Is DoD’s acquisition system broken?

MQ-9A Predator-B

Here’s a snippet from an interview with Neal Blue, the Chairman-CEO of General Atomics, makers of (among other things) the Predator UAV. It appeared in the 11 Feb issue of Defense News (subscription only).

Q. Is DoD’s acquisition system broken?

A. The longer-term trend, over the last 40 years, has been toward a version of sclerosis in the military procurement system, and the problem with that is that it shouldn’t take a quarter-century to design, develop and deliver a sophisticated military capability like an advanced fighter.

Yet the trend line demonstrably has moved in that direction, and that is in the support an anachronistic system of obsolete capabilities. If you’ve read Augustine’s laws — and Norm and I were classmates at East Denver High School — he made the observation that if you followed the trend line, you would be able to afford one fighter with the entire defense budget by 2050.

This won’t happen because it’s unsustainable. You can’t deliver the relevant capability in a timely fashion. Now, what will happen?

The Congress, the parties and the people will address the military force structure, and the subset of that is the procurement system.

Q. So how do you reform it?

A. To us, that is the Advanced Capability Demonstration Program under which the Predator was finally developed and delivered.

Instead of taking 25 years, it took about six months, and in this case the industrial party, GA, was ready because we invested our own funds long before there was a measure of respectability in the procurement community for General Atomics as a provider of aircraft systems. That’s because we had a good feeling what was worth investing in and were ready for it.

So industry, if it’s going to survive over the longer term and prosper, has to be materially more innovative and rely less upon trying to feed into a big trough of legacy systems procurements.

He didn’t vocalize the word, but I think he was saying “Yes. Yes it is.”


  1. I’m always amazed at these major procurement programs that are older than I am and have yet to, or have just started bearing fruit. I mean, how many cutting edge aircraft/tanks/ships were designed in the span of WWII? And now it takes decades to get one into service? And people wonder why they’re so expensive. Tens of thousands of engineering man-hours have a strange way of adding up, and the contractors need to pay those bills one way or the other, so the product of unit cost and number procured stays relatively constant across number of units purchased. That’s why it seems to only make sense to buy as many F-22’s as we have pilots for, since we’ve paid for them all anyway. Also, what’s with the new space program (Orion)? It’s basically a modernized Apollo program that’s taking 10 years to re-develop now what they did in less than 7 years (JFK’s speech at Rice, Sept 12 1962 -> Apollo 11, July 16 1969). And back then they did it with slide rules and drafting tables. Now we have these new-fangled computers I’ve been hearing so much about.

  2. When I was growing up every year we were going faster and farther. Every year we rolled out a new fighter airplane. Every other year we saw a new bomber. Even as things started slowing down we had people coming up with stealth technology, anti-satellite and anti-ballistic missile weapons, and new kinds of armor (didn’t we steal that one from the Soviets?). Every kid knew who Kelly Johnson and Werner Von Braun was. Many knew Jack Northrop. It was a different country in those days. There was none of this self-doubt and self loathing. We didn’t wring our hands and wonder if the Japanese or Chinese were smarter than us. We did things because, as JFK said, ‘they were hard’. We didn’t try to figure out ‘the low risk solution.’ Instead we built stuff that kicked ass. That managementese language that dominates aerospace today would have got you laughed out of any of the aerospace companies back in the day. We do less today than at any point in our past. Today we have computational fluid dynamics, finite elements structural analysis, 3D computer aided design, avionics prototyping and simulation, glass cockpits, numerically controlled, multi-axis mills and lathes, numerically controlled water jets and lasers. We have technology that was unheard of when we were building the first aircraft to go supersonic or even the SR-71. We have better materials, better processes, more and better trained technical people, and we do nothing with it all. It’s no wonder kids don’t want to grow up to be engineers these days. And you know what Norm Augustine’s solution to that problem is? He wants to open the flood gates of immigration to any and all foreigners who have technical degrees. After all, that’s what made this nation great, right, foreign engineers who don’t give a damn about this country? Foreign engineers who make $8,000/year in China who hate the US and everything it stands for? Yeah, that will bring back the hey day. It was guys like Norm Augustine who did away with Kelly Johnson’s job classification. It was people like him who ushered in the current zero-accountability system. He himself lobbied congress to allow the current procurement system to exist. The system where the contractor makes more money from failing than from success. They make more money by dragging out development than they do by succeeding. Of course, who can blame him? His company made under his oversight and has made in subsequent years RECORD PROFITS! He had a reason to do what he did. What I don’t understand is why you, the US taxpayer doesn’t similarly look out for your own interests? I mean, you see what works. Like the Predator or C-130J or YF-22 or YF-23 or X-32 or X-35. When there’s an incentive for getting the job done quickly and cheaply, it gets done quickly and cheaply. When there’s not, it drags out and gets fantastically expensive. Duh.

  3. Damn it! Vitor beat me to it! LOL! Murdoc is a very bad and twisted person to post trolling comments/articles like that above; which he knows will push buttons and set off loveable but vulnerable members of the Blog. My view……………..Murdoc needs counseling. LOL! PS: Good post Dfens!

  4. As an aside to the article: The compound I lived in outside of Kandahar, was about a mile to maybe a mile & a quarter outside of Kandahar Airfield (KAF). About a 1/4 to our NW was a small ville (I know you Vietnam Vets will be able to relate to that term) containing memebers of the local Taliban Social Club. About 2/3 of a mile to our N was another ville who were pretty much neutral and wanted to be left alone by the TSC and us morons in the Coalition. What else was there? Whole lotta flat desert! Did I mention the large allegedly cleared mine fields with marked paths through them? If they were cleared……..why do we need to stay on the marked path?? LOL! Anyway, I digress……………the TSC was quite fond of launching cheap @$$ rockets of inferior quality (probably Chinese, maybe Iranian) from even cheaper @$$ improvised tripods/stands of welded angle iron from the vicinity of the villes, towards KAF (very large divisional sized US/NATO/ISAF base). The inferior quality rockets sailed over our camp (conveniently located between the TSC launch sites and KAF) enroute to KAF; they blew the snot outta the KAF ‘boardwalk’ twice but never hit anything else or caused any casualties while I was there (about 9 months). Due to our camp being in the way; the Coalition did not have direct line of sight to the launch areas, and would ususally fire 81mm illumination rounds to run off the TSC (who usually set up their inerior quality rockets on timers of some sort anyway), and make them more visible (if they were stupid enough to still be around) to the various NATO night patrols in the area. A coworker and I were standing on the back of one of our armored pick ups one nigh, peering over the camp wall into the desert with NVDs (as you do during small rocket barrages! LOL!) when we observed two even less intelligent (than normal) TSC loitering about their launch site (stupidly located out in the desert, rather than in one of the villes) encounter a small NATO foot patrol. NATO-2 TSC-0!! KAF’s primary preventative measures to TSC harassment launches were the aforementioned foot patrols and TA DA! The Predator drones of an unidentified agency (never knew if they were Air Force or ‘The Other Guys’), which they routinely flew about our lovely desert paradise all night long, in a effort to catch the TSC and other malignent persons engaging in some sort of proscribed activity. Which if they did, the lads ususally got some unwanted attention from one of the Apache (A & D models) gunships also stationed at KAF! Ouch!!!

  5. Whoa, now. You all make it sound like I was being intentionally provocative. Maybe I just thought if there was going to be a lot of pointing out procurement, um, issues on this site that maybe the site owner should be doing it once in a while. It’s not like I’d try to be controversial or anything.

  6. During WWII, procurement programs that could not deliver were mercilessly cut, their facilities and personnel seized and re-assigned to productive programs. Programs that were over-sold and/or over-priced were torn to shreds by Truman’s commission.

  7. The Air Force lost 2 more F-15Cs today. The apparent cause was a mid-air collision. You have to wonder if the structural status of these aircraft had anything to do with the collision, though. One of the two pilots involved died, although the other is apparently doing well. Whether this incident was related to the structural fatigue cracking of these airplanes or not, the bottom line is, you cannot sit on your technological lead for 35 years in today’s world. Also, 25 years to develop a fighter jet is absolutely ridiculous. It should take no longer than 5 years EVER.