Does the defense industry have the skills to build for the future?

Friday, March 3, 2007

The Defense Department has little understanding of the systems engineering methods needed in the information age. One system failure after another plagues that organization. Despite the absurdities, the Defense Department continues to defend the cost structure of these platforms and the companies that produce them without penalty. 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.Is the U.S. Defense Department suffocating under unaffordable cost overruns, catastrophic failures in engineering design, poor manufacturing quality and incompetent technical government oversight? Do defense industries have the skills to build our future, or does the feedback loop in current contracts simply reinforce failure?

Share Your Thoughts:

What do we expect when we ask soldiers to manage an increasingly complex warfighting infrastructure? The best government/military minds jump ship to industry leaving behind an overworked and under-skilled oversight team to manage the process. That combined with the "spending equals success" mentality have relegated us to a world where we acquire a million dollar pressurized pen to write in outer space when a 5 cent pencil works just as well.

Gregs article is strong on anger but weak on solutions. Each of the examples he holds up has a long and involved history that can't be piled into a generic solution. Ultimately it's got to be congress that steps up and starts dealing with these issues and protecting the taxpayers money.

Greg Glaros seems right enough to be perceptive, and wrong enough to be dangerous. What's the connection between profits and outrage? Without profits, who wants to do business? Yeah, I know, $1 million dollar space pens seem to be outrageously priced. Why can't NASA use 5-cent pencils like the Russians did? My short answer: maybe the 5-cent pencil approach is why you won't find 5-cent Russian pencils on the moon, but maybe Neil left behind one of those $1 million dollar space pens -- as a souvenir for the Russians in case they ever make it there. Uh, come to think of it, the way things are going, the Chinese, Japanese, the EU -- anybody EXCEPT America, for that matter, will probably beat the Russians to the moon and pick up Neil's forgotten pen within the next few years. But never say I'm a cynic. On some things, I'm merely a pessimist, which is a guy who has more information than the optimist does. Hmmm. Well now, maybe I'm an optimist, after all.

Seems to me the discussion is focused on the wrong topic. Perhaps if we spent billions on world peace instead of world domination we'd stop thinking about the world as an us against them race to the finish line. I'm not naive enough to think that a military presence is unnecessary, but the scale is currently tilted way too far in the wrong direction.

"Space pens" were preferred to pencils by NASA because they didn't have to be sharpened; sharpening pencils creates sawdust and graphite chips that could potentially get caught in something or create a fire hazard. A more complex solution? Perhaps, but the decision wasn't made out of desire for some sexy new technology. The requirements for military systems are just not the same as those for civilian systems, no matter how much we'd like that not to be the case.

Having been the Govt's Chief Engineer on both classified and unclassified programs, I will offer that there is too much competition for the unclassified funds for an unclas program to be adequately funded. This leads to a "bare minimum" environment that makes nearly every unclas program high risk. Even worse, if an unclas program PM admits a weakness, he is at greater loss of losing his career than getting the funds he needs to control the risk. The advantage of a Classified program was about 10-15% more budget that gave the cushion to control the risk. My opinion: Better to have three quarters of the programs if the grand majority deliver.