It has been gospel at the Defense Department that for every major category of military hardware in the arsenal, there would be an exotic, shiny replacement in some stage of development.
Defense technology for decades has progressed on a linear path, from one generation to the next, always on the premise that the future would bring something bigger and better.
That tech-happy zeitgeist is from an era that now seems long gone. Ten years of grinding counterinsurgency wars, big-ticket research programs that failed to deliver combat-ready products and a rapidly rising national debt have transformed the mindset of what it means to design cutting-edge weapons.
It’s not as if the military doesn’t need innovation. Commanders for years have been asking for new and improved technology to combat roadside bombs and to find wily enemies who hide in bunkers. They also are seeking smarter munitions that hit targets precisely without killing innocent bystanders.
The Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy also are saddled with aging fleets of ground vehicles, aircraft and ships that have been kept in service far longer than planned and ought to be replaced sooner, rather than later, officials say.
The defense budget has doubled since 9/11, and yet much of the military’s hardware has not been modernized in decades. Many of the next-generation programs that the Pentagon has funded in its nearly $80 billion a year research-and-development budget have failed to produce new hardware, at least in large enough quantities to rebuild the fleet. By most accounts, the problem has not been lack of money, but the failure of the Pentagon’s bureaucracies to turn promising concepts into equipment that troops find useful.
Symbols of an era of vibrant spending but stagnant modernization include the Army’s Future Combat Systems, the Navy’s DDG-1000 destroyer and the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. All three programs were technologically ambitious but ill suited to a time when there is decreasing tolerance for decades-long development cycles and spiraling costs.
The Air Force fleet has been described by former deputy chief of intelligence, Lt. Gen. David Deptula, as “geriatric.” Officials had envisioned the F-22 air superiority fighter as the centerpiece of the 21st Century fleet, but rising costs truncated the program. With current aircraft averaging nearly 25 years of age, the Air Force is in a modernization limbo, as it waits for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a new air-refueling tanker that is not likely to offer any major leaps in technology compared to the Cold War-era KC-135.
The wars of the past decade, meanwhile, have exposed an “innovation gap” that has forced the U.S. military to play catch up, and react to enemy tactics, such as roadside bombs and sniper attacks, rather than being able to anticipate them. The Defense Department’s technology base, critics argue, has been slow to respond with new and improved weapons based on changing threats.
A frustrated Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called on the Pentagon to stop wasting money on science projects that target undefined hypothetical future wars, and to focus on systems that deployed forces need, and move them to the field in weeks or months, not years or decades. Innovation is not helpful if it’s not assisting troops at war, Gates stressed in several speeches during the past three years.
In response to both real and perceived failures of the Pentagon’s research, development and procurement apparatus, Gates has directed an overhaul of the services’ modernization programs.
His orders in a nutshell: They must deliver new equipment within a reasonable timeframe; and they must avoid the temptation of gold-plating and aiming for systems that are excessively complex and thus at risk of never seeing the light of day.
A 70- to 80-percent solution in five years, Gates insists, is better than a perfect outcome that could take decades or, worse, never materialize.
The litmus tests for the less-is-more approach will be the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle, the Navy’s SSBN-X ballistic missile submarine and the Air Force’s next-generation long-range bomber.
These three multibillion-dollar programs, more so than previous big-ticket efforts, are being scrutinized by the Pentagon’s top leadership. Gates regards them as the poster children for a new approach to modernization, one that emphasizes pragmatism, cost-consciousness and awareness of real-world needs of military forces.
As the Pentagon seeks a better return on its science and research investments, one of the first orders of business is to promote closer communications between scientists and forces in the field, said Zachary J. Lemnios, director of defense research and engineering. “I’m after connecting the science and technology community with the combatant commanders so they understand the art of the possible,” Lemnios told reporters. The Defense Department operates 67 laboratories that employ 60,000 engineers.
“I’m trying to get the innovation cycle of the department and our contractor base on par with what we see in industry,” said Lemnios. The plan is to “get us on a cost, time, schedule profile that’s similar to the commercial sector” rather than some special long-term, high-cost ivory tower exercise.
Another mechanism for making better use of R&D dollars is to coordinate investments with the private sector and academia, said Lemnios. The Pentagon reimburses companies $3 billion a year for their internal research and development expenditures. In addition, the Defense Department’s $80 billion R&D budget includes $2 billion in seed funds for basic research, most of which is allotted to labs and universities. But it’s not clear that the government and industry are in synch with their R&D investments, said Lemnios.
“We ought to sit down and try to sort that out a little bit. I’d like to get the leverage of what industry’s making investments in, and I’m sure industry wants to get better insight into what our investments are, so we’re opening that dialogue,” he said.
The Pentagon’s $2 billion basic research program is not likely to see the budget axe for the foreseeable future, and overall R&D funding will be stable, Lemnios said. But there will be more pressure to deliver results. “The challenge is to get our researchers and our laboratories, and the researchers that we fund throughout academia, focused on game-changing concepts for the future,” said Lemnios.
The branches of the military have acknowledged that their old ways of pursuing R&D programs, some of which resulted in expensive misfires, are overdue for a shakeup.
In the Air Force, there is greater consciousness about “how to respond quickly with technology,” said Maj. Gen. David Scott, Air Force director of operations capability requirements. The Pentagon’s internal acquisition process (aka the Joint Capabilities Integration Development System) makes it tough to expedite innovation, he said. “How can we get through the JCIDS process and move things faster” is the challenge, Scott said during an online seminar sponsored by Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.
Air Force leaders, he said, have acknowledged that it is no longer acceptable to pursue the “exquisite 100 percent solution.” The next step is figuring out “how can we get the things we need incrementally,” Scott said. “Seventy percent today is better than 100 percent 10 years down the road.”
In the past, he said, “We had the money and we had the time. We don’t have that anymore.”
The Air Force’s ability to bring about technological innovation will be under the microscope as it embarks on a new program to produce a replacement for the current fleet of Cold War-era bombers. The “long-range strike” program will seek to develop a family of aircraft, weapons and sensors.
The Air Force originally had planned to take the traditional approach and design a new bomber, but Gates nixed that effort for being too conventional.
“The term, ‘next-generation bomber,’ is dead,” said Lt. Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements.
Air Force officials, however, are struggling with how to articulate specifically what technologies they need, and have yet to come up with an R&D strategy to replace the traditional process.
The long-range strike program, for instance, will have to identify what weapons and what delivery mechanisms Air Force operators will need to hit a huge array of targets — from guerilla fighters riding in pickup trucks, to insurgents hiding in a building, enemy air-defense systems, deeply buried enemy bunkers as well as concealed nuclear weapon facilities.
In the past, Breedlove said at an industry conference this summer, “We would build a very capable, exquisite single system” that was expected to do all this by itself: penetrate adversary airspace, defend itself from enemy surface-to-air missiles, locate targets and strike them with precision. But that is no longer an option. “Those systems tend to be big and expensive,” he said. The way the program is being restructured entails a “bit of a culture shift.”
Cost considerations are huge, Breedlove said. Part of the heated deliberations in the Defense Department these days is “how much can our nation afford to address?”
A similar conundrum is facing the Navy as it moves forward to replace its Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. The original plan envisioned a new SSBN-X submarine that, including all the bells and whistles the Navy wanted, would have cost upwards of $7 billion apiece. Gates, again, called for restraint. Under a revised concept, the Navy has scaled back its requirements and is expected to conduct further analysis on how to design future ships so that they take less time to build and are more affordable. The intent is to avoid a repeat of the DDG-1000 destroyer program, which became too costly to build in large numbers.
For the Army, acquiring the next generation of combat equipment has been nothing short of an ordeal. It spent years and billions of dollars developing the Future Combat Systems family of vehicles, weapons and sensors, only to see it canceled last year by Gates. FCS had become the classic “PowerPoint Tiger” that never seemed close to being ready for prime time. Gates told the Army to come up with a new program that took into account real-world combat needs and that could deliver a new vehicle within seven years.
Not surprisingly, the Ground Combat Vehicle so far is off to a slow start. The Army this summer withdrew a request for proposals as it became clear that it was asking for “perfect solutions” that were not going to materialize any time soon.
Experts have cautioned that the Army may once again fail as it did with FCS because it is conflicted about what it wants in a next-generation vehicle. The desired technology is not available, but the pressure is mounting to deliver a new vehicle that reflects the “lessons” from the war.
Daniel Gouré, a defense consultant and analyst at the Lexington Institute, said the Army is in a tough spot because it is going to spend billions of dollars on a new vehicle that is going to be only marginally more advanced than current systems. A truly next-generation vehicle is not achievable in seven years.
The Army “needs a new combat vehicle program both to salvage something from the FCS program and to have something in the way of a new capability for future ground warfare,” Gouré wrote. But a GCV that adheres to the seven-year schedule is “likely to be nothing more than a big, heavy SUV.”
Because of the war experience and the fiscal outlook, experts predict, the Defense Department will for some time remain conflicted about how it should spend its research dollars.
In August, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Ashton Carter commissioned a Defense Science Board study to assess the department’s science and technology programs.
“This won’t be just an efficiency exercise but it will look broadly at whether we have the right portfolio,” said Gerald L. Epstein, an analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The struggle for the Pentagon is to determine how much risk it can take with R&D investments, Epstein said. The Obama administration has been hugely supportive of science and research funding, Epstein said, but that alone does not solve the Defense Department’s innovation dilemma: How many research dollars should be spent on projects that don’t provide immediate deliverables?