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Aviation Week & Space Technology January 22, 2001

Against Huge Odds, Faster Arms Acquisition


Despite decades of failed reform, the Bush Pentagon is determined to shorten the time it takes to get new weapons into the field.

Introducing weapons swiftly is paramount in a world of high-speed technological change, and the Pentagon's elephantine procurement system creates national security risks of its own, protests Defense Secretary-designate Donald H. Rumsfeld.

''It could be said that, in a sense, we are disarming or underarming ourselves by our failure to reform'' acquisition and shed unneeded facilities and organizations,'' Rumsfeld said in his Senate confirmation testimony. ''The legacy of obsolescent institutional structures, processes and organizations does not merely create unnecessary costs, it also imposes an unacceptable burden on the national defense.''

In consultation with Congress, Rumsfeld intends to come up with what he called ''omnibus approaches'' to overhaul the statutory and regulatory behemoths governing an acquisition cycle that averages about nine years, and too often stretches to 15 or 20 years for major weapons. Commercial technological development and time-to-market are often measured in months, not years.

The pace of weapons development has become slower, while the pace of technological change has become far more rapid. These opposing trends are ill-suited for meeting the expansion of 21st century asymmetrical threats and pervasive proliferation, Rumsfeld cautions. Slow development and rapid technological advance ''conspire to create a situation where it is difficult for the acquisition process to produce anything other than capabilities that are already a generation behind when deployed.''

Outside experts wish Rumsfeld luck, but consider his crusade quixotic. In the mid-1980s, a respected reform commission headed by the late industrialist David Packard made some improvements, but shorter acquisition cycles did not result. Initiatives since the Reagan days have been extravagantly advertised as the promised land of defense savings and efficiency, the end to billions of dollars sunk in ''waste, fraud and abuse.''

''We've never shortened cycle time, and it's gotten continuously longer over the last 30 years,'' says Gordon Adams, director of the security policy studies program for the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. ''Why? A combination of bureaucratic rigidities in the acquisition system, an excess of bureaucratic intervention in the process of [weapons] development and partially budgetary limitations. It is no longer, if it ever was, the result of seeking to get the last 10% of capability on a system.''

Regarding other efficiencies, Rumsfeld endorsed more ''jointness'' -- cooperation instead of rivalry among the services -- in experimentation, arms acquisition and training. The services can materially advance their interoperability if they expand their cooperation, he said.

The new Administration will conduct its own strategic review, separate from the Quadrennial Defense Review, in preparation for decisions on defense budget priorities and more efficient use of Pentagon resources -- including the advisability of major weapons cancellations. In what is considered the ''foundation document'' of Administration defense thinking, President Bush said in a campaign speech at the Citadel last September that he would give his defense secretary a broad mandate to challenge the status quo. The Administration plans to modernize existing weapons and equipment selectively, not universally, the new President said.

''I'm encouraged that Rumsfeld might [make some weapons cancellations] because he was in an environment of fiscal austerity the last time he was at the Pentagon'' in the mid-1970s, said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. ''I would hope that would make him willing and able to stand up to the services and rein in their excessively costly modernization agendas.''

Vice President Richard B. Cheney canceled the Navy's A-12 and took a run at the V-22 when he was defense secretary for Bush's father, recalled John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a research organization. ''I think Rumsfeld will take a crack at cancellations too,'' Pike predicted. ''Clearly, it will be the litmus test of whether they're serious about restructuring.''

Strategist Edward Luttwak is less sanguine. '''Skipping a generation of technology' is the kind of thing people say in campaigns and tend not to do because of the well-known antipathy among both Republicans and Democrats to actually cancel any weapons.''

''I expect some dramatic changes in defense policy, but we don't know yet how far they'll go because of the intra-Republican battle between ideological defense hawks like Rumsfeld and pragmatists like [incoming Secretary of State] Colin Powell,'' observed Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment. ''Cheney has been both a hardliner and a pragmatist, so who wins the [turf] battle in the Bush Administration?''

ASKED TO CLARIFY WHAT candidate Bush had meant by ''skipping a generation of technology,'' Rumsfeld pointed to his own decision the first time he was secretary to veto a diesel upgrade for the Army's M1 tank in favor of turbine power.

He added, however, that he did not want to leave the impression the only approach is to leapfrog from one generation of technology to a new one. The alternative is to equip existing weapons platforms with information technology upgrades, rather than replacing the platform itself.

Rumsfeld also acknowledged the erosion to an already-thinned defense industrial base that would result from weapons cancellations or skipping a generation of technology. ''The last time I looked, the three top defense contractors in size, Boeing and Raytheon and Lockheed [Martin], had a market cap[italization] that was less than Wal-Mart. Now why is that? Because doing business with the government is not a great deal.'' The defense industry's return on investment is not sufficient to attract investment ''because the government is not a good customer,'' Rumsfeld complained.

ADAMS, THE GEORGE WASHINGTON University expert, suggests that the Bush defense mandarinate thinks of ''skipping a generation of technology'' as a metaphor, not a policy. ''The metaphor -- to give them credit -- is to keep one's eye on future technologies. Unmanned aerial vehicles come to mind, for example. But as a policy it makes no sense because each successive generation of weapons incorporates incremental technological improvements. The phrase 'skipping a generation' misrepresents how technology becomes hardware.''

Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute thinks Rumsfeld has more exotic technologies in mind to ''skip to,'' given the secretary's interest in space assets. Goure ticked off the Airborne Laser and directed energy systems, among others.  

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