The trials and tribulations experienced in various Pentagon big-ticket programs
in recent years have prompted a thorough self-examination at the Defense Department.
At issue is who really is to blame for failures, delays, cost overruns and an
overall dearth of innovation.
Defense officials are beginning to recognize that the Pentagon may need to
rethink its approach to managing defense programs, so it can become a “smart
buyer,” better equipped to oversee increasingly complex technologies,
and to determine if a potentially innovative technology is worth the financial
It is not unusual to hear defense officials complain that contractors are too
focused on their financial bottom lines, rather than on the quality of their
products and the needs of the customer. They also blame the industry’s
rapid consolidation into a handful of conglomerates for a perceived decline
in technical innovation.
Many of the problems seen today, for example, in space and information technology
programs, may in fact be a byproduct of an ingrained culture of trying to make
everything “faster, better and cheaper.” But they also can be attributed
to a gradual decline in the Defense Department’s in-house expertise to
manage and oversee highly intricate weapon systems and vast network integration
Among the staunchest campaigners for boosting in-house technical know-how at
the Defense Department is Ronald Sega, the director of defense research and
engineering. This past year, he was the driving force behind the so-called “National
Defense Education Act,” to encourage U.S.-born students to seek advanced
The red flags that Sega is raising about a looming shortage of technical talent
should not be ignored, said retired Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, the Pentagon’s
director of force transformation. “The long-term viability of our technical
skills” is an issue of concern, he told reporters. Navy Secretary Gordon
England, who also leads the Defense Department’s personnel reform efforts,
lamented that there will be a woeful shortage of engineers in coming years.
“I’m worried about the U.S. scientific base,” he said. Meanwhile,
the cost of employing technical talent to work on Pentagon programs is skyrocketing,
according to recent industry studies. While Pentagon contracts generally allow
for a 3.5 percent annual inflation for salaries, the compensation for aeronautical
and electrical engineers with security clearances is soaring by 10 to 15 percent
There is an “astonishing” shortage of key specialized workers both
in the defense industry and the Defense Department, said Edward Swallow, who
chairs a National Defense Industrial Association study on workforce issues.
“The salary inflation is impacting current programs,” he noted.
The upshot is that the pressure to contain costs is squeezing out innovation.
As to why innovation is not among the measures of success, the basic explanation
is that the Pentagon rewards contractors for reducing the technical risk in
a program and ensuring it’s delivered on time, not for being innovative,
Swallow explained. “People want to be able to get programs out the door,”
he said. “People want to declare success.”
Large defense companies, particularly, are not pushing innovative technologies,
he added, as their corporate investments are better spent on “risk reduction”
and “cost containment” efforts. The top defense firms are becoming
“integrators,” rather than innovators.
This trend, however, is by no means welcome universally across the Defense
Department. Air Force Lt. Gen. Brian Arnold, commander of the Space and Missile
Systems Center, said that while the government is learning to be a smart buyer,
industry has shown disappointing performance, and would benefit from attending
a “sellers’ course.”
He scolded contractors for lacking discipline, quality control, and for failing
to anticipate and restrain cost overruns. Space programs, particularly, have
suffered as a result. “We see a lot of quality problems,” Arnold
A similar phenomenon is happening at NASA, where a talent drought has forced
the agency to consider outsourcing high-skilled jobs to countries such as Russia
and Japan. Most of NASA’s funds, about 80 percent, actually pay for contractors
to manage large programs, said Theron Bradley, NASA’s chief engineer.
When so much of the management work is outsourced, the government cannot properly
oversee the quality of the work, he said. “The government needs to be
an informed buyer.”
The Air Force, for its part, is taking aggressive steps to improve its buying
expertise. The service has been so rattled by space program debacles that it
now plans to create a “space cadre” of acquisition professionals,
who will be carefully selected and trained in the intricacies of space systems
The Army also is coping with how best to manage massive programs. Its biggest
weapon project, the Future Combat Systems, has prompted questions about the
Defense Department’s ability to supervise technologically complicated
systems. The Army outsourced the management to a “lead systems integrator,”
a decision the service defends fervently, because the success of FCS is based
entirely on the ability to integrate 17 systems into a single network. The Army,
much like the other services, is organized in “stovepipes,” making
integration efforts very difficult, said an industry expert. “The Army
couldn’t do this without an LSI,” he said. “The CEOs of 17
companies can ‘talk turkey’ in a way the Army can’t.”
The LSI trend is not likely to slow down. The Army now plans to hire an integrator
to manage small-caliber ammunition production.
As things stand today, large firms see more of their revenues coming from integration
contracts. It will be up to small businesses to deliver innovative technologies.
These issues may not qualify as immediate and pressing concerns at a time of
war and fears of terrorist attacks, but unless current trends change, decision
makers at the Defense Department may one day find that they lack a strategy
for how to keep critical military programs from spinning out of control.