As battlefield technology accelerates into the 21st century, the expertise needed to design and develop new systems that can provide the margin of victory in combat grows year by year. This cold reality has forced the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to question the way it procures complex weaponry to see if it is making the right technical decisions at the right time. It's answer to it's own question, put plainly, is no. In a report in the March issue of National Defense Magazine, a Pentagon insider argues that the DoD needs more technology-savvy people to judge the merits of new defense programs right from the start.
James F. O'Bryon, a former Defense Department deputy director of operational test and evaluation, writes that, despite overhauls to the procurement process over many years, problems continue to plague technically complex military systems. In speaking with the U.S. government's top weapons evaluator and other industry sources, O'Bryon concludes that the need for more involvement by engineers early in the development process of new weapons has become a pressing concern at the Pentagon.
"The cost of programs is generally driven by decisions that are made in the initial 10 to 15 percent of the work that's done," Charles McQueary, the DoD's director of operational test and evaluation told O'Bryon. "Developmental testing is the place to find problems. Operational testing should be the period of confirmation, not a period of discovery."
McQueary added that poor decisions are often made because the government simply lacks enough technical expertise to oversee complex programs. "You need top-notch engineering capability in the government. Unfortunately, the government has lost quite a bit of its systems engineering capabilities, and when you lose these capabilities, you tend to do too much designing without an adequate knowledge of the trade-offs," he said.
In a kind of brain drain that seems to have snuck up on military authorities, much of the government's engineering expertise in weapon design analysis has trickled away in recent times, according to McQueary. "There is a statute that requires [the undersecretary for acquisition] to certify technology readiness levels. However, the government has backed off in some of its [other] acquisition reforms ... resulting in some of the developmental test people going away. There was little work for them to do since their work was contracted out."
When asked what the Pentagon should do to remedy the problem of developmental testing vigilance, attendees at the annual National Defense Industrial Association test and evaluation conference suggested steps such as: giving testers more authority to halt systems that are unsuitable, recognizing system improvements that may not be large or significant, improving the way test funding is handled, making operational tests more mission-oriented, and placing more emphasis on operational testing during concept development.
Sounds like the U.S. military needs more of what armies and navies have needed since the advent of armed conflict: skilled engineers.