By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The Lectern: Columbian drug lords, asymmetric warfare, and COTS

At the Naval Postgraduate School acquisition research conference I have attended the last two days, a senior official of DoD's Business Transformation Agency told a fascinating story. 

Apparently, Columbian drug lords have developed a semi-submersible boat that is used to transport large quantities of drugs into the United States. The boat, which apparently costs less than a million dollars each, has been put together from commercially available components and subsystems and was developed by drug lord engineers in a few months. It can generally escape U.S. Coast Guard detection equipment and land in poorly patrolled areas of the U.S. coastline to deliver its cargo. What is even scarier is the possibility that terrorists might use similar vessels to bring nuclear or biological material into the U.S. In an important sense, this equipment illustrates the concept of asymmetric warfare about which the U.S. military worries. 

But as the speaker suggested, it also represents an important acquisition challenge for our government. We typically take a long time to buy expensive equipment custom-designed for the government, while our enemies are using their brains quickly to develop inexpensive equipment from commercial items. We would do well to make greater use of our enemies' playbook. What we need is more creativity, less bureaucracy, and less simply throwing money and engineers at technological problems.

The government is already thinking about approaches to integrating commercial off the shelf technology; we need to do that more. We will probably save money and develop more capabilities by trying 10 inexpensive solutions, only 2 of which work, than by putting everything into a single expensive solution (which often, as we know, ends up not working either). Of course, the problem is that Congress, the media, and the fear industry will focus attention on the eight attempts that fail, and nobody will ever hear about the two that succeeded or the money this approach saved overall.

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 15, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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