January 20, 2016
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.

To understand, start with that ethos, as a professor-consultant to the outfit told me the other day, by which SOCOM views itself a “knife-fighting” organization. Development efforts thus focus on training for mental and physical awesomeness. But better knives help too. Recall next that one of the most clever applications of a knife was fixing it to the end of a musket. Between the 1660s and the 1690s, every army in Europe learned that this made pikemen superfluous. Every infantry soldier could then be a musketeer, killing both up close and at distance. The modular innovation of attaching a ring bayonet to a firearm led to an architectural change in the composition of infantry, and a further decline in the relative importance of horse cavalry. That was an early success with recombinant innovation, a significant—though not exclusive—part of how SORDAC delivers value to its war-fighters.

Not all innovation is recombination, and sticking the Legos together necessarily leads to doctrinal questions and logistical implications. All the same, it's where the low-hanging fruit is often found, because paid-up expensive equipment is already available to host the payloads. Fast-forward to the Vietnam War. Fitting a Bofors gun to a surplus C-47 or C-119 transport aircraft turned it into a gunship. Fitting precision-guidance kits on otherwise dumb bombs hugely extended the value of fighter-bombers, which were having a tough time against North Vietnamese missiles and flak guns. In both cases, the installed base was critical; as Hondo noted, he really couldn’t hope to get a few AC-130s unless Big Air Force was first getting a bunch of C-130s.

To some extent, the rest of the military has been figuring this out too. For today, take the Navy as the example. Susan Alderson, acclaimed “mother of MRAP” and now science advisor to surface naval chief Vice Admiral Tom Rowden, described the problem to me the last month as I have what I have, so how can I make it better? Rowden’s distributed lethality initiative thus aims to put anti-ship missiles on auxiliaries and amphibs. The big ships have the deck space for the weapons, and the berthing space for the modest maintenance teams that missiles-in-boxes need. We shouldn’t underestimate the implication. Perhaps your auxiliaries will now stand out as targets, but they’ll also complicate the enemy’s calculations by adding axes from which attacks can come.

The admiral is also working first to get anti-ship missiles on those littoral combat ships, and that’s a separate sore point. Last night, Hondo took a question from one of our fellows about modularity and the LCS—wasn’t that an example of how things can go awry. Yes, I’d answer, though a bad example. The Royal Danish Navy and its contractors figured out how to build and equip corvettes and frigates with the Stanflex system in the early 1990s, and are still using it today. The US Navy could have seamlessly built on that allied success, but had something bigger in mind. After ten years of trying, it just hasn’t worked out yet.

Just like the Navy wants distributed lethality, the Marines have been wanting distributed operations. Depending on deployment patterns and the operational demands of replenishing the rest of the fleet, auxiliaries might also carry those small troop-and-tiltrotor detachments, extending the Marines’ reach to every clime and place. To back them up, the Navy has lots of five-inch guns, but all could do so much better with precision-guided rounds. Whether from BAE Systems or Raytheon or another firm, the Navy will be getting some smarter cannon shells soon. (No word, though, on when the service will figure out on what ship to test that new railgun.)

Lasers on ships are a bigger technological stretch, except that there’s already one on the Ponce in the Persian Gulf. Deck space usually isn’t the limiting factor here; it's electrical power, and big ships usually have plenty of that. None of this requires a new platform; as Geurts reminded us, fitting a new airborne sensor to an old airplane is usually a more cost-effective answer than building a new airplane around an airborne sensor. The acquisition directorates of all  three military departments do this too; they just don’t make a habit of it like SORDAC does. They may have a different set of problems, but sometimes they too need to work at what Hondo called “the speed of need.”

How far can this go? Let’s remember that SOCOM has bigger, crazier projects: the plan that Admiral McRaven hatched for Ironman—er, TALOS—suits isn’t a Lego project. Even if unsuccessful, that may create some brilliant spinoffs. But the soldier-as-sensor idea remains readily attainable and still pretty compelling. To deal with that Little Green Men threat, as I wrote last August, why not citizen-as-sensor too? Half the western world is walking about with a supercomputer, a video camera, and a satellite-inertial navigation system in its pocket. At altitude, that smartphone would almost be a Predator drone—just without the missile. On the ground, in large numbers they can conceivably capture and compute their way to actionable tactical intelligence. All those assets are just waiting to be leveraged by the right code.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.