Monday, April 6, 2009

Can Gates Fix The Pentagon Procurement Mess?

CongressDaily reports that Defense Secretary Robert Gates will announce major cuts to high-cost, high-profile weapons systems, perhaps as early as this week. But as important as which particular programs get the ax is whether Gates can cure the fundamental dysfunctions in Defense procurement. A reform bill on this subject is now moving through the Senate and House.

Why do so many weapons come in behind schedule and over budget? Can Gates and Congress change the weapons-buying system radically enough to make a difference when so many reformers before have failed? Is it enough to fix the process of how weapons are bought, or is radical change required in what kinds of weapons we buy? And can the technology-loving U.S. military, now fighting two low-tech insurgencies, learn to live within its means as budgets recede from their post-9/11 highs under the pressure of the recession and federal financial bailouts?

Update: Gates announced major cuts and reforms on Monday afternoon.

-- Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.,

My Response:

In the absence of any fundamentally new military strategy, you get confusion. Here is my quick assessment.

- FCS should go away, but since Gates may not think he can cancel it, he is restructuring it to satisfy BAE and GDLS needs to produce some armored vehicles. Unclear what the spin offs are he is talking about. Virtually all of the sensor technology and robots are already in use today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sadly, no mention of reducing existing inventories of unneeded Army and Marine junk. No mention of rapid prototyping as an alternative to the current industrial age modernization system.

- Army and Marines are well on their way to a condition where nothing new replaces equipment designed in the 1970s for the next 20-30 years. Dumb.

- MRAPs are very limited in their utility. Again, if the enemy is a weakly armed guerilla in a backward country, they may be helpful in moving infantry around provided the enemy does not go off-road or operate beyond the range of rifles. The question is whether it makes sense to use conventional forces in places like Afghanistan or Iraq at all and why we should invest heavily in niche capabilities to support the wrong force for the wrong tactical mission?

- Unable to decide what we can or cannot afford let alone need in aircraft leads to a confused outcome with F- 22 and F – 35. Clearly, the F-35 may yet go away down the line due to affordability. Norwegians and Italians are already suffering sticker shock. Hard to understand why we should press ahead with the F-35 that is reportedly not ready in any way.

- ISR investments in Reaper and Predator are turning out to be vital to suppress, neutralize or destroy weak enemies in the Islamic World. May not work well against more capable enemies, but the investment is modest for what is viewed as a huge payoff (TF Odin).

- DDG 1000 is a disaster. Sounds like it may go to one demo ship and die after all.

- Too many aircraft carriers now and we don’t need any more: Single point failure problem now and in the future makes them hazardous like dreadnoughts of old. Should go down to 8 carriers now.

- LCS is prohibitively expensive, too expensive to sail into littoral waters and lose. If we are going to build more, they better be real cheap and smaller than what we are building now. No mention of the need for a common hull program with the Coast Guard that would produce 60 vessels in the 1500-2500 ton range, a range with far more utility in the realm of maritime security than what we are doing now.

- No mention of requirement for Navy nuclear attack subs. 4 of these shut down China in 36 hours. We have only 38 nuclear subs now and need far more attack boats to ensure our ability to impose the kind of conditions mentioned in Chinese waters anywhere. Compared to adding troops, it’s cheap. Unmanned Underwater Vehicles will help, but they are not a substitute for American submarine capability in a world where ASW is weak or nonexistent everywhere.

- Talk about acquisition reform sounds like a jobs program for government bureaucrats. How 20,000 more government bureaucrats will help an already complex and convoluted acquisition system is a question I cannot answer. In any case, bureaucrats cannot compensate for dumb ideas from Generals and Admirals. Need to address that problem up front. GEN (ret) Shinseki created FCS as a result of a data free/analysis free decision making process that is common in the armed forces' senior ranks.

- Adding more soldiers and Marines is a waste of money in a world where we absolutely don't want to intervene and occupy anything. Existing structures and organizations are bloated and wasteful; too much overhead and tail, too little teeth. You don't reinforce a failed structure with more troops. You reorganize, reform and extract more capability from the resources your retain. Then, you decide whether to expand or not. Current Army BCTs with the exception of the Stryker brigades are too small to operate without reinforcement as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. A complete overhaul, not an expansion is in order.

- The TBM changes make sense given the reality that until we have breakthroughs in directed energy, we cannot expect much from hit to kill technology.

- The ABL is a bust and should go away so it's being consigned to R&D. (Must fly la race track pattern directly over the launch site when the missile is launched and has 110 seconds of laser power based on a very volatile chemical mix. Targeting is still problematic. Then, it must land and refuel for many hours.)

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