Burning Down the Silo: An Opinion
By Barry Manz Editor
When it comes to spending taxpayer money, the U.S. Department of Defense is a master. It is also the acknowledged champion in cementing procurement processes in stone and maintaining fiefdoms in its various branches. The latter two attributes are hindrances that must either be changed, at least partially, or the development of key technologies will suffer as a result.
Of the many technological advances whose development DoD hopes to rapidly accelerate, creation of multi-function systems that would integrate radar, electronic warfare, and communications with significant sharing of hardware is somewhere in the top five. Not only would this approach potentially allow systems to be created that could be used on multiple platforms without a complete redesign as is generally the case today, it would give designers throughout the design, development, and testing “food chain” a roadmap to follow that would result in reusable subsystems and software. Finally, it would almost certainly meet stringent SWaP requirements today and in the future.
Blasting Through Bedrock
Based on the simple description in the previous paragraph, the task would certainly be extraordinarily challenging, and purely technological. But however daunting the technical challenge, it is equaled or even exceeded by the human one posed by the rock-solid, seemingly-immovable structure finely honed by DoD to develop and procure electronic systems of every kind. It virtually guarantees that there will be no synergy between services and continuation of the “one-off”, essentially proprietary designs developed by one the prime contractor winning each award. It may be possible to employ the resulting systems on different platforms, but this would be pure serendipity rather than accomplished intentionally.
Of course, this stovepipe or “siloed” approach is hardly limited to DoD: It is widely practiced by other agencies in the U.S. and throughout the world, as well as within massive industrial organizations whose disparate divisions often have no idea what the others are doing either because there is no mandate to do so or because they sometimes compete with each other and have no incentive to cooperate.
Regardless of how firmly rooted this mindset, the end of the fabled DoD stovepipe may of necessity be coming near, or at least be under threat for the reasons noted earlier. However, unpeeling this onion is not a task for the faint of heart or anyone seeking long-term government employment leading to a comfortable retirement. There are multiple reasons for this seemingly insurmountable challenge.
The most obvious is that DoD’s procurement process is work crafted over decades to suit the specific purposes of DoD and its prime contractors. It ensures that there will always be multiple manufacturers with the ability to build radars, EW systems, aircraft, and other complex systems. This in itself is a great idea, as having few U.S. sources (or even one) for these crucial systems would pose a dire threat to national security. The defense industry has already consolidated to a large extent. It also keeps politicians happy, as they can report to their constituents that they are bringing home the bacon, and ensures the employment of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country. Last but not least, it serves the interests of the Air Force, Army, and Navy, each of which wants its own systems built to its own specifications that they alone possess, and eliminates the annoyance of working with other services. So in this context the process works.
Unfortunately, it also results in a massive bureaucratic morass required to serve every unique program, which is different than any other program and thus consumes lots of money (but employs lots of people). It makes it extremely difficult to rapidly enhance systems in the field with the latest technology as each one has different requirements, eliminating the possibility of across-the-board technology upgrades. In this context, it works poorly, and slowly. DoD recognizes the problem and has no interest in delaying deployment of any system or upgrade, but the way systems are developed precludes this from happening, a fact it has frankly acknowledged many times.
Like most major upheavals, broad-based change will come about only when there is no alternative, and it seems at least possible that this day is near. DoD will unquestionably suffer cuts in spending over the next decade, some unforeseen circumstance notwithstanding. Cuts are already being made in pieces even though the details of widespread cancelations, reductions, or postponements have yet to be disclosed or perhaps even determined. Not only will this impact troop strength, readiness, education, and every other aspect of military affairs, it will impact the realization of four core technological DoD goals: modernization and increased performance, connectivity, multi-functionality, and multi-platform compatibility.
These budget cuts are occurring while the Mideast is burning, terrorism is morphing into a decentralized and potentially more lethal threat while spreading its tentacles into North Africa, Russia is moving further away from the West, access to and control of the South China Sea is hotly-contested, and Iran’s centrifuges are spinning away. If there was ever a time for positive change in procurement leading to more capable, easily upgraded, multi-platform systems that fit within a constricting budget, this is it.