The notoriously complex defense acquisition process has long been a bugbear of Congressional spending. The system has been criticized for allowing large cost overruns and delays to weapons systems. Unfortunately, much of the criticism—and focus on cost overruns —is misplaced. Many of the recent problems with defense acquisitions stem from lack of strategic coordination, lack of proper technological development before production, and changes in unit procurements or technical requirements before deployment. These issues have been difficult to address, in part because of the long development times connected to most weapon systems. As the United States pursues its Third Offset Strategy, however, it could use an aspect of that strategy to potentially change the current pattern of acquisitions: robotics.
The U.S. Navy recently scrapped the Littoral Combat Ship’s mine-hunting drone and has shifted focus towards accelerating its carrier-based unmanned aircraft. The troubled mine-hunter should have been scrapped long ago, but there is a good argument for producing a small number of carrier-based drones. Having prototypes that can be tested in real operational environments will inform long-term design decisions.
During a hearing on defense acquisitions last year, Dr. David Chu, the president of the Institute for Defense Analysis, argued that more prototyping was needed in the acquisition system. In the hearing, the House Armed Services Committee heard that many engineers only work on one major program for their entire careers, given the slow pace of the acquisition process. Prototyping would allow engineers to practice, develop new skills, and test new ideas—without the associated costs and delays of a program that is expected to be delivered. The ability to test ideas before attaching them to a vital program means that the ones that are unworkable can be ended, and the ones that are workable can be appropriated.
The significance of robotic prototypes is that they can be tested without fear of loss of life. The removal of the human operator means that testing prototypes becomes significantly less risky. Tests can be run earlier in the process and pinpoint faults that might not be found in a manned system until later. Robotic prototypes can be experimented on at a much lower confidence level, and more quickly determine if an idea will fly or fail. While it’s true that some aspects of an unmanned system could not be grafted onto a manned system, many of today’s most important parts of a weapon system involve communications, cyber networks, stealth, and electronic warfare. These systems can be implemented in a variety of programs once vetted.
Robotic prototypes therefore offer two benefits. First, while they are an additional cost in the budget, they could reduce the costs of development and R&D. As improper development can balloon costs later, any tool to reduce uncertainty that a system is ready for production should be pursued. Secondly, they offer this ability to test systems without putting American lives at risk. This is a good thing in itself, but that reduced risk could mean shortening the acquisition cycle by testing potential technologies earlier.
The defense acquisition system has been strained both by a willingness to approve risky systems before the process begins, and an unwillingness to cancel programs that are deemed too important to fail. Robotic systems that allow rapid prototyping and testing can help shift the acquisition system towards a better equilibrium.