A look back through history makes it clear that our military couldn’t do proper product development if their lives depended on it.
What if Apple designed an iFighter? That was the question posed by Arthur Herman in a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. The central premise questioned whether or not the United States’ military bureaucracy is up to the task of procuring the materials necessary for our current or future military needs. According to Herman, it might be time to let “businessmen” take over.
The way to do this right, he suggests, is the mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle (MRAP), an up-armored beast designed to defeat improvised explosive devices (IEDs). As the story goes, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates forced Army bureaucrats to circumvent the usual procurement channels and let private enterprise do what they do best: understand the need of the end user and design for that need efficiently without modification or interference from said bureaucrats. As a result, the MRAP has been a tremendous success, cutting the number of IED deaths to virtually nothing.
MRAP notwithstanding, a look back through history makes it clear that our military couldn’t do proper product development if their lives (and the lives of my four sons, all in the military) depended on it. Sadly, the U.S. military and their military procurement counterparts have been glaringly incompetent for many years.
For example, take U.S. fighter planes. Unlike British warplanes, at the beginning of WWII, U.S. fighter planes did not have adjustable gun sites. If you were taller than 5’ 8”, you had to scrunch down to shoot. If you were shorter, you had to sit on a book to aim comfortably. Why the “minor” oversight? It’s fairly obvious that the procurement team had never experienced a dogfight and didn’t understand that in the middle of a life and death struggle, scrunching down to aim was just not a reasonable demand. During that same war, we also lost more aviators to frostbite from flying high-altitude bombing runs than we did from the Luftwaffe, because it took three generations of electrically heated flying suits from the Army’s Materiel Command to get the technology right.
Recent history shows no improvement. How about the fiasco with the M-16 in Vietnam, or sending un-armored humvees with our troops in Iraq? As a military father, this sort of foolishness demonstrates how entirely inadequate the procurement system is with regard to protecting our children.
I am reminded of a story about Kelly Johnson, founder of Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works. The one entity that Johnson would not work with, allegedly, was the U.S. Navy, because of its terrible history of interfering with contractors. Johnson finally let someone talk him into accepting a Navy contract, and within a month a horde of white suits descended on Skunk Works and challenged everything from design to accounting systems. Kelly unceremoniously booted them all out, cancelled the contract, and gave the money back. Having dealt with the Office of Naval Research (ONR) myself, I understand why.
Nothing is more satisfying to a product developer than watching something you had a hand in creating finally come to fruition. Conversely, when you put your life and soul into an invention and that invention is later dismissed, you lose a bit of yourself. I recently visited a friend who still works as an ONR consultant and learned that an entire project we’d once worked on had been summarily dumped.
The project in question resulted from a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to develop an automated smart cargo tie-down system that could speed up cargo loading and unloading on the Navy’s hovercraft. Our piece of work was in support of an overall “seabasing” effort that would have allowed logistics and reserve forces to sit safely on a ship offshore as supplies were delivered just-in-time via hovercraft and the V-22 Osprey. Millions were spent on the design of the ship and the system, as well as an incredible six-axis crane to move cargo from a wildly pitching commercial supply ship to the wildly pitching sea base. To see this project discarded because some admiral decided the entire premise was invalid makes one wonder where their new product development (NPD) “heads” were in the first place.
Lest you think me ungrateful, let me say that this project helped build the groundwork for what my company has become today, for which I will be eternally grateful. It also taught us valuable lessons on how not to do NPD. During the initial phases of design work for the automated tie-down, we were not allowed to meet with the end users — the sailors who would have to use our equipment. I became very suspicious of the Navy’s understanding of good NPD practices, and that suspicion was confirmed when the ONR project boss, a bright and dedicated engineer and program manager, said, “I am not sure that we know good product development practices.” Clearly, if you consider the number of projects started and subsequently dropped by the military, he was right.
In defense of the many dedicated people I’ve met during my travails in Washington, DC, I will say that the folks in the trenches, the motivated bureaucrats who work to build the best military in the world, are not the source of the problem. It is inappropriate to bash the defense contractors to a certain extent. After all, we created them, paid for them, and set the rules of engagement.
We should not be surprised by the failure of a system that funnels billions of dollars into the hands of defense contractors based on the whims of congress and a military upper echelon, many of whom use their positions as a stepping-stone to high-paying consulting jobs with the very contractors they helped fund.
Is the MRAP really an example of how things should be done? Yes, mostly. The MRAP manufacturer was given a simple task: Design a vehicle to withstand an IED. The manufacturer was given the money and the authority to take the project all the way through execution. Critically, the army was forced to stay out of the way. Good NPD dictates that it’s not enough to come up with ideas; it is about execution as well.
Since it is clear that we are never going to get Congress or the cadre out of the clutches of that military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned us against, perhaps we should let Apple design and build the next iFighter. On the other hand, imagine our primary fighter built by Foxconn, in China, under Apple’s watchful eye. If that doesn’t scare the bejesus out of you, nothing will.