Saturday, November 15, 2008

Military Development: The Lost Art

The procurement and development budget Department of Defense is under fire; this is no secret. The incoming administration wants to increase that amount of fire; this is also no secret. Experts are expecting several projects, such as the F-22, the Army's Future Combat Systems (FCS), and most of the Navy's new surface combatant programs to be cut heavily or, worse, canceled outright.

This would be, in my opinion, as stupid as stupid gets.

To be fair, however, DoD brought this on itself as much as any external force of pressure. Since the heyday of World War II, DoD's ability to procure and develop systems, while remaining impressive, has endured a severe loss of quality and effectiveness. Simply put: we don't do it like we used to.

More and more of DoD's design and development happens out-of-house. That is, not under the direct control of the Department of Defense. While this is very much an American capitalist ideal, it is not necessarily the best way to run things. In fact, the DoD should almost inarguably be the one department of our government that is 100% self-sufficient. Defense should not rely on anyone other than the defenders. That being stated, external input should always be welcomed.

There is also the American propensity to want to make "leaps and bounds" in technology before implementing improvements. In other words, we like waiting for the next big thing, rather than enduring the purchases of several stages of "little things." Economists might tell you this is the reason the Japanese overtook us in electronics and automobiles, and they would be right. This attitude of "bigger, better, now" is also what's hurting our military. And, again, we can point to the heyday of World War II.

You see, in the 1930s, 40s, and even the 50s, weapons systems obsolesced insanely quickly. Some within a year of being fielded. While most of us find that an incomprehensible concept, we would only have to look at modern computer development to find a contemporary example of such a phenomenon. While the WWII-era system of procurement and development was by no means cheap, it was wholly effective, and set the stage for our rapid advancement through the 1970s, the last great era for design and development until now.

Yes, systems were purchased and then "thrown away" quickly. But those throw-aways had benefit. They provided us with ample material to recycle, an excess of quality training tools, and, in their most important roles, served as test-beds for countless technological innovations (some major, some minor). We no longer have that capability today.

And why not? Well, bureacracy and politics. Every politician and general or admiral wants to be able to put their "stamp" on a particular system. Which means every politician and general or admiral naturally avoids the "small scale" innovations that could keep our procurement process cheap, yet continuously evolving in the field, and not just in the lab.

Take, for instance, the new rail gun system the Navy wants to field by 2025. The truth of the matter is that the Navy could field one tomorrow. But they would have to combine an old technology with a new one, and relegate their ultimate goal of "a new gun on a new ship" to a secondary goal.

The current rail guns can feasibly be mounted on a battleship. No, they're not as powerful as the Navy wants, but they're as powerful or more powerful than most of the other gun systems found in the world today. And we could test them in the field.

Instead, the Navy seems content with lab-testing a rail gun, waiting 10-years until the system is small and efficient enough to be mounted on a destroyer (of probably a new build or design), and then send it out into the world... without the data we could be accumulating by putting one of these bad boys on a battleship.

Mark my words: implementing the so-called "final design" of these rail guns will become far, far more expensive than currently expected because of our indirect policy of waiting. Just look at the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). Bloated design and development; horrendously overbudget. Look at the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Bloated design and development; horrendously overbudget. Hell, our Air Force can't even procure a new mid-air refueler with any semblance of an efficient process. And, yet, in World War II, we had weapons systems go from idea, to drawing board, to construction, to deployment in less than a year.

But we don't like looking to the past, and we certainly don't like making small, seemingly insignificant improvements. It takes too long. The end result seems less important. Nobody can try to take all of the credit. And Al Gore invented the Internet.

Seriously, we have weapons systems still in use today that were in service 30, or even 40, years ago. And why? Because those weapons systems are constantly upgraded at a consistent pace. But nobody notices. Even the services themselves seem less interested in fixing up older systems. It's not "sexy." The new shit is.

Well, sexier don't mean better.


  1. Well said!

    Posted by Geoffry on November 15, 2008 - Saturday - 1:21 PM

  2. Micah, you need to take a step back and reread what you think you've read before you comment.

    First, please point to anywhere in this piece where it states: "We should increase funding." Please. Just one spot. Anywhere. I'm begging.

    Oh, wait, you can't, because nowhere is that thesis present in this argument.

    In fact, you use the argument presented by this blog as an argument against it: our military infrastructure sucks. Last I checked, development and procurement were a part of the infrastructure supporting the military. Let me check again... yep, definitely a part of.

    Second, please point to anywhere in this piece where it states: "We should maintain the largest standing military in the world." Please. Just one spot. Anywhere. I'm begging.

    Oh, wait, you can't, because nowhere is that thesis present in this argument.

    I have no desire to see our military increase to Reagan levels. None. That military existed for one purpose: to bankrupt the Soviet Union (oh, snap... something you didn't need to point out to me) into ending the Cold War. It accomplished that with flying colors.

    Yes, 21 active-duty combat-ready divisions and 600 active-duty ships were too many, but the military under Bush I/Clinton shrunk to despicable levels... only 13 active-duty combat-ready divisions and just over 200 active-duty ships. And, no, our reserve forces didn't increase or even maintain their size... they shrunk immensely. In fact, as of today, the National Guard only maintains 8 reserve divisions, and the Army Reserves maintains 2, both of which will be inactivated at the end of this year.

    Obama himself has recognized the need to increase the size of the military, and has proposed adding 2 divisions to the active rolls. The problem is the "two-war military" concept (go read that entry if you haven't already)... cutting these programs will cause more problems than they will solve and, by the way, will result in a further hobbling of the infrastructure necessary to provide for a massive mobilization.

    On a related note, are you supporting the reinstatement of the draft?

    Posted by JeffScape on November 17, 2008 - Monday - 10:13 PM

  3. As usual, you get the small things right and the big things wrong. I typically agree with your organizational critiques of the US military but completely disagree with your larger argument: that the US military needs MORE funding. The US will remain on top as long as we can afford a large military WHEN we need it. Our ability to afford a large military comes from infrastructure, something we need to be investing in badly. Maintaining a huge standing army is not as important as having the ability to field a huge standing army WHEN we need it. Having a huge standing army constantly will bankrupt you, just ask the USSR.

    The big bad bear has returned... for a very short time. Their come back is built on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, those run out. They aren't investing in their infrastructure, instead they're wasting money on their military to make themselves feel good. Feeling good is going to cost them if they don't invest in their future, their infrastructure is still crumbling.

    I agree with you that China is a threat going into the future. They're a threat because they're working on and investing in their infrastructure as much or more than their military.

    Posted by Introspective Prophesier on November 17, 2008 - Monday - 4:37 PM

  4. and don't think it isn't possible.

    If Ronald Reagan, the actor, can be POS, and Arnold Shwarzennegar, the actor, can be governor, then anything is possible.

    Posted by Johnny O™ on November 16, 2008 - Sunday - 8:21 PM

  5. If i ever run for POS, I will ask you to be my Secretary of Defense.

    Posted by Johnny O™ on November 16, 2008 - Sunday - 8:19 PM

  6. First I was going to comment on the last line of this, then I read the comments. Almost as interesting as the piece itself. I was hoping Micah would respond to you, but no. Too bad.