Waging the Future Fight
Budget Decisions and the Future of the Martial Enterprise
By Vince Martinez
Budget Freeze: the F-22 Raptor has been one of the first victims Credit photo: www.flightgear.org
11/23/2010 – Decisions, Dollars and the Future
It is no surprise that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and the MV-22 Osprey are in the sights of many within the Department of Defense (DoD) as looming budget cuts make their way to the forefront. As big ticket programs, with relatively high price tags, it is easy to make budget decisions when all you choose to be concerned about is the impact on the bottom line. Unfortunately, this type of conventional wisdom often leads to decisions against investment in truly innovative and operationally significant technologies because of high risk, and instead chooses to emphasize fiscal prudence by ascribing to an investment strategy that propagates more affordable, and often less capable solutions in order to save money. To add insult to injury, we have collectively used up our operational resources and are now willfully putting them away wet. We have been reluctant to spend the money necessary to keep our operational resources ready for war, and now we have transitioned to a point where we are even more reluctant to replace the aging gear—even if the current systems are operating well past their projected service life with no visible replacements on the horizon.
We have been reluctant to spend the money necessary to keep our operational resources ready for war, and now we have transitioned to a point where we are even more reluctant to replace the aging gear—even if the current systems are operating well past their projected service life with no visible replacements on the horizon.
Unfortunately, most of these programmatic decisions are not the byproduct of what actually happens on the battlefield. These pitched fights are waged, won or lost in the boardrooms of major Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), in the confines of service specific strategy sessions, are the direct results of sanitized budget drills, fall prey to political banter and are even driven by investment decisions on Wall Street. Most decision makers who influence these outcomes are often far removed from the operational landscape where the technologies ultimately manifest, and through no fault of their own, have been trained to view their battlespace in a completely different light than the warfighters they are meant to support. While many will point out that this is far from a new insight, it can at least be surmised that we are now–once again–in a place in history where these decisions can and will dramatically impact our ability to fight and win the next war, and can dramatically impact our ability to posture our country for future success. Those who are in key positions across the military enterprise have to be cognizant of the impacts of their decisions, and despite their relative safety from the threat of harm often experienced by the armed service members they are meant to represent and support, they must also ensure they do not approach these types of decisions lightly because the stakes are extremely high.
Production and Manufacturing Decline and the Martial Enterprise
There are significant differences between the technological landscape of today and that which was experienced in generations past. For the United States in particular, much of its production capacity has been outsourced to countries around the globe. As a direct result, the U.S. has managed to erode generations of knowledge and experience in fabrication, machining, smelting and manufacturing of precious metals and large-scale production; just to name a few. Critics would argue that trade restrictions surrounding the purchase of military equipment have preserved our wartime capacity, but reality shows that the number of manufacturing and production facilities in the U.S., along with the vast expanse of manufacturing and production expertise that comprised the work force, has declined significantly over the last 30 years. Critics will also point toward the fact that many of our manufacturing jobs have given way to more productive, hi-tech methods that better help us to satisfy the demands of our consumer based economy, and would even argue that bottom line gains have been made relative to manpower required to support a higher level of production. All logical, defendable arguments from a statistical perspective, but any battlefield commander will tell you, it is often the things that you can not see that should make you worry the most.
There are other impacts that often prove difficult to see when simply looking at the number of widgets one can produce for a given cost on a spreadsheet. For the military industrial complex, as an example, every large OEM has a long list of vendors who serve as sub-contractors in support of large Federal contracts. Many of these businesses fall into the small business category, and often do not have the luxuries of large-scale production capacity, hi-tech machinery or even a stable workforce to run them. With the cumbersome DoD acquisitions process, it is often exceedingly difficult for small companies to set aside the time and effort necessary to comply with all of the mandates and compliance issues necessary to acquire federal contracts. These companies often have to rely on the larger OEMs to provide that contracting and acquisitions expertise to actually gain work, and programs like the JSF and the MV-22 provide opportunities for small business not only to keep the doors open and provide jobs, but more importantly, also allows smaller companies to participate in the development and fielding of new, cutting edge technologies. The numbers of available sub-vendors, sadly, is dwindling by the day due to not only the impacts of a constricting Federal budget, but also the slowdown on the commercial side of the production machine. As a result, many of these companies are being forced to close their doors. This hurts everyone—large, small and Federal. And again, to add insult to injury, we have also created an environment where generations of Americans have turned away from careers in the trades as a direct result of the inconsistency of work and the lack of opportunity.
The numbers of available sub-vendors, sadly, is dwindling by the day due to not only the impacts of a constricting Federal budget, but also the slowdown on the commercial side of the production machine. As a result, many of these companies are being forced to close their doors.
The key to maintaining the advantage in martial endeavors has always been innovation. There are also exponential benefits to the U.S. economy by fostering the development of a knowledgeable, agile and experienced workforce through the martial enterprise. As companies are now seeking technological expertise and the bottom line advantages of an overseas workforce, we also are seeing a corresponding decrease in our ability to sustain those who wish to pursue the same opportunities in the United States. The martial enterprise is one of the last vestiges of a once deep bench of innovation, research and production machines that were directly responsible for winning World War II and the Cold War, and also fueled the growth of the commercial sector in robust, post-war eras. This niche of the U.S. economy not only produces technologies that provide martial advantages, but also incubates some of the best opportunities for young and old Americans alike to cultivate careers that develop and harvest ideas and technologies that are worthy of competition on a worldwide scale. The JSF and the MV-22 have changed entire technological paradigms, as an example, and are the result of aggressive innovation and investment on both the government and industry side of the fence. Based on the latest budgetary decisions surrounding those platforms, however, it is clear much of that has been lost in an overwhelmingly distracting argument about what the paperwork or the balance sheets call for. It is precisely these types of technological advances, however, that can and should serve as a catalyst for future development in the technological arena—martial and otherwise. Keeping these programs alive and well is as important to the U.S. economy as it is for military advantage, and it also serves to incentivize industry to continue to invest their own developmental dollars into new and innovative technologies that can be eventually be produced on a strategic scale.
Here come the trees…
As anyone can attest, the number of innovators out there in the U.S. market that can actually produce an F-22 Raptor, a JSF or an MV-22 are sparse. We have choked off innovation and the cultivation of business in the defense sector because of an archaic acquisitions approach that flourishes on regimented and predictable thought, cumbersome processes and procedures, and a funding strategy that views industry profit as a negative term. Without a system that rewards and funds innovation, the military industry will continue to be the landscape of giants who have the overhead and the depth to weather the fiscal drought. We will also guarantee a limited depth chart in terms of who is available to turn to in order to solve emerging issues. In the end, we only have ourselves to blame for setting the stage for some of the most innovative technologies ever fielded to go by the wayside, along with all the secondary and tertiary benefits that come along with it. How do you increase the readiness and reliability of an airplane? Innovation. How do you solve interoperability issues with other platforms? Innovation. How do you create opportunities for martial advantage in the future? Fund technological innovation on foster growth on a production level scale. If we can’t collectively see the tactical, operational and strategic advantages of the MV-22 and the JSF because we have been trained to focus on the distracters, then maybe we should try looking at those programs from a different angle; the MV-22 and the JSF are the martial enterprise’s best incubators for the future–plain and simple.
Without a system that rewards and funds innovation, the military industry will continue to be the landscape of giants who have the overhead and the depth to weather the fiscal drought.
Often, you run across military and former military people telling jokes along the lines of “…congratulations, you just managed to kill the MV-22 Program! What now Lieutenant?” Unfortunately, this is now more reality than satire. The greatest disappointment, however, is that we likely don’t have an answer to that very simple question that isn’t an evolutionary step backward. This is the time where leaders must lead. Those in the positions to do so must ensure they are bold enough to look out long and far enough to be able to differentiate the forest from the trees.