Over the years defense procurement programs have provided our military forces the necessary resources which has resulted in our having the most sophisticated and technically superior combat forces in the world today.
Our technical superiority is a recognized force multiplier. However, many of these programs have taken more than a decade to produce, primarily due to incorporating requirements and specifications that require overreaching performance criteria and reliability.
For example, the Navy's Mark 46 torpedo program that required a 15-year shelf life for certain components resulted in not only driving up the cost but increased sevenfold the production time per unit. Out-of-control congressional earmarks and keeping the "old boy network" alive are other factors that drive up costs.
The contractual requirements governing defense procurement programs are complex and at times confusing. The guidelines and rules incorporated in the program are designed to protect taxpayer money. However, without proper oversight, these rules can be bypassed by unscrupulous contractors and government employees. Continuous professional management oversight is the key to success. This oversight was obviously lacking on the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program that has almost doubled the cost of the first ship built by Lockheed Martin. As a result, the Navy issued a stop work order on the second ship until Lockheed Martin agreed to certain contractual requirements.
Since World War II, defense procurement has had an amazing record of technical development. In the Navy's case, Navy's civilian technologists have played major roles in developing digital computers, nuclear power, the submarine launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, guided weapons, and the Aegis defense system. The most recent evolution of Aegis is demonstrating an excellent potential for a ballistic missile defense system.
These technologists also played a major role as "intermediaries" between career Naval officers and industry in procuring ships, aircraft and weapon systems. This is no longer the case.
A recent study concluded that the Navy's in-house technical capability, much of it at Naval Warfare Centers, has been greatly diminished and is rapidly losing capability and capacity. The study also found initiatives such as "Lean Six Sigma," in effect how to reduce costs and defects, were inappropriately applied to research and development activities and further this degradation.
Some defense officials promote industry practices as a means to save money. They, in effect, approach defense programs by looking at the "bottom line." No one wants to waste taxpayer dollars. However, the bottom line must be not how much money we save but how we produce the best system to win.
Loss of technical civilian intermediaries is undoubtedly one reason procurement suffers. Another reason is the tendency to underestimate the costs of programs when they are initiated, in order to more easily "sell" the programs to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the defense secretary's office and Congress. Certainly one major factor is management — or more appropriately mismanagement — of development programs at all levels.
"Jointness" has added another factor into the procurement system. The interoperability of all our forces in combat requires that our programs be flexible and adaptable. For example, to carry out long-range strike missions, the Navy must depend primarily on availability of U.S. Air Force tankers. Unfortunately, a number of these missions have had to be canceled due to the unavailability of Air Force tanker assets, which are old and outdated.
The Air Force currently is evaluating Northrop Grumman's KC-30 and the Boeing-built KC767 to become the KC-X tanker for the future. Recent studies have shown the KC-30 has some distinct operational advantages. These studies have shown the KC-30 can carry more personnel, cargo and at least 20 percent more fuel than the KC767 and can offload 30 percent more fuel at a range of up to 1,000 nautical miles. The Air Force is expected to decide soon on one or the other version, apparently with no input from the Navy.
In an era in which nearly all procurement programs take several decades to complete, it is humbling to remember that the Lockheed "Skunk Works," the organization that designed and built the famous U-2 spy plane, was able to fly the Blackbird, (SR-71) that required incredible technical developments in only 2½ years after given the go-ahead by the US Air Force.
Compare this program to the Marines V-22 Osprey with a development budget first set at $2.5 billion in 1986 and reaching $30 billion by 1988. Then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney zeroed out the budget but was overruled by Congress. With all this program's problems, the Pentagon approved full-rate production on Sept 28, 2005.
In the time remaining for Mr. Gates and his team at the Pentagon, they could make a major contribution by streamlining current procurement procedures, eliminating confusing guidelines, building up the services civilian technologists, establishing mandated management oversight requirements and greatly expanding the Defense Department's audit capability. This could allow early identification and correction of problem areas before programs are in extremis.
Ultimately, we need confident people who will be given the responsibility and authority and then will be held accountable for the programs they managed.
James A. Lyons, U.S. Navy retired admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations and deputy chief of naval operations, where he was principal adviser on all Joint Chiefs of Staff matters.