Magazine article National Defense

Pentagon Tries to Recapture Tech Glory Days

Magazine article National Defense

Pentagon Tries to Recapture Tech Glory Days

Article excerpt

* After spending $50 billion over the past decade on failed weapons programs, the Pentagon is grasping for answers. Assorted procurement reforms have been tried, but they have delivered only marginal results.

With military budgets on a downward slope, Pentagon officials have warned that there is no more room for expensive errors. The Defense Department last year rolled out a 36-point blueprint on how to lower the cost and risk in weapons acquisitions.

It is also seeking to bring back the magic of the 1950s and '60s, when the United States produced a spate of first-rate military war planes that became icons of American airpower.

Behind much of that technological success was a secretive operation in Burbank, Calif.--called Skunk Works--run by Lockheed Corp. Now Pentagon officials are considering resurrecting the business practices of Skunk Works to inject innovation into weapon programs and cull bureaucratic bloat.

The success of Skunk Works was such that the name became a catchphrase for a business that produces advanced technology with high efficiency, and was mostly free of red tape and corporate meddling.

With the Pentagon now under growing pressure to bring programs to fruition faster and cheaper, it is understandable why Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, is turning to Skunk Works for inspiration.

"That is not how we do business today," Kendall told an industry gathering hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Decades of budget overruns, schedule delays and overall mismanagement have made Defense Department acquisition programs a target of congressional critics, watchdog groups and even the Pentagon's own leadership. Kendall said that while there are positive signs of progress in some programs, there is no clear path forward for fixing a procurement process that Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos described as "constipated."

Kendall defined the problem as more than just having to cut costs in times of shrinking budgets. The Pentagon also worries about losing its technological edge to emerging powers such as China, which are developing advanced weaponry. Under the current procurement regime, it takes decades to bring a new combat aircraft from the drawing board to the flight line.

"Some people are challenging us," said Kendall. During the height of the Iraq War, when U.S. military vehicles became frequent targets of buried bombs, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates prodded the bureaucracy to expedite the purchase and deliveries of mine-resistant trucks known as MRAPs. That program showed "how we can do things quickly," Kendall said. But buying trucks should not be compared to designing and building next-generation combat jets, he cautioned. The realization that the Defense Department's procurement system cannot deliver complex technologies at warp speed prompted the Skunk Works idea.

"I think it's something to aspire to," Kendall said.

Skunk Works received a contract from the CIA in 1955 to build a spy plane that would be flown over the Soviet Union. Named the U-2, the aircraft's first flight took place July 4, 1956. In subsequent years, Skunk Works brought forth the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk and the F-22 Raptor.

The organization's success is attributed to chief engineer Clarence Leonard "Kelly" Johnson. …

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