In an age where threats are evolving extremely rapidly while defense budgets are shrinking, something must be done about the 20 year development cycle for high-end weapons systems, according to Defense Science Board Chairman and CEO of Technovation, Inc., Paul Kaminsky. One of the best ways to do this, is by pursuing the block approach to weapons buying, said Kaminsky.
"We just can't afford cycle times of 20 years for new systems," said Kaminsky during a breakfast with reporters in Washington."We have to look much harder, I believe, at block buys of equipment with planned upgrades for those blocks, and the cycle times for those blocks and the block upgrades is going to be dependant on the missions; it's going to be different for strategic bombers than it would be for equipment that's used to defeat IEDs. Or, even more extreme, it's going to be different than what we have to do to work in the cyber environment. So, we have to have a system where the [upgrade] cycle times are compatible with that kind of an arrangement."
Kaminsky served as the Pentagon's top weapons buyer in the 1990s.
A block approach would not only dramatically lower costs and reduce risk by spreading out development times for the most gee-whiz tech intended for a weapon system while making sure it gets fielded on time, it would also offer acquisition staff badly needed management experience on each of the block upgrade programs.
"To do this well though, requires a lot of discipline, because the first tendency is, 'we want to put everything in the first block'," said Kaminsky. "You have to resist that. You have to reserve what goes into the first block to what has earned its way on to the system and what is sufficiently mature to be able to be integrated."
He also defended the block approach from attacks that say that it inhibits competition, saying that there can be numerous competitions for the various subsystems required for block upgrade approaches.
Kaminsky highlighted the Air Force's effort to field a new long range stealth bomber as a perfect example of a weapon system that can be built with block upgrades, an approach he said will allow it to remain relevant in the face of a changing threat environment.
Even simpler than a block approach, Kaminsky suggested that the aircraft be designed from the outset to accommodate changing missions. For example, the jet could be designed with the ability to accept changing hardpoints, giving it the ability to carry additional weapons, sensors or electronic warfare gear during unforseen future missions where stealthiness isn't critical.
The former weapons czar also called for a dramatic increase in the amount of time the Pentagon spends preparing to fight in so-called, degraded combat environments. (Meaning, combat situations where cyber, communications, navigations, logistics or any other critical capabilities have been taken away from U.S. troops.)
While the Marines and some special operations forces are well prepared for this at the small unit level, the larger military is not as well prepared as it needs to be at the strategic and operational level to fight in a degraded environment, said Kaminsky.