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Posted by Jolly on July 30, 2012

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Wall Street Journal, 24 July 2012
By ARTHUR HERMAN

Mitt Romney has been touting his experience at Bain Capital as a qualification for fixing Washington and the economy. Certainly there's one part of the federal government that desperately needs a president with business savvy: the Pentagon. Should they rise to the challenge, Mr. Romney and his defense-policy team can learn a lot from the last time businessmen took over from the bureaucrats in arming this country, in World War II.

Seventy years later, we need help again. Despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on defense over the last decade, our armed forces are desperately in need of modernization. Most of that money was spent fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not replacing fighters, helicopters, ships and submarines that often date back to the 1980s and '90s.

The F-35 program began in 1996 but has had so many requirements piled on it that the jet still is not operational.

People used to joke about the B-52s (last produced in 1962, despite numerous upgrades) being older than their crews. Now that's coming true for those faced with the computer-software designs that power our planes and ships.

But that modernization isn't going to happen until the Pentagon reinvents how it buys the weapons and equipment it needs. This is especially true as defense budgets inevitably will shrivel over the next decade, with or without the automatic cuts of sequestration. If we're going to maintain our military technological edge over current and potential foes, it's time to take a second look at World War II, the most rapid and successful modernization of forces in history.

In just five years we went from being the 18th-largest army in the world—with an Air Corps full of obsolete planes and a Navy built around World War I-era battleships—to a military second to none in size and sophistication. And we did it while steadily lowering costs for every weapon system we produced.

We did it not because we spent a lot of money, but because the dollars spent followed four simple business principles.

• First, we recruited the most productive and innovative companies and manufacturers to help. In 1939, most weapons for the U.S. Army were built in government arsenals or by contractors in small batches—much as they are made by a handful of big defense contractors today. The war brought in car makers like General Motors and Ford, electronics firms like GE, RCA and Westinghouse, and companies like Boeing and Lockheed that still made their living designing and building civilian aircraft. Companies that had never made a tank or machine gun or bazooka ended up producing them by the thousands—and brought their engineering expertise to every step.

The future of military technology is the kind of high-tech engineering in which American companies already are the established leaders. So why not let the Air Force ask Apple to design an iFighter? Or let the Navy ask Google to design the software architecture to power its ships and submarines? That company's skunk-works innovation team, Google X, has now developed a car that drives itself on the streets of San Francisco. Why not tap that expertise for the Pentagon's future unmanned systems?

• We kept the loop between users and makers tight. Defense contractors in World War II never forgot that their ultimate customers weren't the Air Force or Navy, but the men sailing or flying them into harm's way. At Roy Grumman's factory on Long Island, pilots would stop by his office to make suggestions on how to improve his fighter planes. Out of that came the F6F Hellcat, which eventually shot down more Japanese planes than any other fighter.

Today, multiple layers of bureaucracy oversee every stage of major weapons system. Not to mention a Congress that feels free to dictate what's made and where, and even makes the Pentagon build weapons and maintain facilities it doesn't want—for instance demanding a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. By contrast, the success the Army and Marines have had with the mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle or MRAP shows what happens when the Pentagon throws out the bureaucratic rule book and takes on a more World War II-style business model.

In 2007, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates responded to demands from the field in Iraq for a vehicle that could survive improvised explosive device, or IED, attacks by making production of the MRAP a top priority. The Pentagon didn't worry about a single common design and offered contracts to multiple companies, including some (like Oshkosh Truck) that had never made military vehicles before. By the end of 2008, more than 10,000 MRAPs were on the road in Iraq and Afghanistan. Casualties from IEDs plunged by 90%. The bureaucratic process had lost, but our men and women in uniform were the big winners.

• The MRAP example also demonstrates another key principle from World War II procurement: We didn't aim for perfection. The Hellcat, the P-51 Mustang, the F-104 Starfighter and other jets and weapons of the early Cold War were built by manufacturers to do the job at hand, with as few advance specifications as possible. (The initial one for the F-104 Starfighter was only a page and a half.) No one had time to devise the perfect weapon, which is supposed to do everything under all conditions—let alone do it for the next two decades. Today, this has become a Pentagon obsession. Witness the F-35 program, which began in 1996 but has had so many requirements piled on it that the jet still is not operational.

Successful commercial companies, on the other hand, innovate for today, not tomorrow. What will be successful in today's markets will point to the future on its own. It's what Apple did with the iPhone, and now the iPad—and what we should be doing at the Pentagon.

• We saved dollars the way a producer would, not a customer. Past efforts at acquisition reform have been aimed at trying to save the taxpayer money, usually by adding another layer of bureaucratic oversight. Instead, the Pentagon's goal should be lowering the manufacturers' costs, by helping them make weapons and war material better, faster and cheaper.

That means, for example, helping firms to develop highly efficient supply-chain and "smart" manufacturing processes to increase output, and to use the experience gained through larger-volume production to speed delivery—something the current acquisition system can't deliver. In 2009 alone, cost overruns on 95 major weapons systems came to more than $295 billion—a sum equal to almost half the current Pentagon budget.

The original father of our World War II "arsenal of democracy" was General Motors president Bill Knudsen, who used to say that "the better a thing is, the cheaper it is to make." That's a far cry from our current Pentagon business model. But it's one that will help it overcome procurement problems in the future, and a benchmark for a new arsenal of democracy for the 21st century.

It will also preserve America's military leadership before it's too late.

Mr. Herman's most recent book is "Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II," published by Random House in May.

A version of this article appeared July 24, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: What If Apple Designed an iFighter?.

 

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Comments:

Posted by butch71 on
Yes we need to back to selling war bonds like we did in World War II which paid for the war.
Posted by ChuckBerlemann on
When I was on active duty, we used to complain about the Navy's Aviation Supply Office (ASO) which provided logistic support for aviation parts and supplies. While serving at the A-6/EA-6B wing in the late 70s, I could call the ASO office in Philly and get a radar antenna on board a carrier operating in the North Arabian Sea in one week's time. Later as a civilian maintaining industrial equipment, it often took me two to three weeks to get parts shipped from the East coast to Bellingham WA. Give me military logistics anytime. The reason major weapons system procurement takes so long is that conggress is more interested in rewarding benifactors in their own districts with procurement contracts.
Posted by Maestro on
This WSJ article is spot on. The only thing I take a bit of issue with is the way the article oversimplifies MRAP, but on the whole, it's a timely reminder of what the DOD needs to refocus on. Innovate for the short term, force tight feedback loops between users and producers, integrate with industry to increase cross-talk and embedded oversight, and for the love of God stop trying to make the ultimate do-it-all gold-plated diamond-studded fighter jet.

Chuck, I bet ASO (or whomever NAVAIR maintains now) already uses civil transport in their "military" logistics. Those streams are rarely independent these days (for better or for worse).
Posted by jetjock on
Jolly,

Soon after the Viet Nam "war" was lost, I came across an article (I still have it)about a proposed retrofit for the A7E. Among other mods was an eleven inch fuselage extension, and the installation of an afterburning engine. Some electronic mods were also proposed. The ticket was in the neighborhood of below one mil per bird. Did it 'fly'? Not a chance! Who knows why, but it probably had something to do with it not costing enough to hide some profitable overruns. The A7 is probably the least talked about bird in the arsenal, but one of the most effective attack planes we had. With a burner it would have been unstoppable. The Corsair could turn on a dime, had a beautiful M-61 Vulcan cannon, eight hard stations, AND could eat an F4's lunch in a dog fight (F4 in basic engine). I know that to be a fact: I did it regularly after I came back off the target waiting for my 'charlie time'. There would have been no necessity for the F18 with a mod like that on the A7E. Do I sound like a Corsair driver? Our attack squadrons transitioned to the F18 after Viet Nam, and it was supposed to be a multi-role A/C. Load it down with ordnance, and it is an attack bird, not a fighter. Remove the bombs, and it is a fighter, not an attack bird. And it costs several fortunes, not to mention that it has been obsolete for some time. The above article on WWII could have been replayed in Viet Nam with substantially different results. Well, I guess I'm off my soapbox now. Jetjock
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