The pace of commercial technology advancements that bleed over into Pentagon applications necessitates an overhaul of the Pentagon’s Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) process, which stems from 1961 reforms by then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, a former Ford Motor Company [F] executive, a U.S. Air Force requirements official said on March 5.

DoD officials have said that deterring and defeating foreign adversaries, such as China, will require rapid, sustainable networking among joint forces under the Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) concept.

“What we’re really talking about when it comes to this type of networking are things that the commercial world is leading in, and we have to be fast followers in that with some military exceptions to that,” Air Force Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the service’s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, said during a Hudson Institute virtual forum, Competing with China Through Budget Agility. “That [commercial] sector is going so fast that I don’t know what the specific solution set might look like in 2027 when we’re going to be required here in a few months to have a program element with a number or set of numbers for 2027 on our version of this system of systems–the Advanced Battle Management System [ABMS].”

Commercial technologies championed by start-up companies are likely to be key components of ABMS.

The Air Force, U.S. Northern Command, and U.S. Space Command held the second test “onramp” of ABMS last Aug. 31-Sept. 3.

The test featured 70 industry teams, 65 government teams from all six military services, 35 military platforms, 30 geographic locations and four national test ranges, in an effort to employ cloud computing and artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) to defeat threats to U.S. space systems and counter cruise missile attacks against the U.S. (Defense Daily, Aug. 25, 2020).

“While we have a general understanding of why networking is so important and a general understanding of the types of things we have to be able to do–the ability to sense, to connect with each other, decide and act..the general requirements and the general trajectory of the acquisition program, we don’t know what we’re going to buy in 2027,” Hinote said of ABMS on March 5. “If I was going to tell you, I could tell you I’d be 100 percent wrong because I don’t know exactly what the world, especially the commercial networking world, looks like in 2027. That seems to me to call for a re-imagining of the way we think about budgeting in the coming years.”

While the “McCain reforms” in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act that ushered in Section 804 middle tier acquisition have led to the launch of more than 35 efforts and the delivery of several accelerated systems to military forces, “on the whole, the adoption has been limited and less than enthusiastic,” per a Hudson Institute report last month, Competing in Time: Ensuring Capability Advantage and Mission Success Through Adaptable Resource Application.

The report said that China “may have an edge in its resource allocation process, although this topic merits further investigation” and that China has developed and fielded 25 unmanned aircraft systems from 2010 to 2020, “including stealthy carrier-based unmanned systems.”

While House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has suggested that the United States will not be able to dominate China militarily and instead needs to deter that nation, it has become recognized wisdom that the Pentagon should reform its budget process, if for nothing else than to lower the cost of weapons acquisitions.

“DoD cannot continue to have 10-year weapon acquisition cycles when the underlying technology becomes obsolete in two to five years or less,” per the Hudson Institute report. “A 2001 DoD Inspector General (IG) audit report identified that in 1960, Major Defense Acquisition Programs (MDAPs) required seven years from program start to IOC [Initial Operational Capability].”

Bill Greenwalt, a co-author of the report, former congressional staffer, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said on March 5 that during World War II and the 1950s, the United States was going “from zero to operational capability for things that had never been done before in less than five years.”

“This system was ‘ad hoc,’ taking multiple, competing sources to experiment, prototype, operationally test things out in the field, and then repeat this process,” he said. “If this looks like the Chinese system today, yeah, it is, and even more importantly, it looks like the Silicon Valley system. Yeah, it is because the Silicon Valley system took advantage and saw what the Department of Defense was doing.”

After the Sputnik satellite launch in 1957, “we lost our nerve,” Greenwalt said. “We also were looking at this view of the [U.S.-Soviet] missile gap and thought this [acquisition] system wasn’t working. There were a number of new tools put in place, based on systems analsysis coming in from the RAND Corp., predictive programmed budgeting which was brought in from the auto sector that Secretary McNamara brought in, which was the best practice at the time. We should have thought of some warning signs on this when the auto industry almost bankrupted itself  20 years later. But instead this system became the resource allocation of the Department of Defense and has been embedded in the system for the last 60 years with very little change except perhaps to say it’s become even more cumbersome and less agile.”

Elaine McCusker, a resident fellow at AEI and the former Pentagon deputy comptroller from 2017 to 2020, suggested on March 5 that a regular congressional budget process that eschews continuing resolutions (CRs) is needed to ensure budget predictability. She also suggested that DoD should offload the billions of dollars it spends on non-national security items, such as health care and schools for the children of DoD personnel, to other agencies.

DoD needs a modern, flexible funding system to keep up with China, she said.

Hinote agreed. “If we were to have a flexible enough system where we could still have oversight–it is still important that the Secretary of Defense level, the Office of Management Budget, and Congress has oversight over the taxpayer’s money, that is bedrock in our system, we’ve got to keep it, but we ought to re-imagine what that looks like, as we experiment, learn and iterate,” he said. “If we could do that, we could harness the power of one of our huge national advantages, our innovation/tech sector, that is learning and growing so fast.”