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At AAAS Briefing, U.S. Defense Expert Urges More Nimble Military Acquisition System
Paul G. Kaminski
The United States needs to become more nimble in acquisition of military technology, using planning methods that can sharply reduce the number of years it takes to put new weapons into the field, says a long-time defense official and adviser to President Barack Obama during his election campaign.
Some of those techniques already have been used to rapidly deliver improved protection against roadside bombs in Iraq, said Paul G. Kaminski, who served as undersecretary of defense for acquisition & technology in the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton. But he noted that it can take as many as 20 years to develop a missile or aircraft today, a life-cycle that can discourage talented designers and engineers from pursuing national security careers.
With an estimated $50 billion backlog in worn-out or aging equipment, Kaminski said, it is essential for the Pentagon to find ways to reduce the development time for replacement systems. Kaminski spoke at a 13 January luncheon briefing organized by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy and the Center for Media and Security.
Acquisition periods were once much crisper, said Kaminski, who heads Technovation, Inc., a Virginia-based technology consulting company. He cited the three year turn-around on development of ICBMs in the 1960s. During the early 1980s, Kaminski led the development of the F-117 stealth aircraft in just four years (the plan had called for three years).
He said the keys to rapid deployment of systems include development planning—focusing on development of critical components, building and testing prototypes for subsystems as needed, and providing test and evaluation facilities so that new designs are well-understood before a decision is made to move to full-scale development. Such methods can reduce the life-cycle times and encourage a reinvigoration of the technical workforce, Kaminski said.
"I believe we have a critical talent shortage in the government" and parts of the defense industry, he said, with a need to infuse new science and technology talent into the mix. Kaminski recommended a new program for students similar to the National Defense Education Act of 1958 that provided graduate fellowships for thousands of students in scientific and technical fields.
Kaminski also made a strong plea for developmental planning and said there already are cases in which military technology is being rapidly fielded for insurgency operations, including equipment to protect U.S. forces from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We're doing a pretty reasonable job supporting insurgency operations," Kaminski said. Technology to deal with IEDs has been fielded in a matter of weeks rather than months or years, he said.
Asked whether the Obama administration is sensitive to the need for reforms in defense acquisition, Kaminski said: "I think these issues are going to get serious attention."
Unless life-cycle times for developing new systems are reduced, Kaminski said, the best and brightest students will continue to choose career paths in fields other than defense.
He said that 20 years can produce a half-dozen cycles of product development in the commercial sector, allowing young engineers more hands-on experience in learning how to develop new technology. "You don't learn very well when there are 20 years between steps," Kaminski said. He also said the shorter development cycles help encourage quality and performance. "There is a powerful incentive if the program manager knows that in four years this thing is going to be delivered," he said.
Kaminski cited the cell phone industry as an example of nimble technology development, with engineers constantly working on new designs and improvements about every six weeks or so. When the marketing suggests that the time is right for a new model, the companies are able to rapidly respond.
Protecting the nation's cyber infrastructure from attack is one area that will benefit from efforts to speed technology development, and attract the best and brightest from the commercial sector, Kaminski said. By its nature, cyber defense must respond rapidly to ever-changing threats.
"The more you know, the more you worry about the vulnerabilities here," Kaminski said.
He also said export controls on defense-related technology need to be reassessed in light of the new threats. Some of the controls, developed during the Cold War, may actually be doing net harm, he said, by restricting companies from sharing best practices in cyber defense technology with trusted U.S. allies overseas.
Kaminski acknowledged that the Obama administration faces some difficult decisions on whether to continue buying costly items such as the F-22 Raptor fighter at a time when critics say it is time to focus on technology more suited to the fight against terrorism and insurgency movements. Given the challenging economic environment, he said, there may be "a little more tendency to go forward" with big-ticket weapons so that the cash will flow back into the economy.
Still, he said, there is no question about the need for new approaches and more aggressive development planning as the new administration responds to urgent challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He added: "I don't want to minimize the size of the hill" that must be climbed in order to bring about lasting reforms in military technology development.
27 January 2009