The U.S. Department of Defense should take more “risk” when it develops weapons systems to ensure it produces the kinds of technological advancements it needs to stay ahead of potential adversaries, according to former Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall.

“I think we need to be taking more risk and I think we need to be accepting a little more waste along the way, if you will, or inefficiency is probably a better word, to get to products faster,” Kendall said Feb. 23 at the West 2017 naval conference in San Diego. “The threat is dictating that and we’re not as responsive to that threat as we need to be.”

Frank Kendall
Former Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall

Kendall said he funded several experimental prototypes during his tenure but did not have the money to bring them into production. He expressed hope that some of those efforts will benefit from a potential budget increase and become full-fledged programs.

“Development is only 10 percent of the lifecycle cost of most of our programs,” he said. “Having even a 50 percent increase in development costs is not the end of the world if you get a good product that gives you dominance for 20 or 30 years and that you can upgrade over its lifecycle.”

Kendall recommended that program requirements be general at the start of a program to allow for more exploration and tradeoffs. Program requirements should become more specific later on. He suggested addressing the hardest technological hurdles early in a program.

C. Michael Petters, president and chief executive officer of Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII], endorsed Kendall’s comments, saying he believes taxpayers will accept more risk-taking and even failure if the reason for such an approach is clearly explained to them.

“We have to find a way so that we can all talk about that,” Petters said. “Otherwise, what we will do is we will incrementally improve our forces one budget cycle at a time. Then what will happen is we’ll start to come back to the crowd and eventually fall behind.”