Defense Industrialist

iRobot’s sale of its defense division to Arlington Capital indicates that commercial markets will drive innovation in autonomy.

On Politico’s Morning Defense today, Jeremy Herb asked some think-tankers what to look for in today’s budget release. Plenty wondered what spending cuts would offset the emerging Third Offset, and even suggested that our New New Thing would be getting underway more slowly than the hype would have. From the news flow, we might have thought otherwise. On Defense One this morning, Patrick Tucker wrote about the US Army’s contract with Cal-Berkeley to develop robotic cockroaches. In Small Wars Journal last week, Gary Anderson of GWU’s Elliott School wrote that "to beat ISIS, we ought to try robotskrieg”—building a droid army to clean out their mine-infested warrens. And fully a year ago on War On The Rocks, Paul Scharre was musing about the difference “between a Roomba and a Terminator” in the coming swarm. So, are hordes of hackable killer robots about to descend on our enemies—or us—or not?

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Which is the question—should carrier drones be tankers, or should tankers just be seaplanes?

Turning the US Navy’s next carrier-based drone into a tanker, as the service announced this week, is probably a reasonable idea. For some time, buddy-tanking F-18 Hornets has been a questionable use of other Hornets, but one  completely necessitated since 2009 by the full retirement of the Lockheed S-3 Viking. The drone-tanker also makes for a modest start. On the USNI blog yesterday, Commander Salamander called it a “Choice of Prudence,” questioning whether the hardware and software needed for autonomous combat aircraft were really ready for the hardest missions. As I have argued previously, this also allows the Navy to build operational experience with carrier-based drones before it proceeds with plans for a penetrating, stealthy, unmanned bomber. Pumping jet fuel through a drogue hose at altitude is a task that doesn’t clearly require an aircrew, and that doesn’t create a killer robot. But rather than questioning whether the carrier-based drone should first be a tanker, we might also ask why the fleet’s aerial tanker should be carrier-based. Then, we should ask what other questions are going unasked.

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Economies Of Scale Ain’t What They Used To Be.

Last month, while the world’s elites were gathering in Davos, Switzerland for Klaus Schwab’s World Economic Forum (WEF), I was in Washington hosting an address by the acquisition executive of the U.S. Special Operations Command, James “Hondo” Geurts. While the setting for these two occasions could not have been more different—our beverages were self-served in paper cups, it shall suffice to say—their central messages bore a striking consonance. Both underscored that talented, focused people are the keys to progress and effectiveness in an age of increasingly complex challenges. However, listening to Geurts and thinking about the particular significance of this people-first maxim for aerospace and defense brought into focus what I regard as an important corollary to the rule: economies of scale just ain’t what they used to be. Small is the new black.

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Complaints over fairness indicate how hard military procurement can be, and how strategic urgency must sometimes trump procedural justice.

In North America in the past several months, three defense contractors have complained to US and Canadian federal reviewers that they’ve been treated unfairly in procurement programs for new military vehicles. Lockheed Martin has complained about Oshkosh’s winning production of the JLTV in the US, General Dynamics has complained about BAE Systems and SAIC winning development of the ACV in the US, and Oshkosh has complained about Mack winning production of the MSVS SMP in Canada. The particulars of these cases differ, but the companies’ reactions indicate just how difficult getting military procurement decisions can be. In the case of the JLTV, the government’s reaction also indicates why sometimes the government needs the right to be wrong.

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In the USAF, mission-capable rates are not a matter of age or scale efficiencies. 

In Air Force Times this week, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  pulled some descriptive statistics from USAF records to report on “which aircraft are most mission-ready”. His list included the various types of attack, bomber, cargo (including gunship and electronic warfare), fighter, rescue helicopter, tilt-rotor, tanker, and drone aircraft currently flying in the Middle East. Mission-capable rates—the percentage of time that an airplane possibly needed for a mission actually was ready for a mission—varied over the past year from 92 percent for the MQ-1B Predator down to 47 percent for the B-1B Lancer. What the table didn’t show was how those rates related to his other two descriptors: the size of the USAF’s fleet of that aircraft type, and the average age of the aircraft in that fleet. A common refrain holds that having more of any single type of aircraft makes maintenance more scale-efficient, and that newer aircraft are easier to maintain than older aircraft. Ceteris paribus, both are almost unassailably true. For the USAF, however, neither relationship is actually putting rubber on the ramp.

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What the military departments can learn from SORDAC

Yesterday evening, the Atlantic Council hosted James “Hondo” Guerts, chief of the US Special Operations Research, Development and Acquisition Center (SORDAC), for a speech and discussion about what makes his organization different. Uniquely amongst the US acquisition executives, Geurts has integrated responsibility for research, development, procurement, and logistics across Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Contrary to some presumption, he also has no unique authorities in law. Somehow, his organization still works through the feared Federal Acquisition Regulations (FARs) to produce some impressive material successes. Something in its secret sauce is the envy of military departments trying to figure out how to quickly and cost-effectively buy hypersonics, anything labeled cyber, and those swarming refueling drones. So how can the rest of the military do some of what SORDAC does? Actually, they are already having great success with his pattern. They just need to do more of it.

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Does the future find need for fewer troops, on more ships, in more units, and more focused on small wars?

In October 1957, Commandant of the Marine Corps General Randolph Pate sent Lieutenant General Victor Krulak a brief memo with a simple question: “Why does the U.S. need a Marine Corps?” Recalling his work on a study in 1946, to save the Corps from “summary destruction” by Marine-hating President Harry Truman, Krulak responded simply that the U.S. did not need a Marine Corps. As he later wrote in his book First to Fight, the US didn’t need a lot of things, but the US wanted a Marine Corps. At a recent meeting at the Brookings Institution, I had the opportunity to take in ideas from almost a platoon of senior officers of the USMC, and many less martial-looking think-tankers from around Washington. These prompted me to devise four incendiary questions about the best future for the service.

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The long-term survivability of the LRS-B is a known unknowable.

Will the US Air Force’s new stealth bomber be sufficiently survivable? Naive calculations sometimes presume, to quote Stanley Baldwin’s 1932 speech in the House of Commons, that “the bomber will always get through.” History has proven otherwise, and at the start of a ten-year development effort, the LRS-B’s survivability is clearly a known unknowable. It’s just possible that technological developments in sensors and directed energy may indicate that American airpower will relatively fall from its position of dominance. But before the USAF lets that happen, the service has a few technological and operational options of its own to pursue.

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Does building big bombers concentrate too much power in a single platform?

Writing in Forbes two years ago, Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute argued that about $550 million would be cheap for a new bomber. The price of the LRS-B may be about half again as much as an A380 jetliner, and the latter need not penetrate air defenses. Retired Lieutenant General David Deptula of the Mitchell Institute has argued against dwelling on unit cost, asking instead, “How many targets can you kill with a couple of long-range bombers versus an armada of short-range aircraft?” The former is arguably cheaper. If those short-range aircraft came from an aircraft carrier, the full cost would be considerably greater, and the carrier itself is a big and concentrated target. But aircraft cannot absorb damage like ships, and the loss of a single bomber would still be very costly. With the LRS-B, is it too much so?

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Ash Carter’s emphasis on aircraft and quality over ships-in-quantity may be the wrong call on technology and strategy.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter just told the Navy to spend less money on ships and more on jets. In a memorandum this week, he directed Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to cap purchases of Independence and Freedom-class ships at 40 (instead of 52), to rely on one shipbuilder from 2019 onwards, and to plough the money saved into F-35Cs. Carter is torqued that the Navy for years "has overemphasized resources used to incrementally increase total ship numbers,” as if ships was what the Navy was supposed to buy. Until now, these particular ships had survived the critics, but now, the Joint Strike Fighter is eating the budget, and it must be fed. Given trends in military technology, and a fundamental question about American strategy, I do wonder if this re-emphasis on aircraft and quality over ships-in-quantity may be the wrong call.

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