Academic journal article Defense Horizons

Alternative Governance: A Tool for Military Laboratory Reform

Academic journal article Defense Horizons

Alternative Governance: A Tool for Military Laboratory Reform

Article excerpt


Throughout the Cold War, the United States maintained an edge over adversaries by fielding technologically superior warfighting systems. This strategy depended on a strong research and development (R&D) effort in both the public and private sectors, and the community of military laboratories in the Department of Defense played an essential role in the overall effort. Because of the importance of these labs during the Cold War, defense planners continually focused on ways to improve and strengthen them.

The end of the Cold War, however, shifted the focus away from laboratory improvement toward consolidation, closure, realignment, and personnel downsizing, as many came to believe much of the R&D done by the military laboratories could, and even should, be done by the private sector. Scrutiny of the labs greatly increased as a constant stream of base realignment and closure and other cost-reduction efforts sought to decrease their roles and size. Because these actions focused almost exclusively on efficiency, little attention was paid to improving the effectiveness of the labs--their ability to carry out their assigned missions. Most activity directed at improving laboratory operation has dealt with incremental modifications of the current governance model. Currently, the military labs are Government-owned, Government-operated organizations. As many studies have noted, this governance model puts the laboratories at a great disadvantage and complicates their ability to accomplish their assigned missions. Alternative approaches have been suggested by lab reformers but have never been implemented. Since the current governance model is well known, and attempts to modify it are well documented, this paper discusses several alternative governance models for the labs, with emphasis on the Government-owned, contractor-operated and Government-owned corporation models. While there would be issues with regard to conversion of an existing military lab to a Government corporation or comparable entity, the long-term, mission-enabling benefits of such a conversion could far outweigh any near-term complexities.

Studied to Death

The tenuous nature of Government ability to remain technically competent has been a matter of concern for some time. The military labs historically have been an important component of the technical competence of government. Therefore, the matter of the viability of these labs has generally emerged from studies that have addressed Government ability to fulfill its stewardship role. For example, in April 1962, David E. Bell, then director of the Bureau of the Budget (now Office of Management and Budget), submitted a report to the President on Government contracting for research and development (R&D). (1) The report noted with concern that "the developments of recent years have inevitably blurred the traditional dividing lines between the public and private sectors of our nation. A number of profound questions affecting the structure of our society are raised by our inability to apply the classical distinctions between what is public and what is private." Moreover, it pointed out that:

   the decisions which seem to us to be essential to be taken by
   government officials, rather than being contracted out to private
   bodies of any kind, are the decisions on what work is to be done,
   what objectives are to be set for the work, what time period and
   what costs are to be associated with the work, what results expected
   are to be, and the evaluation, and the responsibilities for knowing
   whether the work has gone as it was supposed to go, and if it has
   not, what went wrong and why, and how it can be corrected on
   subsequent occasions.

The Bell Report also argued that Government should "have on its staff exceptionally strong and able executives, scientists, and engineers fully qualified to weigh the views and advice of technical specialists," noting "a serious trend toward eroding the competence of the government's research and development establishment--in part owing to the keen competition for scarce talent which has come from government contractors. …

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