Pentagon Fears Losing Edge as Enemies Build Up Arsenals
By Sandra I. Erwin
The U.S. military arsenal historically has been regarded as a deterrent to aggression. But somehow along the way, the trends have reversed and the United States is now the one being deterred by the threat of massive enemy firepower.
The Pentagon is working on a new a game plan to regain its edge against increasingly well armed enemies, but there are no immediate solutions, Pentagon officials said March 17 at a defense industry conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by Credit Suisse and McAleese & Associates.
“We are losing our margin,” said Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition William LaPlante. The enemies of the United States have “watched us fight and learned from it,” he said.
U.S. forces expect to face hostile barrages of smart missiles and bombs in a future war. “We are trying to figure out what we’ll do” to tackle that threat, said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work. “We’ve seen the damage that anti-ship missiles can do. We’ve seen the damage that missiles can do on the ground,” Work said. Adversaries are gaining access to satellite-guided munitions and other advanced weaponry that previously were only available to Western militaries.
How to cope with massive enemy firepower is a top priority in the Defense Department’s latest effort to spur technological innovation, Work said. “Our adversaries are getting guided munitions or soon will have them,” he added. “We need to win a guided munitions salvo competition.”
Work is overseeing a technology investment plan that started out of concern that the United States is falling behind the curve and will be increasingly inhibited in the battlefield. “If you cannot convince your adversary that you cannot dominate, then they may feel emboldened to pull the trigger,” he said. The question of how to counter a salvo of guided munitions is one “we have to think through.”
LaPlante said these problems can’t be fixed with technology alone, and also will require fresh thinking on how to fight wars. “Every year the briefings get worse,” he said, referring to the intelligence reports about enemy capabilities. “We often say the best thing we do is ‘shape and deter,’” but the tables are now turning. “They are the ones shaping and deterring. I’m not sure the trend is going in the right direction, frankly.”
The Pentagon is actively seeking input from the private sector to deal with these challenges. Although many companies are eager to grab a share of the Pentagon’s R&D dollars, relationships between the Pentagon and the private sector have been frosty in recent years. Work said he would like to see a return to the days when the government and industry operated as a team. “In the 1970s, we really had a close collaborative effort with the commercial sector. It’s different today.”
The plan is to recruit innovators outside the Beltway, he said. “Secretary [Ashton] Carter spent the past year in Silicon Valley. He’s done a lot of thinking on this,” Work said.
Carter has asked the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer Frank Kendall to “set up meetings, start bringing in the young innovative entrepreneurs and say, ‘What are the key things we have to do for you to work with us?’”
High-tech commercial companies that are successful in civilian markets generally shun defense work because of the onerous red tape and auditing burdens. “A lot of commercial businesses say it’s not worth dealing with government. We recognize that problem. Secretary Carter is really focused on it,” Work said. “He’s going to introduce new energy into the system. I think you’ll see in the next 22 months a really big focus on this, on trying to become more closely aligned with commercial industry. … We have to be able to attract that talent and their ideas, or we’re going to lose this race.”
It is not clear how much money the Pentagon will be spending on these initiatives. Officials have said investments are sprinkled across the Pentagon’s $70 billion R&D portfolio.
Projects will be monitored closely by the Pentagon’s top leadership, and R&D investments are going to deliberately target problems rather than technology for its own sake, Work said. “We are looking to solve very specific operational challenges.”
To regain the munitions advantage, the Pentagon is looking for a breakthrough comparable to the Cold War-era “assault breaker” project that led to the development of tank-killing munitions with intelligent guidance systems, and later to the Hellfire missile that has become the hallmark of U.S. drone strikes.
“We need a demonstration that shows that if someone throws a salvo of 100 guided munitions, we’ll be able to ride it out,” Work said. “It doesn’t have to be a kinetic solution. Hell, I don’t want a kinetic solution” that would be so expensive that it could not be deployed in large quantities.
Another innovation gap the United States must bridge is in electronic warfare, Work said. “Electronic warfare is regarded as a combat enabler. For our enemies, it is a key part of their offensive and defensive arsenal,” he said. “We still have a lead but it is diminishing rapidly.”
Work signed a memo March 17 that directs the Defense Department to set up an “electronic warfare programs council.” The group will scrutinize EW investments across the military services and make recommendations on future spending. The council will be co-chaired by Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Sandy Winnefeld and by Kendall.
LaPlante said the Pentagon will need to shed outdated business practices if it hopes to become a technology incubator. U.S. forces in combat are “agile and adaptable” in the battlefield, he said, “but the [procurement] enterprise is not adaptable.”
The “salvo of missiles” challenge laid out by Work is a “hard problem,” LaPlante said. “You have to throw everything at it. You have to war game it, and adjust. If we don’t do this, we’re going to be out of business.”
The private sector needs to step up, LaPlante said. But the Pentagon should not expect contractors to invest in risky projects without specific guidance, he said. “When industry asks, ‘What should we invest in?’ we can’t say, ‘You tell us,’” he said. “That’s not right. We need to show them where we’re headed.”
The Pentagon should pony up R&D dollars, but by the same token, industry needs to put its best talent on programs and contribute its own independent research funds. “You should embarrass us,” he told executives at the conference. “Look at what we’re doing, find what we’re missing, and put your IRAD against it. Show it to us and embarrass us. And we’ll probably put you on contract,” La Plante said. “We need to put money against it. You need to play.”
Photo: Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work speaks at the McAleese/Credit Suisse defense programs conference at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. (Defense Department)