If the alternative is another round of acquisition reform, let’s bet on technology.

Just after our recent Disrupting Defense conference, in an interview with Marcus Weisgerber of Defense News, DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar argued that the “High Cost of Weapons Threatens Security” (17 May). Her organization wants to be part of the solution, funding potentially “powerful new approaches” in armament, sensor, navigation and communications technologies that would radically decrease the cost of fielding the next generation of weapon systems.

Dan Gouré of the Lexington Institute provided a counterpoint shortly thereafter, arguing that “Technology Is Not The Solution To The High Cost Of Weapons Systems” (19 May). It’s not that he thinks that something else is the solution. Rather, Gouré asserts that the issue is irresolvable, for two reasons. First, the government’s monopsony and penchant for small lots of large things systematically prevents it from benefiting from a “massive, open and highly competitive” market like that of consumer electronics. Second, the “countless impediments in the way of an efficient acquisition system” mean that the Pentagon would never get those technologies anyway, even if it wrote reasonable requirements.

This latter concern is understandable, but overreaching. The administrative burden of the acquisition corps functions more as goo than a wall: it doesn’t keep good ideas out, it just make them more expensive and slower to arrive. There is also some truth to Gouré’s first complaint. DARPA is frequently extolled for having provided early funding to imagination-grabbing technologies like voice-recognition and autonomous road navigation. That vaunted organization, however, did not bring either to fruition; that has required companies like Apple and Google.

But it’s often missed how that’s actually part of the plan. As the Manhattan Institute’s Peter Huber wrote of “The Palm Pilot-JDAM Complex,” way back in the May 2003 issue of Forbes,

     the military-industrial complex now consists of two relatively thin bookends to our enormous, civilian, high-tech economy. Military R&D programs push the leading-edge of development of power semiconductors, software and sensors, a decade or so out ahead of Intel, Motorola or DaimlerChrysler, then encourage the migration of successful technologies out into the civilian sector as quickly as possible. Military contractors end up buying back the same technology at mass-production prices, embedding it in every vehicle, weapon and projective on the battlefield. 

In the past eleven years, the names have clearly changed (as they are wont to do in a market economy), but the dynamics remain. DARPA’s role lies mainly at the front end of the development cycle. To understand the difference, consider the ongoing material responses, by the Navy and DARPA respectively, to the two big threats to security at sea: anti-ship missiles and submarine torpedoes.

Gouré shares the concern with Prabakhar—and others at our recent Missile Defense in 2030 conference—that “current and planned ships and planes will have insufficient magazines to counter our adversaries’ ability to deploy masses of cheaper platforms.” The economics of the munitions are even worse than that, as the interceptors often cost more than the incoming rounds. Retired General James Cartwright noted at our earlier conference that solid-state lasers are a potentially game-changing technology here, in that they have no magazines. But because lasers have been around for a long time, US Navy is now going commercial. USS Ponce deploys later this year with six welding lasers bundled together as a drone-killer. As program manager Captain Mike Ziv told Ars Technica, the big advantage of this off-the-shelf approach is energy efficiency: welding lasers had better work that way, so the Navy won’t worry about taxing ships’ electrical grids.

The problem, though, is that energy weapons are still on a slow developmental clock cycle. Missile defense people have been hoping for decades that a breakthrough is right around the corner, but it never seems to be. Expect, then, that big ships will be carrying big missiles for air defense for a long time. But big ships with big crews are also big and cost-effective targets for diesel submarines. DARPA’s radical solution is to chase the submarines with a comparatively inexpensive drone. Next year, SAIC will test for DARPA the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vehicle (ACTUV), which could track hostile diesel submarines for longer than they can stay underwater. If the submarine skipper gets angry about the pinging on his hull, torpedoing the drone won’t be a good idea—the loss of an unmanned, hundred-ton boat will just produce a flaming datum for the fleet. And if a legion of American geeks are right, it won’t ever get that far: DARPA crowd-sourced the tactics with a video game.

These are not the sorts of things that the Naval Sea Systems Command cranks out every week. But as DARPA program manager Scott Littlefield told Gizmodo, the key technologies for ACTUV “include advanced software, robust autonomy for safe operations in accordance with maritime laws, and innovative sensors“—just the sort of thing that his boss, Dr. Prabhakar, has been emphasizing. The whole point behind DARPA is that the Pentagon’s buying machine is a monopsony and a bureaucracy, but one which can desperately benefit from the commercial mass production economies of things like the satellite navigation and autonomous guidance provided in that Palm Pilot-JDAM cycle. So, if there’s to be a war on costs, I’ll be betting at least as much on DARPA as on the prospects of one more round of acquisition reform.

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