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‘We’ve Got To Wake Up’: Frank Kendall Calls For Defense Innovation

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

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WASHINGTON: “We’ve been complacent,” Frank Kendall said. For decades, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer said yesterday, the US has assumed its forces will be better equipped than any foe, but that’s increasingly in doubt: “Our technological superiority is very much at risk, there are people designing systems [specifically] to defeat us in a very thoughtful and strategic way, and we’ve got to wake up, frankly.”

“One of the things now hurting our force is we’ve gotten used to having nothing but very, very high-end weapons systems, ‘exquisite’ weapons systems,” elaborated one of Kendall’s aides, Alan Shaffer. “Unfortunately….potential adversaries have figured out how to counter [those] with things like very cheap electronic warfare systems,” said Shaffer, currently acting assistant secretary for research and engineering, speaking at the same defense industry conference that Kendall addressed. Those threats, Shaffer said, include “nations we don’t normally think of as technologically advanced such as Iran, which is fielding a very exquisite system of Global Positioning System jammers and integrated air defense systems.”

It takes innovation, both tactical and technological, to stay ahead of such savvy adversaries, and incentives for innovation will be a major part of the Pentagon’s next round of acquisition reforms, said Kendall. Better Buying Power 3.0 will be released in “two or three months,” he told reporters after his speech to industry group AFCEA. But Kendall made clear to the it would be a matter of incremental improvements to the existing system — “I am not a believer in silver bullets” — rather than radical change.

Yes, BBP 3.0 will continue the push to streamline bureaucracy, rely more on privately-funded research and development, and generally use more commercial business practices, but “the commercial model does not apply all the time,” Kendall warned. In theory, “we could just buy products that are already on the market, we could stop doing R&D,” he said. “A lot of our allies do this, [and] if you’re willing to be No. 2, 3, or 4, we could do that.” But if the US military wants to stay No. 1, then it can’t rely on the private sector to fund cutting-edge, military-specific R&D. No matter how much you reform, he said, such weapons programs will still take many years and taxpayer dollars.

So what can the Pentagon do to make a difference? One deceptively simple-looking measure Kendall mentioned is to write “best value” contracts that actually pay companies for exceeding performance targets, instead of awarding them to the lowest bidder who meets the minimum requirement.

That said, formal requirements aren’t holy writ. “We’ve got to start  breaking the tyranny of the requirements process,” said Shaffer. “Right now, if you look at many of the systems we’re fielding. they have this enormously long set of requirements, many of which may not matter a whole lot. We can do prototyping to build a capability, let operators play with it, then we can figure out what we really have to build.”

This “build it and they will come” approach is essentially how the Predator drone evolved from a demonstration project to a military icon. But Shaffer’s archetype of such “capability prototyping” is the famous Air Force and NASA “X-Planes,” from the Bell X-1, which broke the sound barrier in 1947, to the Boeing X-51, which broke the endurance record for hypersonic flight – six minutes at Mach 5.1 – in 2013. None of the X-designs was ever mass-produced for military service, nor were they meant to. They weren’t built to formal requirements, either. Instead, they provided not only valuable test data but, just as important, dramatic proof of what new technology could do, jumpstarting military imaginations to explore the possibilities.

Getting ideas from the X-plane stage into production will require closer cooperation between the Defense Department science and technology (S&T) community and the rest of the acquisition system, which will be a priority of Better Buying Power 3.0, said Shaffer. In one recent success, he said, the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) leapt directly from a DARPA demonstration into a formal program of record for at least 100 missiles, with program inception in 2013 and fielding set for 2018, less than five years later. “That’s pretty good,” said Shaffer. “That happened because we did the prototyping early in S&T.”

Prototypes boost innovation best in the early stages of the program, “before you go to formal lockdown of requirements at Milestone B, before you got to Critical Design Review,” Shaffer emphasized. “Post Milestone B, it’s too hard for S&T to get wedged in, and we probably don’t want to” — that’s the point where the program must focus on schedule, budget, and getting new technologies to work reliably — [so] you want to delay Milestone B as long as you can to burn the risk down.”

That said, you can never eliminate risk without eliminating innovation as well. “If you’re going to do things for the first time, it’s probably going to take you longer than you thought and it’s probably going to be harder than you thought… and some of the things you try aren’t going to work,” Kendall said. “I think we have to accept that.”

Today, Kendall feels, “we’re not taking enough risk. That doesn’t mean we should take risk wildly or stupidly… have to manage it, you have to understand it, you have to deal with it… but if you don’t take risk, you’re not going to be the No. 1 military power in the world.”

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