Michèle Flournoy, a candidate for defense secretary if Joe Biden wins the November election, according to defense analysts, suggested that a new relationship between the Defense Department and Congress is needed to weed out costly, ineffective programs and bolster agile, cutting edge ones.
“The department should be held accountable for spending taxpayer dollars wisely, and there’s failure at a small scale when you’re experimenting and learning and very few dollars are involved and it’s necessary to advance the technology, and then there’s failure because you blew it, and you made a horrible and expensive mistake,” she said on Aug. 26 during a virtual forum discussion, “U.S. Defense Strategy and Posture for an Era of Great Power Competition, held by the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Flournoy made the comments after Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), the other forum speaker, said that Congress had a vital fiscal oversight role.
“We have to make sure that money is being spent appropriately, and there are times in the Department of Defense where there are absolute failures that should have been caught and that are not us just trying to get to ingenuity,” Turner said. “We recently in the ground based missile system, as they were redesigning the kill vehicle they failed to account for the fact it has to go through space, and $1.2 billion were lost of something that we knew was going through space. So the issue becomes how do we make certain that people have the oversight to ensure that we don’t have those types of just absolute misses and that we encourage ingenuity that will allow failures so that we can find the answer because when you’re trying to find an answer that you don’t know, you’re going to have a few misses.”
Citing insurmountable technical design problems, DoD canceled the Missile Defense Agency’s Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) program in August last year. (Defense Daily, Aug. 21, 2019) Raytheon Technologies [RTX] was the RKV contractor.
Flournoy, the co-founder of Washington, D.C.-based WestExec Advisors and the defense undersecretary for policy between 2009 and 2012 under former President Obama, has hinted that she would accelerate the use of commercial technologies in defense programs.
Current DoD officials, including U.S. Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper, are pushing for the fielding of new technologies within weeks through agile software development and discarding Cold War acquisition processes. Such new technologies, as Flournoy noted on Aug. 26, often come from the commercial world–innovation hubs like Silicon Valley, Route 128 outside Boston, and Austin, Texas, and she brought up commercial best practices for acquiring such technologies quickly.
“Take command and control in a denied environment,” Flournoy said. “If you were doing this in the private sector, you’d place a lot of bets as a portfolio that you’re trying to manage to get to that goal. Then you’d have a series of regular opportunities to review how you’re doing. What’s working? What’s not? What seems really promising? What’s failing? On a regular basis, you’d do that assessment and re-balance your portfolio to stop spending on the stuff that’s not working and reinvest those dollars in the stuff that is working to get up the change curve faster.”
“The question I’ve had in my mind is, ‘Is there an approach to oversight that would allow Congress to partner with the department to allow that kind of agility?’ Maybe it’s funding by a mission area and within that mission area, you can make portfolio adjustments, but right now the constraints on making those changes, the constraints on reprogramming or shifting monies from something that’s failing to something that’s succeeding are so, so difficult that the department misses out on that kind of agility and an approach that really could accelerate getting up the learning curve and getting to the outcomes that are so important faster,” Flournoy said.
Turner said that Flournoy had provided “a very good description of a new [DoD/Congress] partnership that needs to occur.”
Turner is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces panel and represents Wright Patterson AFB, which hosts Air Force Materiel Command and is a candidate to become the headquarters of U.S. Space Command.
“So many times we write the National Defense Authorization Act that funds a program, and we don’t see it again until someone blows it or there’s actual work product that comes out that is positive,” he said. “The sharing of information, the work beyond just legislative sentences and funding to implementation…Having Congress at the table where they see how the dollars are being spent and what the goals are and what we’re trying to achieve means you’re going to have a better educated Congress. That means we’re going to be a better partner and being a better partner, we’ll all achieve more.”
Flournoy said that the U.S. “shouldn’t be thinking symmetrically,” to counter China and Russia’s growing military capabilities. Rather than trying to match them “plane for plane, tank for tank, [or] ship for ship,” the DoD should aim to “use our tremendous capacity for innovation to come at them asymmetrically, to undermine their strengths, [and] to exploit their vulnerabilities,” she said.
Turner said that cyber security is his top worry, and he ticked off two of China’s cyber thefts of technology from the U.S.–hypersonics and the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35, which, he said, China used to build its 5th generation J-20 fighter.
China “has spent the last 20 to 30 years investing in asymmetric counters to our strengths,” Flournoy said. “We need to not match them, not mirror them, not take a symmetric approach, but really be creative in our operational concepts, in our experimentation, and targeted, big bet investments in the asymmetric capabilities that will keep the advantage on our side.”
Dismantling legacy programs, including their sustainment, will likely be a piece of the puzzle, especially if U.S. defense budgets flatten in the rebound from COVID-19.
“There will be some [acquisition] trade-offs, but investing in key technologies like resilient C4ISR networks that can operate in an anti-access area denial environment, investing in the kind of artificial intelligence that will let human beings command and control multiple unmanned systems to improve our advantage, investing in a variety of capabilities that we will need for the future…is going to make the legacy force that we keep relevant, survivable, and combat effective,” Flournoy said.