Acquisition is even more cumbersome when the United States wants to send equipment to Iraqi security forces. Any request for equipment is first given a congressional review, which takes up to a month. Then the U.S. government has to draw up a letter of acceptance, which must be signed by the Iraqi government, after which a payment schedule is negotiated. Only then can the Defense Department begin to procure the requested equipment--which itself takes time. Clearly, the longer it takes Iraqi security forces to get their equipment, the longer coalition forces will have to remain there.
Meanwhile, U.S. military strategy has only slowly started to move away from the objective it has had since the start of the Cold War: acquiring a technologically superior military capable of fighting (and winning) two major wars simultaneously. During the past decade, efforts have been under way to transform the military into a more agile force, one that can fight not only traditional wars but also irregular or asymmetric conflicts.
But while the overall strategy may be shifting, the dependence on high-technology weaponry has not. Creating and maintaining a high-tech force has proven both costly and time-consuming. Today, it takes 12 to 15 years to field a major weapons system, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). The newest U.S. Air Force jet fighter, the F-22A Raptor, was finally declared operational in December 2005--25 years after the requirement for the aircraft was approved. Although the Air Force originally planned for a force of 750 Raptors, at the current price of $138 million per plane, fewer than 200 will likely ever be built.
The weapons acquisition process is still geared toward building traditional battlefield systems like the F-22. Even after the Cold War ended--and with it, the pressure to build large numbers of complex weapon systems--decisions made decades earlier continued to prevail.
There has been no shortage of attempts to streamline weapons acquisition. Since 1975, at least 129 studies have been conducted on how to reform the process and make it more rational and responsive. Few of the recommendations have had any lasting impact, though. A March 2006 GAO report found that for the largest acquisition programs, the average estimated development time has risen from 11 years to 14 years. Even if you could design an F-22 in a single day, it would still take years to prepare the paperwork to win funding and more years of operational tests before the plane could go into full-scale production.
The financial stakes work against reform. In a report to Congress earlier this year, David Walker, comptroller general of the United States, said that annual U.S. investments in major weapons systems had doubled between 2001 and 2006, from $750 billion to more than $1.5 trillion.
Many of the defense experts I spoke with advocate a separate acquisition process to deal with the type of irregular warfare now being fought in Iraq. Robb, for one, isn't convinced that this would make much of a difference. ”The big-war crowd doesn't want to understand open-source warfare,” he says.
As Upton Sinclair once said, ”It is hard to get a man to understand something if his living depends on him not understanding it.”
Faced with the crisis in Iraq , the Pentagon has made a number of attempts to speed up the acquisitions process. The U.S. Army, for example, has established a Rapid Fielding Initiative to try to shorten the time it takes to get requested equipment to soldiers. That has enabled the deployment of the Advanced Combat Helmet, which offers better protection, comfort, and hearing, and an improved first-aid kit for treating bleeding and removing airway obstructions. The Army's Rapid Equipping Force identifies unconventional commercial products that may be of use on the battlefield. Industrial leaf blowers, for instance, are now being strapped on to vehicles to blow away dirt and debris from hidden bombs.
The Pentagon is also now granting certain high-priority projects ”rapid-acquisition authority.” That process allowed warheads for the thermobaric Hellfire missile, used to attack caves and tunnels, to be developed in just 60 days, rather than the year it might have taken.
Then there are the robots, like the PackBot and the unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs), which have proved invaluable in Iraq and elsewhere. Many of these systems are not being developed as ”programs of record”--although they're in wide use, they are still considered prototypes in the R&D phase. As such, they are continually being improved and refitted based on real-world experience. The companies that design the robots tend to be small, entrepreneurial enterprises, and therefore quick to respond and change. Already, some 3000 smaller ground robots have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 1000 unmanned aerial vehicles of various stripes have also been deployed--from hand-launched, low-altitude surveillance planes to high-altitude, remotely piloted Reaper UCAVs equipped with infrared, laser, and radar targeting as well as four air-to-ground Hellfire missiles and two 500â''pound bombs. These machines are probably the closest thing to an ”insurgent-resilient” weapons system that the West has.
The West's reliance on robotic war machines is certain to continue. Back in 2001, Congress mandated, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, that ”by 2010, one-third of the operating deep-strike aircraft of the Armed Forces are unmanned, and by 2015, one-third of the operational ground combat vehicles are unmanned.” The danger is that as the cost and complexity of the robots grow, they will cease to be considered ”expendable” assets. Already, a four-aircraft package of Reapers carries a price tag of nearly $70 million. It's not hard to imagine the day when UCAVs will end up costing as much and taking as much time to develop as the manned systems they're intended to replace.
Growing reliance on robots also raises operational--if not ethical--questions. ”What do you do when women and children come out with spray cans and hammers and start attacking your robots?” asks William Lind, a military expert with the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. ”Are you going to shoot them to defend your robots?”
And so, for the most part, such shortcuts in acquisition are mere Band-Aids. The current approach effectively decouples the needs of soldiers on the ground from the process of acquiring the equipment they'll ultimately get. No sustained attempt has been made to create an insurgent-resilient model of acquisition.
”What do you do when women and children come out with spray cans and hammers and start attacking your robots?”
What all this likely means is that when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan finally end, the Pentagon's current ”cathedral” approach will envelop robots, UCAVs, and any other interesting technology developed in the heat of battle. ”As the war winds down, the forces of standardization will reassert themselves,” says Rand Corp. vice president Thomas McNaugher, an expert on defense acquisition. ”That's likely to kill many of the innovations now in use on the battlefield.”
Robb says the solution is for defense acquisition to move away from what he calls ”point innovations”--that is, stand-alone systems--to platform-based systems. A platform, he explains, is a collection of services and capabilities that everyone gets access to. Think of the Internet and how eBay and Google exploit it.
How would such platforms work in the military sphere? Consider a project under way at the Space Vehicle Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, in New Mexico. Researchers are attempting to design inexpensive ”plug and play” satellites that could be fielded in six days or less. Each satellite would be built from a set of standard components that could then be quickly programmed to fit the specific mission.
To avoid getting trapped in a one-size-fits-all mentality, says Jim Lyke, technical advisor to the project and its principal electronics engineer, ”We intentionally made it easy to swap out a small battery for a big battery, [an] X-band radio for a Ku-band radio, and so on.” The concept is sort of like adding components and loading software onto your PC, depending on whether you want to create spreadsheets, play games, or listen to music.
”We are waging a battle against complexity,” Lyke says. The six-day target ”became a rallying theme to force us way out of our comfort zone.”
Lind of the Free Congress Foundation says it's also important to capture the innovations going on in the trenches. ”There is a tremendous amount of creativity at the junior level, but there is no outlet for it. We need to richly resource sergeants and let them tinker,” he says. ”The kinds of technology that are useful in these wars are what I call garage and junkyard technologies.” The original armor for Humvees, for instance, was cobbled together by soldiers in the field, who dubbed it ”hillbilly armor.” Once a useful technology has been discovered, Lind adds, that information can be rapidly conveyed using the military's secure intranets. The idea is to make use of information and IT just as the insurgents do.
Meanwhile, what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan is only a foreshadowing of the types of conflicts that Western countries will likely face in the coming decades. Insurgent learning will continue long after coalition forces have withdrawn from those countries. To face this future, it seems clear that the West urgently needs an insurgent-resilient process for developing and fielding effective military systems and tactics, along with a radical change in strategic thinking.
”We have to look outside the normal bureaucratic way of doing things,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates noted at a press conference in June. ”For every month we delay, scores of young Americans are going to die.” If the United States and its allies fail to embrace the need for change, they will inevitably pay the cost in both treasure and blood.
To Probe Further
Michael Kenney’s From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation (Penn State University Press, 2007) looks at the learning styles of terrorists and drug traffickers.
John Robb's Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization (John Wiley & Sons, 2007) describes the emergence of open-source warfare.
The author plans to explore the topic of weapons development and acquisition in a future issue of IEEE Spectrum.
For exclusive insights into how terrorist and insurgent groups are leveraging information technology to organize, recruit, and learn see Robert Charette's interviews with:
Lawrence Husick on how insurgents spread their message via the Web
Tom Kellermann on how terrorists are using the Internet for money laundering, fundraising, and identify theft
Michael Kenney on how extremists are really using the Internet