Thoughts on Frank Kendall’s memoir, and for the Trump Administration, on the first stage of the business of defense

What does the Trump Administration have in mind for military procurement? We have been debating that question here at the Atlantic Council for weeks and months now. One tack that many Republicans around Washington, DC have been advising can be described as a Reaganesque build-up. As the new administration did in 1981, they recommend, just buy more of the the stuff that the last administration was already planning to buy. This has two advantages. First, it adds force structure, which pretty much has been the Trump promise. Second, as I will explain, it makes your numbers look good. What it doesn’t bring is Third-Offsetting change at prices that fit within a sensible budget. That will require a thorough rethinking of how the military goes about selecting weapons, and at the start of the process.

If buying more of what you’re already buying is the plan, then much of the advice in Frank Kendall’s new memoir is apropos. The recently departed under secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics (AT&L) released that book at an event last week at the CSIS. It’s mostly an anthology of his articles over the past six years in Defense AT&L, with bookends on how he arrived at the expressed views. For those who don’t read that magazine regularly, this collection-with-commentaries provides insight into the past administration’s strategies for military materiel. It’s easy to like Kendall’s up-front views on success in acquiring weapons as a simple process: (1) set reasonable requirements, (2) put professionals in charge, (3) give them the resources they need, and (4) provide strong incentives for success. As Blake Shelton would say, that’s backwoods legit.

Kendall also acknowledges that doing all those simple things is often very challenging, and for reasons both good and bad. Consequently, high amongst his principles is the conviction that continuous improvement will be more effective than radical change. If you’re committed to that Reaganesque plan, that’s probably true. Just work continuously on improving the quality, timeliness, and total cost of the stuff flowing from those long production runs. That’s the second advantage of that more-of-the-same approach: your numbers will look good. Frankly, Kendall seems to view this as his salient accomplishment. “The five-year moving average of cost growth on our largest and highest-risk programs,” he wrote not long ago, “is at a thirty-year low.” The previous best had been attained in 1986—in the middle of the second Reagan Administration. The stories of gold-plated hammers were basically from the first term; by the mid-1980s, prices on those M1 tanks and F-16 fighter jets were pretty stable.

But to take him literally, Kendall’s boast is that things have been getting worse on his watch less quickly than on almost everyone else’s. That’s continuous, but as improvement, it’s not even incremental. It also does nothing for the long-term affordability of the force. I think that we should hope for better.

What’s wrong? Start with Kendall’s task number one (1): set reasonable requirements. For decades, many of the defined requirements of the US armed forces have been entirely unreasonable. In the US system, sketching out what the forces need is a task for military officers, upstream from the responsibilities of the under secretariat for AT&L. Ensuring they make sense and don’t excessively overlap amongst the services is supposed to be the job of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, which impanels the vice chairman of the joint chiefs and the vice chiefs of the individual services. However, in its 20-year history, the JROC has rarely seen a requirement it didn’t usher through the process with minimal change. It’s not that too many of the weapons requested would be built of unobtainium. Contractors can and have bent the laws of physics to bring the military’s dreams to fruition. That just costs lots of money, in development, production, and eventually and especially in logistics. Requirements-setting is the thus first step in design for manufacturing and supportability. It might not be in AT&L’s swim lane, but it can quickly empty the pool.

Here’s just one example. Throughout the long counterinsurgent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army and the Marine Corps needed occasional air support. To flip an Israeli phrase, sometimes the guys with M-16s needed backing from the F-16s. Supersonic fighter jets, however, are overkill for almost all those missions—the Air Force, the Navy, and especially the Marines have been flying the wings off their very expensive and expensive to maintain aircraft. Couldn’t the military largely substitute for its high-performance jets some slower and cheaper ground-attack aircraft where sophisticated air defenses were not a problem? From Vietnam to Afghanistan, the long battle over the close air support demonstrates that the generals and admirals often allow expensive high-end warfighting priorities (e.g., F-104s, F-35s) to crowd out less expensive options (e.g., A-1s, A-10s). Afterwards, only the sophisticated stuff is available for the more permissive missions—at considerably greater cost.

Our friend Dave Foster of Naval Air Systems Command describes this as delivering pizza with Ferraris. To extend the cost analogy to the highly trained corps of fighter pilots, one might as well have the Ferraris driven by supermodels. Choosing something other than the Ferrari isn’t really in the purview of the USD AT&L, at least not once that program is rolling. All that’s left to do is to keep its price from jumping more than it did under the last guy. Fortunately, some step-change is finally afoot. In response to a question after his talk on January 18 at the CSIS, Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein strongly endorsed the idea in Senator John McCain’s recently released report for buying three hundred “OA(X)” aircraft in the next few years. This sort-of successor to the A-10C is a concept widely discussed as possibly an AT-6 Texan II, possibly an A-29 Super Tucano, and just maybe a Textron Scorpion. (We’ll have more on this next week.) Building that case has taken years—far too long, indeed.

Trump has often said that he wants a military “so big, powerful, and strong” that no one would dare attack Americans anywhere. Huge is beautiful, of course, but as I wrote back in November, perhaps “Less Reagan” is called for now. As our colleague Ben Fitzgerald of the CNAS said back then, sticking with existing plans could simply “buy the best military that we possibly could from the 1980s.” Sustaining powerful and strong over time requires technological innovation for much less money. Surfacing innovative and inexpensive ideas faster will require a new approach. Frank Kendall’s work as under secretary has been valuable, but it has concentrated on the middle range of the problem. In the long run, radically rethinking requirements requires radically rethinking the process of setting requirements. And that’s where the big money is to be found.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

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