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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Pentagon Criticized for Losing Innovation Mojo
Pentagon Criticized for Losing Innovation Mojo
By Sandra I. Erwin



Cuts to federal spending have wreaked havoc on Defense Department research and technological pursuits, officials insist. Potential adversaries are modernizing while the next generation of U.S. weaponry remains bogged down in budget quagmires. 
As a result, the U.S. military could soon fall behind in the arms technology race, warned Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall. 

But the Pentagon also has itself to blame for losing the cutting edge, current and former defense officials contend. While budget cuts and sequestration have disrupted the Defense Department's research-and-development flow, they argue, a major impediment to innovation is a hidebound military establishment that cannot stay apace with advances in technology.

Most military weapon systems are too complex and engineered in closed architectures that make them inflexible and unduly expensive to upgrade, said Arati Prabhakar, director of the Pentagon's technology arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

It has become a "big dream" at DARPA to try to unlock the complexity of current weapon systems, and show a better and cheaper way to exploit technology, she said.

"A number of our investments at DARPA are rethinking complex military systems," Prabhakar told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee May 13. "We're coming up with powerful new approaches for new radars and weapons, new ways to do navigation and communications, new ways to architect space systems," she said.

Prabhakar elaborated further during a May 14 talk at the Atlantic Council. She said she was struck by the difficulties the Pentagon faces as it seeks to modernize its arsenal. "We are under such pressure in the Defense Department. ... People are looking at us for improvements," she said.

"The concern is that we're not on a sustainable path because of the diversity of threats and the cost of our approaches to deal with them,” Prabhakar said. Leaders are aware of the conundrum they are in, but they do not have answers.

How the military builds surveillance and electronic-warfare aircraft illustrates the problem. "You start with a big massive platform and you cram everything on to it," she said of the current approach. Advanced radar such as active electronically scanned arrays are deployed as large antennas on military aircraft. But recent advances in microelectronics allow for smaller packaging and opens up opportunities to deploy smaller and cheaper sensors and electronic jammers in greater numbers.

"We're at the point where these technologies open up other choices for us," she said. "It opens the door to restructuring the cost equation. If you create a different architecture, you could lower costs dramatically."

Another obstacle to innovation is the Pentagon's propensity to build "big, robust, work-forever" systems with closed architectures that are incompatible with other software or computers, she said. "Because of the way subsystems are tightly coupled together, it makes them hostile to advances in underlying technology," she said. "And the minute they're operational, the components are outdated. It takes costly, block upgrades to advance the underlying technology."

DARPA will seek to bring home its cheaper-can-be-better approach with its Phoenix space program, where robots are used to build and service satellites in geostationary orbit.  

Prabhakar acknowledged that DARPA, a small agency with a $3 billion a year budget, is not likely to overturn the status quo overnight. "These are very big dreams, big ambitions," she said. "It's not yet reality, but that's what we hope to demonstrate."

How the Pentagon connects with the private sector also hinders progress, she noted. Prabhakar took over DARPA in 2012 after serving on the boards of small private companies as a venture capitalist. She said she was shocked to see that the national security sector connects with a very narrow part of the broader technical community.

The Defense Department, she said, no longer has the money to develop many of the technologies it needs and should reach beyond just the defense community, the classic defense industrial base and the traditional research laboratories. Budget cuts hit DARPA hard in recent years, with a 20 percent reduction between 2009 and 2013. The Pentagon's overall research and development budget request of $63.5 billion for 2015 is down by $569 million.

"My greatest concern about U.S. military capability is not what others will do to us, but our ability to handle this fast changing landscape," she said. "In the trajectory we're on, the pace is measured in decades. Technology changes every single year. That, more than any specific technology or actor is what I worry about."

Money alone cannot fix this, she said. "We are so used to using our deep pockets in this country as a competitive advantage on the battlefield." That was an "awesome strategy as long as it lasted. It's really hurting us today."

Changing the "cost equation" in weapons systems also has been a concern of Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research. "We want to get away from using $3 million weapons to defeat a $50,000 threat," he told the Senate panel.

Klunder has been a proponent of laser weapons and electromagnetic rail guns as low-cost alternatives to big-ticket munitions. "We have weapons in development and being fielded that will allow us to reverse that asymmetrical cost advantage currently held by some of our adversaries," he said.

Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James E. Cartwright, has long been raising red flags about the Pentagon's unsustainable procurement methods.

"Platforms as a solution to a problem in the battlefield is not the way of the future," he said at the Atlantic Council. "You cannot deal in 15 to 20 year cycles. You have to deal in months," he said. The Navy's laser weapons and rail guns could be "game changers," he added.

The Pentagon's tactical fighter fleet, conversely, is an example of things going in the wrong direction, said Cartwright. "I was one of the engineers who built the Navy's F/A-18 [fighter plane]. Now we have the F-35. It doesn't go any further, doesn't go any faster, carries less weapons. ... And it costs three times as much," he said. "We're at diminishing returns."

Budget cuts might be the ultimate catalyst that forces the Pentagon to change its entrenched ways. "If you really want to make change, you need a relative crisis. The budget is enabling that," said David W. Madden, executive director of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, in Los Angeles.

The center's budget has shrunk from about $10 billion three years ago to $5.6 billion this year, Madden told a recent industry gathering on Capitol Hill. "Budget cuts are allowing us to do some things we always wanted to do but nobody would have done because of the risk associated with it, because we had the money," he said.

Joint ventures with foreign countries to share satellite communications are now being pursued, for instance. Such arrangements would have been shunned when budgets were at their peak, said Madden. "It’s significantly reducing our cost and putting our allies on the same frequencies we’re are on," he said.

In the space sector, the key to saving money and improving systems is to capitalize on commercial technology, said Madden.

Capturing low-cost commercial technology for military advantage is how many countries are advancing their defense industries, analysts said. In the Middle East, countries that traditionally rely on the United States for big-ticket weaponry are tapping commercial communications and unmanned systems technology and challenging Western suppliers, said a recent study by the Atlantic Council.

U.S. weaponry is still the "gold standard," said Mary Beth Long, former assistant secretary of defense who worked under Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates. "We have a significant edge," she said.

But current U.S. dominance is at risk because countries that currently buy American technology might soon find cheaper, comparable alternatives. "We have invested in very large systems. ... We have a distinct reluctance to downsize and make tell tale changes to programs," Long said. "This creates a hole for emerging industrialized countries to fill that gap. ... It may not be like U.S. technology, but it may be good enough.”


Photo: DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar speaks with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Credit: Defense Dept.

Comments

Re: Pentagon Criticized for Losing Innovation Mojo

RE: "Now we have the F-35. It doesn't go any further, doesn't go any faster, carries less weapons. ... And it costs three times as much," he said ...

This answers the question of how quickly out of touch a retired General can get: Darned near instantly. For the General to be accurate, and the statement 'true', it would have to be modified somewhat:

"Now we have the F-35. It doesn't go any further without a war load, but much further with one. It doesn't go any faster without a war load, but it goes much faster with internal fuel needed to go as far as it can, and with four or more weapons carried internally. It carries fewer weapons in a 'Day One' configuration, but if stealth isn't important, then it carries MORE weapons than the F-18 because it doesn't have to carry the external fuel, sensors and countermeasures the F-18 does.  And while the early LRIP jets costs more, even inflated CAPE numbers now have the F-35 full-rate production estimates costing little more than any of the later legacy designs".

The good news for the General is that, if he has 'a hair', he has standing to get himself strapped in to an F-18 and experience the helplessness the non-LO aircraft will suffer against the F-35 anytime after delivery of Block 2B software. As written, the General's words have the ring of a LO 'Science-Denier'.
I also note that Hoss' jaw-jacking, which apparently treats precision weapons and LO as if they never happened, also   brought immediately to mind what my late Father (career aerospace/test and gas turbine/helicopter man and aircraft restorer par excellence) told me years ago: "I knew you were starting to 'get' aircraft design when your first concern stopped being 'how fast does it go?'
SMSgt Mac at 5/18/2014 11:29 AM

Re: Pentagon Criticized for Losing Innovation Mojo

This is an interesting article, but does the DoD recognize that for all the R&D money it spent, the DoD hardly bought anything with it?

Here are some classic examples of R&D and testing money spent that didn't bring in any returns.  In fact, some of these systems tested out very well during trials, but DoD didn't buy any.

* M8 AGS
* Shadow RST
* Grizzly and M1 bridge layer
* Dragonfire auto-loading mortar
* Crusader 40-ton SPH
* 20-ton NLOS-Cannon
* MEADS
* SLAMRAAM or CLAWS (AMRAAM on a Humvee)
* SCAR
* ASDV (claimed to not have worked, but better than what the SEALs have now)
* SMARTruck
* TARDEC's Ultra-Light Tactical Vehicle
* M4 Armored Command Vehicle
* Stealth helicopter Commanche
* S-92M
* EFV
* Land Warrior
* 747 Airborne Laser
* Future Combat System

And that's just to name a few military programs tested and not implemented.  I don't think the issue is the lack or cutting of R&D funding, but the dead end that the funding leads.  One can study all they want, but if the studies don't lead to anything produced, well...then of course what changes and what innovation?  And look at all the innovations the Pentagon explored--stealth helicopter, 30kt. EFV, MEADS, self-enclosed SEAL swimmer delivery vehicle, auto-loading mortars, a SPH that could fire in the range of the PZH2000, SMARTruck, 747 ABL, FCS drones, etc.
Peter at 5/18/2014 4:15 PM

Re: Pentagon Criticized for Losing Innovation Mojo

A pillar of the F-35 program was supposed to be affordability based on that the program is an unrecoverable failure (eject, eject, eject!).   F-35 is unaffordable and will remain such.  It was supposed to be the same price as an F-16 (now about $40M) and will be lucky to ever break the $100M barrier.  Will we really buy 2443? No way, especially as the O&S costs are also much higher than promised.   When the actual sales decrease, as is now inevitable, the real price will be higher still.  Plus, out of that smaller buy we will still have 381 hanger queen LRIP aircraft with life limited parts.  

With regard to payload, Some F-35 folks like to talk about it's external payload but at the same time they say you can't carry anything externally anymore.  So the reality is that it will be internal carriage only. Which gives you 2 JDAMS or 4 AIM-120 missiles.   Now start counting the sorties you will need to generate with that tiny payload.  

Conclusion:  buy 300+ LRSB if you wasnt to actually project power , cut the F-35 buy dramatically and start your replacement programs, F/A-XX and F-X, ASAP.   Also look at a combat capable T-X to fill out the force structure.
Weaponhead at 5/19/2014 5:06 PM

Re: Pentagon Criticized for Losing Innovation Mojo

The DoD has problems, but they aren't when it comes to "innovation" and lack of R&D money.  There are massive capabilities gaps in the land forces, most of which could either have been filled or at the very least mitigated with programs that have existed over the last 30 years.  Yet this hasn't happened because of the DoD throwing money around and reinforcing failure in the name of "innovation" or the "Revolution in Military Affairs" or so called "force multipliers". 

Mark Ash at 5/19/2014 7:29 PM

Re: Pentagon Criticized for Losing Innovation Mojo

The difficulty the Pentagon has, or the opportunity which presents itself to competent smart civilians and disciplined military and/or para-military forces of any ilk, in any land and theatre of operations, for it is in IT and AI development fields, a universal singularity, is that the necessary innovation required to effectively deal with, and therefore lead future scenarios, is wholly cyber based and it renders traditional and conventional government and presidential executive office and banking systems fiat currency command and control leverage, subservient and catastrophically susceptible and vulnerable to cyber command based exploitation and total systems takeover by such novel special forces/virtual terrain team players.

And it should be fully expected, for all of the normally touted reasons of preserving and promoting national and international, and now internetional security and virtual protection, that the likes of a DARPA or a Qinetic or an Academi or a Unit 61398, be fully engaged in the provision of leading intellectual property for realisation of critical tactical advantage and overwhelming superiority with the express laudable purpose of supplying a product which cannot be bested in attack and is attractive to all as a proxy maintained weapon of ultimate defence ….. with an HyperRadioProActive IT Command and Control Operating System …… Virtualised SCADA Attack System.

And there be no funding supply worries for suppliers of those systems, given the fact that they can easily flash crash fiat currency provision/debt accumulation systems.
amanfromMars at 5/22/2014 11:32 AM

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