16 septembre 2020 | International, Aérospatial, Naval, Autre défense

Opinion: How To Break Exponential Pentagon Cost Growth

James Chew

The recently published viewpoint “Can the Pentagon Spend More Smartly?” (AW&ST Aug. 31-Sept. 13, p. 58) highlights the consequences of increased dependence on technology to maintain an edge. In fact, the core issue of the exponential growth in cost associated with the linear growth in technology capability is highlighted in Norman Augustine’s 1982 book Augustine’s Laws. Specifically, two of “Augustine’s laws” focus on what needs to be avoided within the Defense Department acquisition community.

One of the laws states: “In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy three and a half days each per week, except for leap year when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.”

Additionally, the book highlights the Defense Department’s growing dependence on electronic systems with this law: “After the year 2015, there will be no airplane crashes. There will be no takeoffs either, because electronics will occupy 100% of every airplane’s weight.”

Even if these laws seem outlandish, the book’s underlying lessons still ring true today.

For decades, the Pentagon was the driving force behind the development of microelectronics until, interestingly, the commercial sector ultimately ended up in the driver’s seat.

To share a little history, the Army-funded Micromodule project was the precursor of the integrated circuit and the Very-Large Scale Integration project created today’s electronic design automation companies and resulted in the development of multichip wafer fabrication technology. The fact is, today’s microelectronics technology would not exist, or would almost certainly be less sophisticated, if not for a few brave and visionary Defense Department project officers.

The electronics industry is likely the most visible and significant example of a commercial market that not only transitioned from but significantly advanced technology developed by the U.S. military. Without the government investment, the device on which I am writing this article, and the one on which you are reading it, would perhaps not exist.

There are lessons to be learned from both the public and private sectors, and best practices from each can certainly be applied cross-functionally to optimize outcomes.

For example, the commercial electronics industry has enabled electronic systems companies to develop high-quality, sustainable and modernizable products on a “can’t-miss-Christmas” schedule. Much of the industry’s success is due in large part to an adherence to “first-pass success” and the computational software tools and processes that enable it. These tools and processes have been developed by companies that invest significant portions of their annual sales—some up to 40%—into research and development (that is “IR&D” to you in the Pentagon) and are a result of the intense competition within the unforgiving consumer electronics market. These tools and processes, which have institutionalized the product development practice of “emulate before you fabricate,” make up the foundation of on-schedule, on-cost product development.

The best-case scenario is that the current Defense Department and defense industry electronic development process matches up with the commercial electronics development process, where they both seek to achieve “first-pass success.” Even if all things were equal, which they aren’t, the commercial timeline would still be around 30% that of the defense timeline. Eliminating the need for prototype hardware and the associated tests and reworks is a major reduction in design time and cost.

So, after so many years of funding research into electronic design and development, why have the Defense Department and defense industry turned away from the commercial processes that stemmed from that investment? Why aren’t these processes being adopted?

Congress appreciates that transitioning to commercial electronics best practices is the basis for the much-desired firm, fixed-price acquisition. The fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, reinforced by the fiscal 2021 Defense Appropriations Act, has an entire section on transitioning to commercial electronics best practices. Program offices and some individuals within the defense industrial base are seeking to better understand the commercial industry-proven way to design electronics that reduce design schedules by at least 70%, producing “first-pass success” electronic system designs that are immediately sustainable and agilely modernizable.

The answer is out there—adopt commercial best practices to save time and money. With nontraditional companies entering the picture (what’s the name of that space company?), the public sector should have plenty of motivation to implement tools and processes that are prevalent and successful in today’s private sector.