Requiring that new weapons have some degree of openness to upgrades has been a Pentagon policy for decades, but the Defense Department needs to better enforce that expectation so emerging technologies can be integrated when available and appropriate, according to a former chief weapon buyer.

Frank Kendall, who was the last undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics before Ellen Lord and the Trump administration undertook the bisecting of that position, said Jan. 22 that industry should be more often required to develop products with open interfaces into which third-party vendors could plug emerging technologies.

Frank Kendall
Frank Kendall

“There’s a business interest in the defense primes in not necessarily being all that open,” Kendall said during an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “We need to change that equation and you do that by what you demand from them and then how you enforce that.”

Writing modular, open systems architectures into requirements has been a Defense Department policy for decades, but current and future acquisition officials need to enforce that policy much more strongly, he said. That should allow the integration of rapidly developing commercial technologies into legacy and future combat systems when appropriate, he said.

“There is some terrific technology out there moving very rapidly in the commercial world that the department needs to work to get into those products as expeditiously as it can,” Kendall said.

Kendall attempted to establish a culture of rapid and affordable innovation through initiatives like Better Buying Power, the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx), and support for the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), which is tasked with grafting emerging technology onto legacy systems. The Defense Department as a whole has tried to accomplish that feat through DARPA, the service laboratories and other organizations, he said.

There is a dire need for innovation within the Defense Department, but it should originate with the operational community communicating capability gaps, rather than experimentation for the sake of trying out novel technologies, Kendall said.

“Defense products are unique products,” he said. “The ones that make a difference in terms of our military capability are challenging to develop and field and very expensive to develop and field. They take multiple years to develop, get prototypes built, test and then get into production. They’re very different in several regards from the products of the commercial world tends to produce.”

The Big 5 prime defense contractors are very adept and experienced at producing technologies that meet the military’s needs, however cumbersome and expensive the process may be, he said. There is no existing incentive for startups or non-traditional firms to attempt to compete with Lockheed Martin [LMT], General Dynamics [GD], Raytheon [RTN], Northrop Grumman [NOC] or Boeing [BA], but those companies can be made to increase competition among second- and third-tier suppliers.

Much valuable innovation and experimentation has occurred within the SCO and service laboratories, but the government has historically failed at ferrying those technologies across the “Valley of Death” from lab to program of record, Kendall said.  A series of technology demonstrations in the 1990s led to very few programs of record funded by the services.

“The whole idea is we would do things that were novel, go out and demonstrate them operationally with prototypes and then the operators would embrace them and then the services, essentially would fund them in their budgets and build them,” Kendall said. “What happened? We did a lot of successful experiments. We had zero programs come out of them.”

“The problem with what we’re doing through SCO and other places is that those products are not necessarily being adapted by the people who write requirements and build budgets,” he added. SCO is conducting experiments on new ways to use existing weapons, but none of its work is funded in service budgets beyond the experimentation phase, Kendall said.