Pentagon Tries to Recapture Tech Glory Days
With military budgets on a downward slope, Pentagon officials have warned that there is no more room for expensive errors. The Defense Department last year rolled out a 36-point blueprint on how to lower the cost and risk in weapons acquisitions.
It is also seeking to bring back the magic of the 1950s and ‘60s, when the United States produced a spate of first-rate military war planes that became icons of American airpower.
Behind much of that technological success was a secretive operation in Burbank, Calif. — called Skunk Works — run by Lockheed Corp. Now Pentagon officials are considering resurrecting the business practices of Skunk Works to inject innovation into weapon programs and cull bureaucratic bloat.
The success of Skunk Works was such that the name became a catchphrase for a business that produces advanced technology with high efficiency, and was mostly free of red tape and corporate meddling.
With the Pentagon now under growing pressure to bring programs to fruition faster and cheaper, it is understandable why Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, is turning to Skunk Works for inspiration.
“That is not how we do business today,” Kendall told an industry gathering hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Decades of budget overruns, schedule delays and overall mismanagement have made Defense Department acquisition programs a target of congressional critics, watchdog groups and even the Pentagon’s own leadership. Kendall said that while there are positive signs of progress in some programs, there is no clear path forward for fixing a procurement process that Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos described as “constipated.”
Kendall defined the problem as more than just having to cut costs in times of shrinking budgets. The Pentagon also worries about losing its technological edge to emerging powers such as China, which are developing advanced weaponry. Under the current procurement regime, it takes decades to bring a new combat aircraft from the drawing board to the flight line.
“Some people are challenging us,” said Kendall. During the height of the Iraq War, when U.S. military vehicles became frequent targets of buried bombs, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates prodded the bureaucracy to expedite the purchase and deliveries of mine-resistant trucks known as MRAPs. That program showed “how we can do things quickly,” Kendall said. But buying trucks should not be compared to designing and building next-generation combat jets, he cautioned. The realization that the Defense Department’s procurement system cannot deliver complex technologies at warp speed prompted the Skunk Works idea.
“I think it’s something to aspire to,” Kendall said.
Skunk Works received a contract from the CIA in 1955 to build a spy plane that would be flown over the Soviet Union. Named the U-2, the aircraft’s first flight took place July 4, 1956. In subsequent years, Skunk Works brought forth the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk and the F-22 Raptor.
The organization’s success is attributed to chief engineer Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson. He was credited with putting together small teams of government and industry engineers who worked closely and chased specific, well-defined goals. Kendall said he would like to see the Skunk Works’ culture of teamwork and trust in current programs.
“I’ve asked the [military] services to propose a program they would like to take that approach with,” said Kendall. To operate like Skunk Works, program leaders will be relieved of the onerous paperwork demands and layers of administrative oversight that are common in most Pentagon projects. There would be “onsite reviews” by senior defense officials, said Kendall. “We focus on the substance” rather than on the administration. In exchange for that relative freedom, the program managers will have to assure senior leaders that both government and industry have a professional team, that requirements are precisely defined and that everyone works well together, said Kendall. “I want people who really understand the work.” In contrast to the current environment of mistrust, one of the pillars of the Skunk Works approach is a collegial environment where everyone strives toward a common goal, said Kendall. “This is an experiment worth trying. If we have some successes we might be able to broaden it.”
That is a big “if,” a former Skunk Works executive warns.
There is such deep mistrust these days between government managers and contractors that creating a Skunk Works-like environment would be a tall order, said Frank Capuccio, former executive vice president and general manager of Lockheed’s advanced technology programs who served on the original F-117 team.
Leaders such as Kendall “have the desire to make changes,” Capuccio said in an interview. “But as you go down lower in the system, they are more concerned with telling industry how to do something than deciding what they really want,” he said. The culture is “adversarial, to the point of being hostile between industry and the acquisition people.”
Bad management dooms programs, he said. “Everyone wants to believe they can ‘review’ success into a program, and [as a result] elaborate program decks come into being.”
Capuccio sees Kendall’s effort as an attempt to not only speed up development of weapons and lower costs, but also protect industrial skills that would erode in the absence of new programs.
Ultimately, the Pentagon is looking to turn around a blemished record of weapon acquisitions. “I have been watching programs get canceled because they weren’t affordable. We have done too much of that,” Kendall said. Countless initiatives to reform weapons-buying rules, including major legislation that Congress passed in 2009, so far have been mostly powerless against cost overruns.
Every defense secretary since at least the Nixon administration has sought, largely unsuccessfully, to reduce waste in Pentagon programs by rewriting policies, changing regulations and increasing oversight. There are no easy fixes, said Kendall, “that are going to ‘reform’ acquisition and make everything infinitely better overnight with one or two policy changes.”
If the Pentagon is ever going to bring back the glory days of military weapon development, the Skunk Works experiment should be worth a try.