New payloads for old platforms may be the best we can hope for.

At our Disrupting Defense conference last week, DARPA Director Arati Prabakhar expressed some surprise that Pentagon officials have been asking her for radical ways out of their budgetary predicament:

     Usually budget pressure translates to incrementalism for R&D because people say ‘what have you done for me lately—solve today’s problems… I’ve been really surprised to find the level of concern that we’re not on a sustainable path because of the diversity of threats and the cost of our approaches to deal with them.

But as Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners related to Defense News, this theory is the “polar opposite” of what the House Armed Services Committee has in mind. Rather than doubling down on R&D, the HASC’s markup of the Pentagon’s 2015 budget proposal demands that the military maintain old fleets like that of the A-10 attack plane. Outgoing Chairman Buck McKeon thinks that “it’s best for the nation right now that we hold on to as much as we can, hoping we find ourselves in a better place.”

In quoting him, Jen DiMascio of Aviation Week & Space Technology entitled her article “Bucking Reality” (12 May 2014, p. 19). I just say that hope is not a strategy. But is there a way forward that synthesizes these two approaches?

The Pentagon and the Congress were in this position not so long ago, during the last down cycle in American military spending, which lasted from about 1985 through 1997. But almost the whole way, the Pentagon was unwarrantedly optimistic about its budgets. As research by Marty Bollinger’s team at Booz & Company (now Price Waterhouse) showed for Aviation Week’s 2011 Affordability Conference (see page 17 of the briefing), every Pentagon budget forecast from 1982 through 1993 proved overly optimistic. While none thereafter were, the large procurement programs that had been started in the 1980s were, by the early-1990s, threatening to cause a budgetary train wreck.

Consequently, the military services found themselves making unplanned, difficult choices. With constrained budgets, and great leaps forward that were proving unworkable or too expensive, the military aimed for that incrementalism Prabakhar described. Consider the Navy: instead of A-12 carrier-based stealth bombers, the service got F-18E/F Super Hornets. Instead of Seawolf submarines, it got the much less expensive Virginias. And with only halting interest in the fabulously expensive Zumwalt-class destroyers, the Navy commenced a seemingly endless run of building Arleigh Burkes.

At our same conference, retired General James Cartwright observed how platforms and payloads have very different time cycles of development and procurement. Those destroyers are built to last for decades, but solutions to signals intelligence and electronic warfare problems have shelf lives sometimes measured in weeks. The long-standing solution has been modularity in architectures, which allows for subsequent upgradability. Cartwright emphasized how this must be adopted with gusto. Prabakhar similarly argued for investment in relatively networked technologies that can be recombined in novel ways to create new capabilities, without too much investment in monolithic platforms.

There’s no good way to retrofit stealthiness into an A-10, but the recent A-10C upgrade provided digital communications, color displays, precision weapons capability, and even infrared pods for spotting land mines. That proved handy in Iraq from 2007, whatever the Air Force’s sentiment today. Without gobs of money for programs for new platforms, the Pentagon may continue follow this line, and deal with that “diversity of threats” by continuing to make new payloads from the latest technical advances.

James Hasik is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security.