It is not often that government leadership discusses the importance of system engineering or complex system management, but major setbacks for the U.S. Coast Guard's $24 billion Deepwater program are casting a shadow over the use of lead system integrators on other U.S. Defense Department acquisitions. These setbacks also are highlighting the lack of government system engineering knowledge.
A few years ago, the U.S. Defense Department stated that transformation is "a process that shapes the changing nature of military competition … through new combinations of concepts, capabilities, people and organizations." It was a good enough start, but if this description is to hold, then what defines the shape of both current and future transformational success? A process without successful execution or quantitative feedback is of little value. Transformation requires more than change for change's sake.
Last month I toured an industrial site once famous for its manufacturing proficiency. In its heyday, this steel and shipbuilding facility dominated the industrial world. Sparrows Point, in Baltimore's harbor, was a symbol of U.S. manufacturing might. But, it also has a special personal connection. This former world-class facility of Bethlehem Steel—my hometown's namesake—was responsible for building the USS Saratoga, which was the post-World-War-II aircraft carrier on which I embarked for a nine-month nugget cruise as an Intruder pilot during operation Desert Storm.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps are shouldering the nation's burden in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are suffering the majority of their casualties from roadside bombs. To dramatically reduce injuries and loss of life caused by fragmentation and blast overpressure, the two services are rapidly fielding 4,000 to 6,000 mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles. There is no question that the immediate fielding of these mine-resistant vehicles will help protect our nation's most valuable military assets—service members. But is this the complete answer to a problem?
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?
In his book Capitalism and Freedom, Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman states that government by its nature contributes "enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in governmental arrangements. Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change." As a result of the crises caused by Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami that ravaged Indonesia, Congress pressured the U.S. Defense Department to deliver government-based information-sharing services to assist citizens struck by natural or manmade disasters. The need to access, share and disseminate information to save lives by rapidly coordinating humanitarian relief is paramount.
Our disabled veterans should know that their sacrifice brings opportunity and their efforts today will be rewarded with lifelong personal growth tomorrow through continued service to their government. We must seek to replenish the science and technology labor force in government with wounded veterans, not only for their sake but for our own continued survival.