Cebrowski: The power of transformation

The Defense Department's research and development spending should look forward, not back

Transformation's Trajectory

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Editor's note: The following is an excerpt of the last written piece by the late Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski. It is taken from a document posted on the Office of Force Transformation's Web site in March. A link to the full article can be found on Download's Data Call at

In my travels and discussions with people, I am repeatedly asked several questions. What is the direction of transformation and what is its future? How enduring is transformation? My basic response is that the president and the Defense Department secretary have been talking about transformation for more than four years now and are likely to keep talking about it for another four

years. By Washington, D.C., standards, eight years is really quite a long time. If you put something in place and make it work for eight years, the concrete is usually set.

But back to the question of where is transformation going. Transformation and its advances are going to be with DOD for a very, very long time. It would be very difficult to undo some of the things that have been put into place -- changes in the Unified Command Plan. Changes in management procedures and processes have either been rewritten or legislatively changed. Changes of this magnitude are unlikely to happen summarily.

With an increasingly larger fraction of the officer corps obtaining combat experience, you are not going to have any backtracking on transformation.

The trends put to rest any discussion over whether transformation is likely to continue. That does not mean, however, that transformation will not change direction or emphasis. We have seen this during the past four years. Many defense intellectuals thought transformation was initially only about canceling big-ticket weapons programs and firing the odd recalcitrant general or admiral. That is not what transformation is all about. It is largely about behavioral change, and it contains profound organizational and process dimensions, which are major drivers of transformation.

We are fond of saying that this shift is occurring because of the U.S. military's tremendous prowess on the traditional battlefield. Enemies do not want to face such a formidable force so they vacate the field. But U.S. military power, of course, is supported by U.S. economic power. Where have our enemies gone?

They have retreated to the more complex social and political domains -- the terrain that German strategist Karl von Clausewitz predicted any enemy under threat would retreat to. Warfare only ends when one side quits, not when you shift domains because the war ends. Our enemies have moved into the social and political domains as a response to U.S. economic power.

We need to think about defense in these kinds of economic terms and start making decisions based on that reasoning, from both cost-avoidance and cost-imposing perspectives.

Strategic approach to cost

We need to deal with disruptive threats, which come from potential enemies that could suddenly negate U.S. superiorities not only on the traditional battlefield but also on the irregular battlefield. This requires an ability to see ahead.

If you argue this point in DOD or congressional terms, we are talking about the total amount of money being invested in research and development. There is a world of difference between managing R&D by establishing a top line and managing R&D by establishing a strategic focus -- a rule set -- under which R&D can be subordinated. In the first method you get waste and delusion. Only in the second method do you have the hope of progress.

R&D is quite nuanced. There is a texture to it. How much money are you going to allocate to reinforce decisions made in the past? For example, if you decide you are going to invest in a Joint Strike Fighter and it has a problem in development, you may have to put some significant money into it.

This is money that has to come from somewhere else in the R&D accounts. Perhaps you cut money earmarked for university research or possibly by reducing funding for defense labs.

More importantly, however, the process of discovery and invention is being short-changed. As the department moves into a period of uncertainty, discovery and invention are increasingly important.

The department must look at the economics of R&D from a strategic point of view. The great power of America is our people -- our brainpower. Historically, when the country moves money into certain research areas, a mirror-image movement appears in the percentage of Ph.D. candidates who focus on those areas of emphasis. It is an indication of the strategic power of R&D.

But if the department is spending a disproportionate share of precious R&D on supporting previous decisions, we are losing some of that strategic power.

In times of uncertainty, this is what will ultimately give us the breadth of development to make decisions on relatively short timelines.

We are entering a historic period of opportunity in which the timelines for other systems such as structural materials, propulsion, fuels, weapons and sensors can be shortened. They can be shortened because a great deal of work has already been accomplished. That research is already complete, and the department is well-positioned to cash in, based on prior work.

In some areas, IT advancements are aiding this acceleration. For example, advances in supercomputing allow us to engineer the molecular interfaces of certain compounds and achieve higher energy density. We can do this much faster than we ever could before in the same way that drug manufacturers can produce a drug more quickly even though the bureaucratic process might take a while before you can use it to treat your illness.

There is the rub. We have those same kinds of bureaucratic processes operating inside DOD today. We have a rule set that states it must take a long time, and consequently, we have processes that allow it to take a long time. We have grown comfortable with that, but we should not be. We have a great opportunity to do otherwise.

To counter those bureaucratic tendencies, the department must adopt a strategic approach to cost. We don't have to spend the amount of money that we do. We don't want to pay people for the standby cost of defense.

For example, we might buy one ship out of a shipyard per year. The cost would be enormous, but the lore is that you are paying for the standby cost of defense, and this industrial plant and the workforce will be there when needed. That is simply not true.

We should pay the defense industry to shove stuff out the door. Industry should actually like this because it keeps design teams engaged and it keeps things competitive. Some industrial firms might dispute the competitive point because they want to be the sole source for whatever product they produce.

When sole-source contracting happens, industry will atrophy. Its workforce will become untrainable, and its physical plant will be inappropriate for department needs.

One of the first indications of this malaise is the disappearance of the foreign market, which will go elsewhere. In essence, I have described the ills besieging the U.S. shipbuilding industry.

That is an indicator of the consequences that occur when an industry decides to shield itself and others from competition. They are ensuring their own demise. We need not be on that trajectory; it is a choice we must make.

One solution to this dilemma is to suppress entity costs and increase procurement cycle times for new systems. The department attempts to compete on the best capabilities. I say lets compete on the basis of cost and cycle time. It may be counterintuitive, but in the process, capability or performance will increase. Learning comes from a quicker cycle time; it comes out of the generation of options.

The department should resist the urge to narrow down the list of bidders to one company in competitions. We need more great design teams instead. As a result, you will have the military learning more things, industry will be learning more things, and we and Congress will be learning more.

Learning turns out to be a great competitive advantage and allows the department to move forward. Information can be shared more broadly as we compete on time, and performance will improve.

We are steaming at flank speed into a budget tsunami. I am proposing a way to deal with that inevitability, allowing the department to guide its own future rather than having someone else impose it.

Cebrowski was director of the Defense Department's Office of Force Transformation. He passed away last month.


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