Brain Drain Hurting US Defense

Todayâ''s New York Times had a story on the problems the US government is having in attracting young engineers and computer scientists into defense work. As I noted a while ago, engineers and computer scientists would rather work in the commercial sector than in government.

The article interviewed Dr. Paul Kaminski, the former Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology from 1994 to 1997, about the brain drain which has become a â''big factor in a breakdown in engineering management that has made huge cost overruns and long delays the maddening norm.â''

The loss of expertise from the retirement of engineers/computer scientists has coincided with the inability to recruit replacements. As a result, both the engineering and management talent needed in defense programs is lacking.

Kaminski also highlighted in the article the critical deficiency in systems engineering expertise found in defense programs. He recently headed a National Academy study on systems engineering (or better put, the lack thereof) in the US Air Force which resulted in a report published earlier this year titled, â''Pre-Milestone A and Early-Phase Systems Engineering: A Retrospective Review and Benefits for Future Air Force Acquisition.â''

So what happens when systems engineering expertise is missing?

Kaminski noted a military satellite system, for instance, that was â''designed to detect foreign missile launchings that ... [which] was inexplicably designed with two sensors that cannot operate simultaneously on the same spacecraft without extensive, costly shielding to prevent electromagnetic interference generated by one from disabling the other.â''

Another? How about â''a complex network of communications satellites that the Pentagon started building without a coherent plan for integration with an existing system or a consistent set of requirements to accommodate the needs of the four military services.â''

Obviously, when these types of basic elements are missing, program costs and schedules increased dramatically, and the systems don't deliver what was originally promised or expected.

As a side note, I interviewed Dr. Kaminski among many other former and current defense acquisition officials for an upcoming article on defense acquisition which is scheduled for publication in IEEE Spectrum this fall. He is a very fascinating person to talk to as well as one who is universally and very highly respected by his peers in both industry and government.


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Robert Charette
Spotsylvania, Va.
Willie D. Jones
New York City