US Taking a New Direction in Defense?

Many defense analysts I interviewed for my Novermber 2008 Spectrum story, â''Whatâ''s Wrong With Weaponâ''s Acquisitionsâ'' felt that the US Department of Defense had missed a golden opportunity to reform its acquisition processes in the early 1990s after the Cold War had ended and the first Gulf War had been won.

Apparently, the current US fiscal crisis has created another â''opportunity to truly reform the way we do businessâ'' that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is loath to waste.

Yesterday, Sec. Gates announced a new FY 2010 defense budget which he says was â''crafted to reshape the priorities of America's defense establishment. If approved, these recommendations will profoundly reform how this department does business.â''

Gates announced nearly 20 major defense program and policy changes, including among other things the cancellation of the $13 billion Presidential helicopter program and the $26 billion transformational satellite program, the production end of both the F-22 fighter and C-17 transport aircraft, an accelerated procurement of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and an increase in the number of littoral combat ships (LCS) being bought.

You can read the transcript of his press conference yesterday for all the details.

In addition, Sec. Gates, promises to, â''reform how and what we buy; meaning a fundamental overhaul of our approach to procurement, acquisition and contracting.â'' As part of that reform he promises that DoD will now â''stop programs that significantly exceed their budget or which spend limited tax dollars to buy more capability than the nation needs. Our conventional modernization goals should be tied to the actual and prospective capabilities of known future adversaries, not by what might be technologically feasible for a potential adversary given unlimited time and resources.â''

In general, I think these are good decisions. However, whether they will stick is another matter. Already, members of Congress from districts where the cuts are going to be made are criticizing his proposed actions. Gates acknowledges that his decisions are controversial, but hopes â''that the members of Congress will rise above parochial interests and consider what is in the best interest of the nation as a whole.â''

I wish him luck with that.

Finally, if you really take an objective look at what Sec. Gates has proposed in the FY 2010 budget, it is a fairly modest reallocation of resources. The F-22 and C-17 were scheduled for production termination anyway, the current Presidential helicopter program was canceled but a new helo program will be started in its place, the LCS is still going to cost more per ship than originally advertised, etc., etc. In fact, the vast majority of defense acquisition programs remain untouched.

And as far as acquisition reform is concerned, having to promise to kill programs that significantly exceed their budgets should have been standard policy decades ago. To have to term it a fundamental acquisition reform just goes to show how fouled up defense acquisition has really become.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.