Defense Industrialist

A Thought Experiment in Bureaucratic Rivalries, Foregone Technologies, and Alternative Histories

Aircraft carriers are multi-billion dollar investments—in the case of USS Gerald Ford, some $12 billion. They take years to build—in the case of the French ship Charles de Gaulle, twelve years. They take a long time to repair—USS Eisenhower is just back from a two-year stay at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. And as the US Navy is remembering in its Optimized Fleet Response Plan, training their crews is difficult and costly. As Michael Horowitz wrote in The Diffusion of Military Power (Princeton University Press, 2010), they pose serious organizational challenges to any navy. So what if all these problems had been deemed too daunting back in the 1920s? What if the world had taken a collective pass on the aircraft carrier? The balance of bureaucratic and international rivalries would have produced alternative histories, and some intriguing military-technological trajectories.

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Think of defense contracting in four distinct market types.

Several recent headlines—
  • "Senators Call For Oversight On LRS-B Cost Estimates"
  • "Oshkosh Wins JLTV Award"
  • "Kendall ‘Open-Minded’ On Sharing RD-180 Replacement Costs"
  • "Can Secretary Carter win over Silicon Valley?"
—got me thinking about menswear and defense acquisition and why they are both so persistently difficult. It's the maddening variety of segments! If weapons were three-piece suits, the difficulty would be akin to the challenge of shopping smartly from Savile Row to Sears while still scoring points on fashionista.com.

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European arms sellers are helping shape Asian security.

Washington worries increasingly about developments in the Asia-Pacific region. The Pentagon has done more than publish a maritime strategy for that part of the world—it has begun to shift military assets that way. Yet it is often said that this is a region in which Washington will not be able to count on its traditional allies in Europe. This is notwithstanding France and the United Kingdom joining the most recent Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, and even smaller Norway coming along with its frigate Fridtjof Nansen, as a tip of the hat to the importance of American security interests in Asia. With few exceptions, Europe consists of smaller nations that may have considerable economic interests in Asia, but they can hardly be expected to join the United States in keeping the peace and managing crisis in the vast Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, many US allies in Europe believe that Afghanistan was a bridge too far for them. In any case, turbulence around the Mediterranean rim, the rise of ISIS, and an increasingly aggressive Russia under Putin will keep European militaries focused closer to home for the foreseeable future. While Washington should hardly expect European deployments of hard power to Asia, European nations have other linkages that could help shape the security environment and military behavior in the region.

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An A-10C versus F-35A experiment could be edifying, if designed well.

Politico Pro and Bloomberg have been reporting of late that the Pentagon’s Office of Test & Evaluation (OT&E) is planning a series of head-to-head close air support tests between the A-10C and the F-35A. USAF Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh had previously called that “a silly exercise”; the Lightning II, he insisted, is a combat aircraft for the “entire battlespace,” not just close air support. POGO shortly thereafter took advantage of its Google search engine to play gotcha with his “conflicting statements” on the issue. Fairly, though, the general might have used an analogy from the 1920s. In a competitive gunnery exercise between a battleship and an aircraft carrier, the battleship will win. But that doesn’t tell us to buy the battleship—just not to wind up like HMS Glorious. Unless designed carefully, such tests may not tell us much at all. So, if we were going to design such a field experiment, build a model, or hold a wargame, what would we want to know?

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A conversation with John Bryant of Oshkosh Defense 

Yesterday morning I had the opportunity to sit down with John Bryant, a senior vice president at Oshkosh Defense, to talk about his company’s big win this week. Before retiring from the Marines, the colonel was an acquisition program manager; afterwards, he taught program management at the Defense Acquisition University. So I took serious interest when he seemed at least as interested in extolling the program as his truck. Indeed, Bryant thought that the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle would eventually prove a teaching case at DAU, and not in a Joint Strike Fighter Way way. We could think about aspects of a program according to Dan Ward’s celebrated FIRE construct: if the whole thing is fast, inexpensive, restrained, and elegant, you’ll have a greater chance of success. I’ll rate JLTV well on three of those attributes. Fast this program hasn’t been, and that’s just fine. Because sometimes, as Daniel Kahneman might say, one needs to go slowly to go quickly.

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If it can hold on, Oshkosh’s win may restructure the military truck industry.

The US Army and the US Marine Corps have chosen their supplier for Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLTVs), their replacement for Humvees, and supplement to MRAP All Terrain Vehicles (M-ATVs). For now, and presumably the next decade, that supplier is Wisconsin’s Oshkosh Truck. The stakes were high, as the JLTV contract may be the last large military truck contract in North American for at least a decade. But if Oshkosh can keep its pencils sharp—and that’s a meaningful if—it may hold that franchise for a few decades after that.

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NATO needs more tiny technologies for hybrid warfare.

Our experience with counterinsurgency is not done, David Petraeus once said, because insurgents are not done. Some of those recently have been state-sponsored and Russian-speaking, but those highly empowered and malevolent insurgents have been wreaking havoc around the world with the tools of "Democratized Destruction”. Two can play that game, but in reverse. After all, those Little Green Men are using tactics that NATO’s troops spent some recent years learning to counter. Several countries around the alliance have great advantages in personal and networked information technology—think first of Estonia—and can leverage those to make "every citizen a sensor”.

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A fleet of fifteen Fords is infeasible, but smaller ships could be added fast.

On Saturday, Newport News Shipbuilding will hold a keel-laying ceremony for USS John F. Kennedy, the second of the Gerald Ford-class carriers. Ohio Governor John Kasich is running for president, and he wants yet more aircraft carriers. About five more super-carriers, though over time, as he was careful to stress at a Republican Party forum in South Carolina on Monday. Left unclear in his remarks was just how much time he meant. Cutting the carrier fleet has occupied most of that sort of discussion recently, but let’s also consider how feasible expanding it might be. Building a bunch more Fords would take decades, but the Navy could get some smaller ships much more quickly.

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With a few more F-22s, the USAF might have aimed earlier for a bomber.

The idea hasn’t gotten beyond the Duffel Blog and this column, but what if the USAF had long ago dropped the F-35A? As I noted last month, had the Pentagon foregone developing a wholly new fighter jet, the $100 billion it has spent to date on the F-35 project would have bought about 740 Eurofighter Typhoons. Euro-anything, of course, is hardly the USAF’s style, and the War Department hasn’t bought a French fighter since 1918. Doing so today is about as likely as Rob Farley getting a “Friend of the Air Force” award from General Welsh. So what else might the USAF have done? As a first-order vignette in this alternative history, let’s assume that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wouldn’t have ended the F-22 program in 2009 at 187 aircraft. That said, the answer was never just a lot more F-22s.

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Lowest price is no way to buy IT, Silicon Valley or not.

Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work and Under Secretary Frank Kendall have dispatched their team to liaise with the worthies of Silicon Valley. Secretary Carter is soon expected there on a goodwill visit as well, and the Pentagon leadership seems serious. As Defense One reported, the new office at Moffett Field will be headed by George Duchak, an engineer from DARPA and the Air Force Research Laboratory, and Brian Hendrikson, a SEAL admiral out of the Naval Academy and Harvard Business School. Those are impressive credentials, and I wish them well, but I am expecting little.

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