Since James Mattis took the helm at the Pentagon over a year ago, America’s defense apparatus has been working to reduce the bureaucratic red tape associated with its procurement processes. The drive behind the endeavor has been shortening the timelines between identifying a pressing need and fielding an asset capable of meeting it, but Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin recently made it a point to shine a light on how the commercial side of the defense industry is also responsible for America’s slow progress in multiple fields of technology development.
While the United States is often seen as the world leader in military technologies, and its massive defense budget would seem to suggest that it should be, nearly two decades of continuous combat operations in multiple theaters created a shift in the Defense Department’s operational strategies. With most funding directed toward maintaining active operations and sustaining the equipment America has, very little emphasis has been placed on developing new capabilities aimed at deterring near-peer level threats in recent years. As a result, both Russia and China have recently begun unveiling new weapons technologies and platforms that America currently cannot match, and in some cases, can’t defend against either.
Last week, Griffin spoke before an audience of defense contractors at the Space & Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, and made it clear that, in his assessment, the contractors are as much to blame as the politicians for America’s slow progress toward developing new war fighting technologies, saying that many of the corporations relied upon to develop these programs are “mired in process,” and insinuating that the corporate structure that disperses decision making responsibilities to panels and boards is more about reducing liability than it is about accomplishing the mission.
“I will be asking you every chance I get to look at what you’re doing and find ways to either eliminate it or shortcut it,” Griffin said, “because most of what you’re doing by definition is not ‘value added.’”
Griffin went on to point out that America and China are working on developing similar technologies, but that Chinese programs are measuring advanced weapons development progress in months, while “we’re in years.” According to Griffin’s figures, this also speaks to the repeated setbacks NASA has faced in recent programs like the seemingly perpetually delayed Space Launch System that is supposed to take American astronauts back into orbit aboard a U.S. government-owned rocket. By his calculations, the average time it takes for a program to mature from a “statement of need” to “initial operational capability” is approximately 16 and a half years — a figure he believes to be far too long. When compared to the rapid progress China has made in programs like their hypersonic missiles; Griffin believes it’s not only governmental red tape but also corporate foot-dragging, that accounts for China’s and Russia’s lead in some of these areas.
“They are not inherently brighter nor do they work harder than we do. What are they doing differently? They are not doing a lot of things that clearly do not need to be done. They are not consulting a lot of people that plain just do not need to be consulted.”
He asked the room full of industry insiders to take the initiative and begin weeding out additional steps, processes, and decision making panels that have mired progress in America’s defense programs.
“You need to identify, each of you, the key decision makers, the chains of command and empower them to decide quickly,” he said. “You must not seek out committees of people to verify, validate decisions so that no one individual can be wrong. We have to get out of this mindset that all decisions have to be made perfect before they go out the front door.”
Featured image: The guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93) fires an SM-2 missile during a live-fire exercise. Sailors from the John C. Stennis Strike Group were participating in a sustainment training exercise (SUSTEX) to prepare for future deployments. | U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Jiang