Pentagon’s race to modernize the military may not be marching fast enough

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If the U.S. military’s modernizing efforts don’t go faster than its aging process, the country’s got a problem. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening, according to the next guest on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. Robert McDonald is a retired CIA officer and former professor of national security at the National War College.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. McDonald, good to have you on.

Robert McDonald: Yes, thank you very much.

Tom Temin: And you have posited the thesis that, at least in the space area and the airforce area, the acquisition process is a big impediment to modernizing. Why don’t we begin though back a step and talk about what you see as the major threats and what the military sees as the big threats that they need more agile acquisition to take on?

Robert McDonald: Well, right now, it seems that China is an emerging and growing threat. It clearly has focused its attention on becoming a dominant space power, dominant military power. And it clearly has the intent to displace the United States as being the primary space organization. Obviously, if you look at the South China Sea, it’s intimidating. All the claimants that believe that they hold certain territory, China says, no, it’s theirs. China is even pressuring Japan over contested areas in the East China Sea. And if you look at the expectations of the intelligence community, it sees China building a space station within the next year or two. So it clearly is a growing threat and its work with hyperspectral weapons is quite frightening in that these are much more difficult to identify, warning becomes a problem. There tests seem to be quite effective. So on the one hand, you have this growing national security threat from China. On the other hand, there’s a question of does the U.S. acquisition system position itself to move quickly, and you need to move quickly when there is this kind of growing threat? The GAO (Government Accountability Office) has shown that there are serious problems.

Tom Temin: Right. Well, let me ask you this. Before we get into the acquisition question, what does space capability give China that we don’t have? Or how does it enhance their ability? They’ve got fighters, and they’ve got jets and carriers similar to our platforms. What about space gives people an advantage these days? Or is it they can just use space to shoot down our satellites?

Robert McDonald: Probably all of the above, what appears to be somewhat frightening is that China is integrating all of its base services, the satellite reconnaissance, navigation, communication, into its weapons and command and control system. And this would ultimately erode the U.S. military information advantage. And that advantage is necessary for hyperspectral weapons because one of the most promising ways to detect and manage that threat is through space. And if our space capability is diminished, that diminishes our ability to anticipate and counter hyperspectral weapons systems.

Tom Temin: Plus, we’re behind on the hyperspectral weapons themselves too, aren’t we?

Robert McDonald: Yes, yes, that seems to be a problem. Last year, there were U.S. tests with failure. And it seems that then that effort is not moving as quickly or as fast as it should.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Robert McDonald. He’s a senior CIA officer, retired, and former professor of national security at the National War College. So let’s get into the idea of acquisition as enabling some of these capabilities to come into the U.S. faster than they would otherwise. You’ve laid out seven basic tenants that seemed pretty simple on the face of them to reform acquisition, especially in the Air Force and the Space Force which you say are, you know, the point services on some of this effort we need.

Robert McDonald: Yeah, on the surface, the seven tenants seem to be very simple and very obvious. Often the obvious is something that is not obvious until it’s pointed out. The seven tenants are: identify the threat and objectives to overcome the threat, establish short timelines, ensure funding and staffing is adequate and stable — stable is an important factor there. Another key thing is number four the breakaway teams. They need to be small, streamlined and collaborative. The fifth tenet is employ experienced experts and in the Cold War period we studied, they recruited systems engineers and program management with extended experience. And then another key factor is draw on the latest advances in technology. There’s a lot of technology out there, take advantage and building on it. For example, the first reconnaissance satellite adapted ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) technology for its launch. It adapted airborne balloon recovery through recover film capsules coming back from space. So the technology is there, what we found is by taking advantage of it, you can move ahead much more quickly. And then one of the really key ones is number seven, avoid the bureaucratic sludge.

So those seven principles worked very effectively in the early Cold War days to get the U.S. into space. As many will recall, Sputnik was from Russia, the Soviet Union at the time, was the first satellite in space. The Americans said that they were behind, they would never catch up. By the application of the seven tenants, within months, we were there. That’s the surprise, is how quickly we were able to employ the seven tenants and move forward.

Tom Temin: Well, let me ask you this, there is increased use of other transactional authorities, which buys you prototypes. There are all of these Defense Innovation Units, AFWERX, this works, that works, lots of programs and offices being stood up to or having been stood up to try to get this velocity going, how come they haven’t produced the results needed?

Robert McDonald: I don’t know. But I would suspect that all of the seven tenants may not have been employed. One of the key is the breakaway team, which allows you to get out of the bureaucratic overhang and sludge. The other thing is that you have to encourage risk taking, and you have to permit and encourage failure. Failure is absolutely essential in working in a new domain, if you’re going to find new answers. And when the United States was trying to develop its first reconnaissance satellite, it had 12 failures, dramatic failures, oftentimes the booster would explode on launch, at times the recovery would fail, at times the orbit would be off. 12 failures, it was on number 13 that there was the first success. Failure was permitted. But each failure was a learning experience. I’m not sure that that’s permitted today. If you fail, you stop and you’re fired, and somebody replaces you.

Tom Temin: Yes. And also that stable funding from Congress, which also can be a pretty ham fisted overseer to these failures, you’ve got kind of a dual issue there up on Capitol Hill, don’t you?

Robert McDonald: Yeah, you absolutely need funding to the level necessary to meet the objective, and it needs to be stable over time. Just as the staffing needs to be stable over time. You need experts, you need money and you need failure. We found that the seven tenants created that kind of environment where there was stable funding, where there were opportunities to make mistakes and be creative.

Tom Temin: And I just wanted to ask you this sort of philosophically, do you believe that we’re still a serious nation, because a lot of military planners, a lot of writers such as yourself mentioned, let’s get Silicon Valley in here. And there’s always talk about Silicon Valley. We don’t make silicon much anymore. And that’s a big problem we’re trying to play catch up on. So Silicon Valley has become Software Valley. And so much of the software coming out of Silicon Valley seems to be designed to get people to look at stupid things so they can be sold an ad.

Robert McDonald: Yeah, obviously, this era is different from the Cold War era. And it’s going to be a much bigger challenge to apply the seven tenants for the various reasons that you pointed out. But if we can permit people to break away in a team with the brightest and the best, give them stable funding, and allow them to work on the project for more than 18 months, we can do it. We did it before. When Sputnik was launched, there was belief that the Soviets were well ahead of us in their space technology and in their weapon system. And within months, that turned out to not be the case. With regard to the U2. Eight months, it was deployed. With regard to the first spy satellite, 30 months to develop it. So we did it in the past. We can do it again. And I believe applying the seven tenants and creating the environment for risk taking and creativity get us there.

Tom Temin: Robert McDonald is a retired CIA officer and former professor of national security at the National War College. Thanks so much for joining me.

Robert McDonald: You’re welcome. Glad to do it.

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