For the Pentagon, reducing the cost of big systems will be only half the battle.

In technology, as in air-to-air combat, speed can be everything. Yet even as fifth-generation fighters such as the F-22 push the aeronautical envelope, America’s military is struggling to keep up with a disorienting worldwide acceleration of technological development that it has little or no hand in steering.

One of the abiding questions faced by the Defense Department and US defense industry is how to keep its edge in a fast-paced world where cutting edge consumer-oriented technology, much of it applicable in conflict contexts, gets steadily cheaper and more accessible. Meanwhile, the premier military platforms American armed forces are counting on in the 21st century are becoming unaffordable and scarcer. Even attempts at buying relatively inexpensive ships, such as the Littoral Combat Ship, or adopting unprecedented economies of scale, as in the Joint Strike Fighter program, are not showing signs those bets will pay off as originally hoped.
The Defense Department’s top weapons buyers, through the Better Buying Power initiative, have been focused on a recurring question during the federal government’s leaner times: how to do more with less? The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review this week again emphasized the need for “continuously increasing productivity in defense acquisition.”

There is another way to approach the problem than a singular focus on productivity, according to retired Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General James Cartwright. It starts with a fundamental reexamination of how best to apply technology in the defense realm. The industrial solution to cost-cutting is already at diminishing returns, said Cartwright, and the major savings required will not come from mere tweaks to business-as-usual weapons buying. Something bolder is needed.

“The platform is too slow to respond to a changing world,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out not how to compete with computers, but how man-machine [interface] and computational power start to come together in a way that gives you huge leverage,” said Cartwright, who also served as a naval aviator during his career. Cartwright, the Harold Brown Chair in Defense Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, spoke at a March 5 Atlantic Council event focused on the release of the congressionally mandated report.

That is a big leap. Attempts at introducing automation into weapons systems during the past decade have sometimes not come off as planned, as with the Army’s cancelled Future Combat Systems. Yet in the financial industry, automated trading platforms routinely handle billions of dollars in shares with algorithms that remove the human from the decision loop even as they raise the potential for risk to the entire financial system. It is at the same time empowering and overwhelming for investors big and small. Financial institutions, investors and regulators are still grappling with the shift. 

The financial stakes are also high in Washington, which may be an opportunity for those working to retool the relationship between man and machine. They’re high enough that the Defense Department’s most important strategy document unabashedly touted the embrace of budget constraints that would not ordinarily hem in Pentagon planners, at the same time that it acknowledged a slippery hold on technological primacy.

Within the defense industry, companies are going to be making big strategic bets while considering the Pentagon’s worldview and their own technological and economic realities. Do not expect history to repeat itself, however. 

“I don’t see necessarily how… lots of consolidation in this industry of the sort that we saw in the 1990s is valuable” in a marketplace where what the customer wants is not simply lower costs, said Steve Grundman, the M.A. and George Lund Fellow for Emerging Defense Challenges with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. “The imperative is productivity,” a commandment that puts as much emphasis on the numerator—the output—of that ratio as on the denominator—the input costs.

It is time, therefore, to shake up what the government says it wants to buy and what the industry is looking to offer up. As Cartwright said, “they are all incentivized for the platform, and for the platform to be the solution to a problem. That’s just not the way you work in the 21st century.”

August Cole is an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project.

Related Experts: August Cole and Steven Grundman