Academic journal article McNair Papers

4. Wares of War: Hard and Soft

Academic journal article McNair Papers

4. Wares of War: Hard and Soft

Article excerpt

      Outfitting the Mesh means a shift from few complex items
   to many simple items knit together by software. For systems
   acquisition this means building from dual-use parts, fostering
   open systems, and defining a new role for software.

It is no big secret that today's acquisition system is under stress both from its own dysfunctional internal dynamics and the difficulty of accommodating the post Cold War drawdown. Problems range from very extended cycle times, continuously escalating costs, and excessive overhead, to a technology base that lags commercial developments and has not made an easy transition to commercial conversion. Important questions are being raised on the relative priority of prototyping versus equipping the force, the control of proliferation, and how the industrial base drawdown should be managed in case the United States might need it again.

These discussions tend to overlook how changes in the weapons of warfare may, themselves, affect how the acquisition system ought to be run. Not surprisingly, the optimal method of developing and acquiring elements of the Mesh will, for that reason alone, differ radically from optimal methods of developing and acquiring industrial-age weaponry.

Building Swords from Plowshares

A typical defense system starts life as an operational requirement. This requirement is converted into a basic system design which drives development programs. The design, in turn, is broken down into subsystems and components. As presently constituted, defense acquisition is predominantly demand-driven. The alternative model, which looks at what is out there and develops innovative ways of using it in defense, is far less appreciated. More generally, system designs are only modestly affected by the cost tradeoffs that routinely go into, say, automobile design decisions.

True, this logic is coming under increasing attack on its own merits. Yet, a shift from complex platforms to networks of sensors, emitters, and microprojectiles will (or at least ought to) accelerate the trend to greater cost sensitivity and growing reliance on commercial capabilities in defense acquisition.

One reason that cost competition plays such a small role in major systems issues is that contractors rarely see the sales gains from lowering their own costs. A 30 percent cut, for instance, in the cost of an F-14 carrier fighter is unlikely to result in commensurate increases in the number purchased. Other factors--prior force planning, the logistics infrastructure, the number of pilots, or carrier deck space--put an upper limit on the number of F-14s acquired. By contrast, the cheaper are the elements of the Mesh, the more densely they can be dispersed, and thus the more capable the overall system. As the elements of the Mesh become less expensive, networked sensors, for instance, can increasingly substitute for large platforms in the same function. The logic of the Mesh, overall, is heavily driven by economics. Indeed critical architectural and operational issues (e.g., what is the proper density of flooding, jamming, spoofing, decoying, and coverage) have to be decided, in large part, on the basis of which side can afford to throw what kind of resources into a thing-on-thing attrition campaign.

As the number of elements in the Mesh runs into the millions, economics will force systems to be designed around technologies already extant in commercial markets, because the latter alone are large enough to offer economies of scale. Even if military items are not, themselves, commercial items, this linkage requires closer attention to using commercial production facilities and practices. What about the counterargument: if acquisition rates are really so high, might not defense procurement alone generate the economies needed? This fails for two reasons. First, the elements of the Mesh are consumables and, in all likelihood, of relatively quick manufacture. …

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