go wrong in defense programs: late deliveries, budget overruns, product
disappointment and incompatibility with legacy systems, he said. “We may
never be able to eliminate these problems entirely.”
Nevertheless, innovation and open-mindedness should move to the forefront in
the acquisition process, Kresa said. “This represents a dramatic departure
from the way we’ve done business before. ... Reforming our acquisition
process will go a long way to achieving transformation.”
The director for force structure resources on the Joint Staff, Lt. Gen. James
E. Cartwright, USMC, agreed that procurement regulations must change if the
Pentagon wants more companies to participate.
“There is still a lot of legislation out there that makes it very difficult
to play in this game, if you are not one of the leading companies,” Cartwright
said. He said he is optimistic that reforms currently under way, such as the
rewrite of the so-called 5000 series regulations, will help expand opportunities
for non-traditional contractors.
A business environment that is as risk-averse as the defense sector stifles
innovation, said Rear Adm. Jay Cohen, chief of naval research.
“I know no program manager who has been rewarded for taking risk,”
he said at the AIAA conference. “Until we fundamentally change that paradigm,
I don’t think we will fully transform.”
A glaring example of the industry’s poor record in innovation is the
shipbuilding sector, which for decades has refused to embrace composite materials
and other advanced technologies used in other countries. “The resistance
in the shipbuilding industry at the working level to go to composites is depressing,”
Large defense contractors often should be blamed for putting their own financial
interests ahead of the government’s long-term priorities, Cohen said.
“A major problem I see in this country is the ‘not-invented here’
syndrome.” The dominant players tend to shy away from products that were
not developed “in-house,” said Cohen.
A case in point was an attempt by a major contractor to “kill”
an Office of Naval Research project, called Affordable Weapon, which aimed to
develop a low-cost (about $30,000) extended-range missile that would be used
aboard Navy ships. “The contractor, who shall go nameless, was building
larger missiles for the Navy,” Cohen said. This company’s tactics
could be described as, “let’s shoot Affordable Weapon in the face,
because it might be competitive with our order-of-magnitude more expensive weapon,”
Cohen said. “That is a prime example of how innovation is squelched periodically
for other goals.”
The Pentagon’s second-largest contractor, meanwhile, is leading an Army
project that requires them to reach out to innovative firms. As the lead systems
integrator for the Future Combat System, the Boeing Co. is responsible for recruiting
suppliers that typically would not seek defense contracts, said Jerry W. McElwee,
FCS program manager. “From an LSI perspective, the continuing objective
is to bring those folks on board. We need to help bring them to the Defense
Department,” he said.