Defense Technologists Advocate ‘Early Prototyping’ of Future Weapons
It took the Air Force about a quarter-century to bring the F-22 air-superiority fighter from the drawing board to reality. Most of the Pentagon’s major weapon systems have gone through similar protracted development.
At this rate, it won’t be long before the U.S. military falls way behind the technology curve, lamented Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities.
“With a rapid, rapid pace of global technological development, we no longer have the luxury of thinking about an idea, developing it, waiting a decade or more to field these weapon systems,” she told a panel of Defense Department officials who represented the Pentagon’s research-and-development agencies.
“Threats evolve much faster than the time it takes for us to actually develop these systems such as the F-22 fighters,” she said during a committee hearing last week.
Hagan’s observation might seem a blinding flash of the obvious to anyone who has ever worked on or followed weapons programs. But the issue has resurfaced in Washington as lawmakers and defense analysts become increasingly alarmed by the poor return on the Pentagon’s technology investments. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently expressed frustration about weapons systems “taking longer, costing more, and delivering less than initially planned and promised.”
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Amos, discussing at an industry conference this month the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, characterized the acquisitions process as “constipated" and “broke."
Hagan wondered what the defense science-and-technology community might do to speed up innovation. During the hearing, Pentagon officials suggested that more “prototyping” is needed in weapons programs.
“We're trying to put more developmental prototyping in our [research] programs,” said Alan Shaffer, acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, who oversees the Pentagon’s $12 billion budget for science, research and testing.
Although prototyping is an old technique and an essential step in the development of any piece of machinery, the Pentagon has not used it effectively, as evidenced by the Defense Department’s poor track record of the past decade, when $50 billion was spent on failed programs.
More prototyping early in the development cycle can help identify problems before the government commits too much money to a program, Shaffer said. “It's much cheaper to test out concepts and capabilities in S&T [science and technology] than it is in full-up acquisition.”
Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall, who oversees the buying of all equipment, is pushing greater use of prototyping to help lower costs and shorten the development cycle, Shaffer said.
Prototyping is now a “big activity” in Army laboratories, said Mary Miller, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for research and technology. It helps to “better inform our requirements, requirements that often are reaching a little bit too far and take us a long time to achieve,” she said at the hearing. “The prototypes help to … show what is technically achievable and we can drive down risk.”
The Navy’s much-publicized laser weapon — designed to shoot down enemy aircraft — is an example of the benefits of early prototyping, said Mary Lacey, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, test and evaluation. Testing prototypes, she said, helps to “make sure that as we move into the development phase that we have provided a capability that the war fighter can actually use.”
Kendall has said the Pentagon is considering building military aircraft prototypes as a way to keep aerospace engineering employed during the coming budget downturn.
At Kendall’s request, Shaffer’s office is studying options for “late development prototyping.” That would help both validate new capabilities and keep design teams employed while the Pentagon cuts back on purchases of new equipment. Shaffer said.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency would lead this effort, he said. DARPA will “look at the pieces for the next generation fighter … that we need to keep in place so that when we actually go to the next generation aircraft, hopefully, it won't take 30 years to develop [and] we will have the right smart people in place.”
Defense industry experts long have championed greater use of prototyping earlier in a weapon’s development cycle, but question whether the Pentagon’s rigid procurement system can adapt.
“The current acquisition system is set up to predict what capabilities will be needed in the future, develop an exhaustive set of requirements, conduct a thorough design and development effort with multiple reviews and decision points, and only provide the resulting system to users after extensive testing and evaluation,” said Lee Wilbur, senior vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton, a government consulting firm. “Given the rapid changes in threats, missions, and technology that occur over this multi-year process, the resultant system more often than not is not suited for the mission needs,” he said in an interview.
The Defense Department’s "better buying power" procurement guidance — which Kendall recently updated — specifically recommends the use of prototyping and other rapid acquisition techniques. Wilbur said this policy is a “step in the right direction but there is still much more that can and should be done to fully leverage the benefits of rapid prototyping.” Additional changes in procurement regulations are crucial, he said, and “acquisition officials need to streamline the requirements process in order to reduce the cycle time.” Rapid prototyping, he explained, “avoids the potential to over-invest in solutions which are taking too long to make progress.”
An illustration of why early prototyping is easier said than done is the Army’s modernization plan, which seeks to forecast soldier equipment needs over the next 35 years.
“Thirty-five years is an awfully long time from a planning perspective,” Hagan told Miller.
“I wish I could say that we did not have platforms that lasted that long, but, ma'am, we do,” Miller replied.
For the Army, early prototyping is not always the preferred option, as seen in the service's new ground combat vehicle. The Army two years ago awarded nearly a billion dollars to two contractors to design GCV concepts. Both companies’ designs will be evaluated later this year, but no actual prototypes of the GCV are yet being built. That will come in the next phase, after the Army chooses one of the blueprints.
Photo Credit: Air Force, Defense Dept., Navy