There was never a technology they didn’t like … at a cost they could afford.
In a Naval Institute Press publication, Inside the Iron Works: How Grumman’s Glory Days Faded, George Skurla, the former chief executive officer of Grumman Aerospace, and William H. Gregory describe the failures and downfall, 30 years ago, of one of our leading naval aviation manufacturers. After reading this obituary it is easy to draw parallels to the specter that has befallen many current defense companies and acquisition guardians. We all recognize that there are many other factors responsible—congressional political influence, policy dictums, service secretaries and chiefs of service. But doesn’t anyone realize that the U.S. Defense Department is suffocating under unaffordable cost overruns, catastrophic failures in engineering design, poor manufacturing quality and incompetent technical government oversight?
For example, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the U.S. Coast Guard 140-foot fast response cutter design wallowed on the scales at more than 330 tons and was $130 million over budget. The only credible explanation is that between the layers of composite, the contractor used lead as the core material then charged 24-karat gold prices. But the Coast Guard is not alone. The U.S. Marine Corps suffered a similar failure in engineering prowess with the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, which operates for only 4.5 hours before it breaks down. Fortunately, the Marine Corps had the courage to cut production by 50 percent in favor of meeting more relevant needs by purchasing mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. To continue the saga, the U.S. Special Operations Command displayed ineptitude by spending more than $450 million for a minisubmarine that never worked. Not to be outdone, the budget overruns of both the littoral combat ship and the DD(X)/DDG-1000 destroyer are legendary; they exceed the entire budgets of every other navy.
These failures are not limited to new projects. The integration costs of adding capabilities to DDG and Coast Guard ships are too high for both the time it takes to change and the cost associated with these changes. While the system commands admirably answer urgent need statements, they conveniently leave it up to the troops to integrate capabilities on the battlefield horizontally. Nothing connects to anything else—information does not flow between systems, let alone organizations.
There is little understanding of the systems engineering methods needed in the information age. One system failure after another plagues the Defense Department. We can only wonder, Do defense industries have the skills to build our future, or does the feedback loop in current contracts simply reinforce failure?
Despite the absurdities, the Defense Department continues to defend the cost structure of these platforms and the companies that produce them without penalty. How can our nation continue to fail so consistently with such extravagance? It would seem that oversight, leadership, engineering and production have merged—with disastrous results. Two of our biggest defense companies posted record profits last year, yet no one seems to be outraged. If we protected our troops as well as we do these programs, the loss of so many fine men and women in combat certainly would decline.
Where do we go from here? Whom do we hold up as examples, both positive and negative? More importantly, who is individually accountable for these fiscal disasters? As defense contractors fault ever-changing government requirements, and the government accuses the contractors of excess, the solution rests with neither of them. Three decades of ineptitude and price gouging exempts them both. While the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee encouraged the commissioning of a “blue ribbon” panel to implement open architecture for platforms to solve these problems, our troops wait.
What is necessary are program and engineering processes that assess, analyze and create a framework of options where all elements fit together temporally and asynchronously. If new systems cannot easily accept the pace of emerging technology or adapt readily to changing threats, then terminate those programs. Current platforms that do not have networked information architectures that reflect operational information flows and tactical reality should be canceled. The Defense Department must learn to determine the system engineering trade-offs between the levels of integration needed and the depth of networking available, then drive system design by usability and flexibility to change. Information-dependent systems by their very nature are dynamic and must adapt to specific user activities and an ever-changing environment. The problems we face are neither technical nor organizational, but instead are burdened by the enormous and growing complexity of information system interoperability and the speed of global competition.
Criticism this candid does not endear the critic to the establishment, but as responsible citizens we must voice our outrage. We all should be concerned with our reliance on existing proprietary programs that pose barriers to an open competitive environment and restrict access to the abundant technological innovations available in the broader
SIGNAL Magazine welcomes reader feedback on the “Incoming” column at email@example.com. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of SIGNAL or AFCEA International.