Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth?

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While I was working on this month's IEEE Spectrum cover story, "What's Wrong with Weapons Acquisitions?", I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Norman Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, a past undersecretary of the Army and an IEEE Life Fellow. Mr. Augustine has a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience, and is truly a unique national security asset.

Mr. Augustine told me during one of the interviews I had with him that a major problem today is that government managers don't have the opportunity to gain the experience needed to manage defense programs like they used to get - to the nation's detriment.

At one time (in the 1950 - 1970s, for example), much of the R&D on future defense systems was performed at US government laboratories. I, for instance, worked my first full time job in the mid-1970s as a government electronics engineer at a Navy lab then called the US Naval Underwater Systems Center, working on developing the first all digital combat system for attack class submarines. The US Navy (and other services) engineering workforce at that time pioneered a boatload (bad pun) of computer and software engineering concepts - not the defense contracting community.

However, during the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration decided that much of the work being done in the government labs could be done cheaper, faster and better in industry, and so many of the government labs were shut down or scaled way back in terms of their mission and funding.

In point of fact, some of the work done in the labs was probably better performed in industry. Yet there was also a significant amount of R&D work that should have stayed inside the government labs but didn't. The reason is that as more and more R&D work was sent out of the labs, the government managers (most of whom previously were line engineers) started to lose their technical expertise. Government managers managers became more and more contract monitors without ever having actually worked on a weapon or defense system development. Not surprisingly, effective government program oversight started to erode as a result.

This has led to where we are today: major defense contracts in effect being managed by industry personnel, not government. I also believe it is one reason why defense programs go off the rails as they do.

As Mr. Augustine points out in the article, â''If youâ''re not smarter than your suppliers, you canâ''t manage them effectively.â''

Anyway, during our conversations, Mr. Augustine told me of a 2007 book he wrote and published by the National Academy Press called, "Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth?" The book - whose title is a takeoff of Thomas Friedman's book The World is Flat - is an examination of the root causes underlying US competitiveness, not only today but what will be the result in the future if we don't start making addressing them now.

Mr. Augustine makes a very strong case for urgent action in many areas, but two stand out above the rest: (1) America must repair its K-12 educational system, particularly in math and science, in part by providing qualified teachers to teach those subjects, and (2) the federal government must significantly increases its investment in basic research, i.e, the creation of new knowledge.

In many ways, what has happened to US competitiveness is a repeat of what happened at the government labs. A lot of US work has been outsourced overseas, where it can often be done cheaper, faster and yes, better. But the requisite investment in education in those whose jobs were outsourced has never been made to keep the nation as a whole smarter and more innovative than those countries we outsourced to.

In these times of financial trouble, Mr. Augustine's call for action will undoubtedly prove difficult, but time is a wasting. For example, in 2008, nearly 25% of aerospace workers in the US are eligible to retire, and there are not sufficient numbers of engineering and science students graduating at the universities to make up the shortfall - even if every one of them was interested in working in aerospace, which they definitely are not.

Hopefully, President-elect Obama's Administration will make mathematics and science education a high priority issue. I know from personal experience from my two young school-aged children that schools need desperate help in these two areas.

Go read Mr. Augustine's book - and I will think that you too will do as I am doing, and start demanding action to improve math and science education in schools from your newly elected or re-elected Congressperson.

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Willie D. Jones
 
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