Message to Weapons Buyers: Make it Cheaper and Faster

By Sandra I. Erwin
The Pentagon has been put on notice that the days of lavish spending are over and it must make “tough choices” about what weapons to buy.

But even if the military does end up pulling the plug on wasteful spending, that still leaves unsolved another glaring problem with the way the Pentagon buys weapons: widespread customer dissatisfaction with an unresponsive procurement system that takes far too long to deliver the goods.

Just months after taking over as defense secretary, Robert Gates concluded that the only way to deploy hardware quickly enough to war zones was to circumvent the traditional buyers and create ad-hoc “rapid procurement” teams. Such was the case with the purchase of mine-resistant MRAP armored trucks and the accelerated deployment of surveillance aircraft. Former Pentagon acquisition chief Paul Kaminski estimates that, had the MRAP been put on the normal procurement track, it would have taken at least five years.

The weapon acquisitions system has become so customer-unfriendly that the Army is finding it difficult to obtain spare parts and repair services for the MRAP trucks because the vehicles are not a “program of record,” which is Pentagon-speak for weapons that have been blessed by the acquisition authorities and are included in the military’s long-term budgets.

When soldiers in Afghanistan complained that their machine guns were too heavy, the Army also went outside the system and, using “supplemental” dollars that are not part of the regular budget, asked its rapid acquisition team to reengineer the weapon. Within a short time, soldiers received a gun that was nine pounds lighter, said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff. “If I tried to pull that through the current system, God only knows how long it would have taken,” he said.

The Army needs to be able to buy off-the-shelf hardware and adapt it for combat use quickly, Chiarelli said. The MRAP is a “perfect example” of the model that should be adopted, he added. “The current system doesn’t conform to that.”

The flaws and limitations of the military’s acquisition system have been endlessly analyzed and documented by dozens of blue-ribbon and congressional panels. This month, the Pentagon’s advisory panel, the Defense Science Board, will begin yet another investigation into what it will take to fix the acquisitions process.

It’s no mystery why weapons can’t be produced fast. Traditional modernization programs seek a “99 percent” solution over a period of years, while current conflicts require 75 percent solutions over just weeks or months. “The question is whether these two different paradigms can be made to coexist in the U.S. military’s mindset and bureaucracy,” says defense industry analyst James Hasik.

Uncertainty about who future U.S. enemies might be, as well as projections that military budgets will slide, makes this an opportune time to shake things up, he writes in a recent study.

Many analysts had forecast that the post-9/11 military mobilization and the Iraq invasion would compel the Pentagon to reform its buying ways, but amazingly, the status quo for the most part has prevailed.

Hasik believes that winds of change are the forecast, mostly propelled by Gates’ desire to make the procurement system responsive to today’s “small war” needs. To satisfy Gates’ goals while keeping budgets under control, the Pentagon should study the successful weapons programs of the most recent conflicts and apply the process to the current procurement system, Hasik suggests.

He identifies the MRAP, the Predator unmanned aircraft and the JDAM (joint direct attack munition) aerial bomb as the quintessential fast-to-deploy pieces of equipment that were relatively inexpensive and gave U.S. forces a decided advantage in combat.

In military-industrial terms, the JDAM, the Predator and the MRAP are founded on “efficient, less-is-more relaxation of constraints,” he says.

The Navy would be one of the obvious beneficiaries of adopting this model, says Hasik. The size of the fleet has shrunk because ships have become too expensive. A shift from high-end multibillion-dollar ships to less costly commercial-style ships would allow the Navy to boost its numbers even in the absence of bigger budgets.

The demands of today’s conflicts and the nation’s precarious finances call for “modular, scalable, and reconfigurable systems that are adaptable to a range of threats,” Hasik says.

He acknowledges that a move toward lower cost systems — that would be built in greater quantities — would cause turmoil in the industry. “Investors and managers ought to be asking themselves how their enterprises can thrive in an industry driven by JDAM and MRAP economics,” Hasik says. He cites Depression-era economist Joseph Schumpeter, who emphasized the positive consequences of downturns: the destruction of underperforming companies, the release of capital from dying sectors to new industries, and the movement of high-quality, skilled workers toward stronger employers. In the defense industry, this could result in fresh opportunities for companies that traditionally have been shunned or ignored because they lack political clout.

“This sort of change may dramatically affect business; it may even portend a structural break, a discontinuity with past practices that remakes the industry,” he says. “For astute, capable, and fast-moving enterprises, this is opportunity.”

Topics: Armaments, Land Forces

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