Home News Pentagon brass demands innovations in weapons, culture change

Pentagon brass demands innovations in weapons, culture change

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U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Fabio Patino, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) administrative chief, salutes the American flag while Marines and U.S. Navy Sailors of the MEU and amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) man the rails of the Wasp as it arrives at Port Everglades, Fla., May 4 for Fleet Week 2015. Marines and Sailors of the MEU, from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., participated in Fleet Week Port Everglades May 4-10. The purpose of Fleet Week was to showcase the strength and capabilities of the Navy and Marine Corps team through tours, static displays and community relations events, and to provide the public the opportunity to meet and interact with Marines and Sailors. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Austin Hazard/Released)
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Austin Hazard/Released)

When retired Vice Adm. David “Decoy” Dunaway thinks about failures in the procurement programs, he also contemplates what killed once great civilizations.

“They get incredibly bureaucratic. There’s a fair amount of corruption that occurs in their bureaucracies. They get invested in huge amounts of infrastructure that they can’t maintain and sustain, and it’s too expensive to update. And they’re run by a bunch of lemmings,” said Dunaway, the moderator of an introspective gathering of the nation’s top procurement bosses Wednesday at West 2017.

Dunaway’s fears played a minor chord in a lyric that’s buzzed through the halls of San Diego’s Convention Center throughout the course of the annual convention and trade show: The and Corps need to do more to fix readiness problems as rival nations loom to challenge their superiority.

acquisition is the way the service bureaucracies manage the procurement process to buy products and services. Congressional legislation sculpts some of the process, but other regulations stem from the itself.

While the goal for all the services is to deliver the best weapons for the at reasonable prices for taxpayers, in recent years many programs have been plagued by massive cost overruns and long delays, including the much-maligned Joint Strike Fighter program, the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, the Zumwalt class of destroyers and the littoral combat ships.

A career fighter aviator, the highly decorated Dunaway also served as a test pilot and helmed the Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Maryland, so when he called for the services to “blow the culture up” he was taking direct aim at a process he knew intimately.

Echoing Dunaway were Vice Adm. Thomas Moore of Naval Sea Systems Command, Rear Adm. David Lewis of San Diego’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, Rear Adm. DeWolfe “Bullet” Miller III of the of the Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Coast Guard assistant commandant Rear Adm. Bruce Baffer and Brig. Gen. Joseph Shrader of Corps Systems Command.

Moore pointed to the gutting of the ranks of uniformed and civilian design engineers and other technological experts — from 1,300 in 1990 to under 250 in 2005. That forced the service to rely ever more on outside contractors to plan increasingly complex programs such as the littoral, Zumwalt and Ford ships.

“While speed and costs are certainly things to concentrate on, the way to not do that is to completely cut the government out of oversight and expertise and throw things over to the defense industry and say, ‘Build me this and send it back to me,'” Moore said.

Baffer said the acquisition process often gets “mired in bureaucracy,” where “things take forever.” He stressed that the services’ procurement experts need to become less “risk-averse.”

A career aviator like Dunaway, Miller noted that the also has notched procurement wins such as the MQ-25 Stingray drone refueler. That was part of a real cultural shift inside the that led to trimming the fat and delivering weapons that work for the , he said, but more needs to be done and Congress can help.

“Programs right now take too long and they cost too much,” Miller said. “So that realization is there. So what are we going to do about it? Well, we need to change our culture.”

Shrader, a who rose from enlisted grunt to flag , called for more “disruptive thinkers” in the ranks — service members who can make the system work better. Scanning an audience filled with defense contractors, he told them that they need to deliver what they promise in their contracts because “there’s no time for do-overs.”

Shrader said the need weapons that are easy to operate and maintain, and that the services must own the rights to the technology to keep future replacement costs down. He urged wider adoption of 3-D printing, which allows crews to fashion metal parts in hangars and depots instead of depending on logistical chains that can stretch across continents.

Lewis said the services could learn a few tricks from the private sector. He pointed to the makers of video games, who understand their customers very well.

“That customer expects to be an expert at that game in 10 to 15 minutes,” Lewis said. “If it takes longer than 20 minutes to learn how to play the game, that customer throws it away and tells all their friends that it’s a bad game …

“So in that world, there’s a very sophisticated set of engineers who deliver to that requirement, and I think we can do the same thing.”

cprine@sduniontribune.com

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