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Document created: 25 March 02
Aerospace Power Journal - Spring 2002
Focus: The Shaft of the Spear

Solving the Great Air Force Systems Irony

Lt Col Steven C. Suddarth, USAF

Editorial Abstract: Why has the Air Force lost the lead in technology development that it held over industry in the 1950s and 1960s? Colonel Suddarth believes we can find the answer in the shift in emphasis from product to process management that began in the early 1960s. Since that time, the Air Force has moved from the simple management of complex systems to the complex management of simple systems- and has gained little in the process.

IT IS HARD to think of a more decisive element of the American military than its technology base. In the past century, the United States has perhaps been involved in more military actions than any other power and has sustained a surprisingly low casualty rate while achieving remarkable military success. Is this a consequence of “warrior spirit” alone or the result of unprecedented, long-term preparations- particularly in technology? Dependence upon technology as an asymmetric advantage underscores the need to constantly improve the advancement process of war-fighting systems. Technology evolves rapidly, and the challenge lies in always staying ahead of it, trying to ensure that some unknown enemy will not gain a deadly advantage. Yet, such efforts to improve the pace at which we create and deploy technology have generally accomplished little. Further, they have not controlled costs and schedules. Increasingly, Americans rely on advancements from decades past and count on facing unsophisticated opponents. Some people would argue that we are less competent at building complex military systems today than we were decades ago. This assertion leads to a great irony: the Air Force has moved from the simple management of complex systems to the complex management of simple systems- and has gained little in the process.

During the 1950s, the United States faced a strategic military challenge of historic proportions. The nation responded with an impressive array of technologies, including jet aircraft, radar and computer systems, command and control (C2) centers, fusion bombs, missiles, and spacecraft. Even existing technologies were perfected at an unprecedented rate out of fear of what our sophisticated adversary, the USSR, was doing. Perhaps no development better exemplifies this trend than our intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. It began in earnest in 1955 yet had developed three generations of systems (an improved Atlas, Titan, and the solid-fueled Minuteman) in a mere seven years. The effort did not stop with missile development but included the construction of hardened silos, automated command centers, early warning capabilities, and even a nascent space-based surveillance system- all on alert and functioning in time for the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

In contrast, a recent upgrade to the Minuteman III missile is now under way for 500 missiles. The effort began in 1993 with the objectives of ensuring their continued reliability and rapid reprogramming. The new guidance capability was not demonstrated until 1998, and some upgrades took two more years.1 Furthermore, these upgrades apparently shortened the range and reduced the accuracy of the missile.2 Understandably, this upgrade was a complicated activity, costing $2.3 billion. It is difficult, however, to compare the complexity of an upgrade to the daunting challenges that the original builders faced, which included having to design systems from scratch with only vision and science to go on.

A brief review of developments during the early Cold War period discloses an impressive array of combat-relevant technologies, including drones, cruise missiles, hydrogen bombs, optically based intelligence satellites, weather satellites, radar-guided weapons, and many more. Technology continues to advance, but innovation today is often limited to continuous improvement of existing capabilities. Even stealth capability, the current flagship of Air Force technology, came into being only because the first such system (the F-117) violated most acquisition rules.3 Subsequent systems that followed the rules (the B-2 and F-22) took much longer to build into practical aircraft. Furthermore, stealth is almost entirely based on research from the early Cold War period.

One can explain the slowdown in technological development in many ways. The great discoveries in modern physics and the industrial boom of the early twentieth century preceded the aerospace-technology boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Some people argue that we don’t have the confluence of discovery and technology now to sustain the rate of progress that we previously knew. Furthermore, the United States no longer has the fearful incentive of its traditional adversary. The USSR, tenacious and technologically sophisticated, drove the United States to go farther in space, as well as become more precise with nuclear weapons and smaller with communications technology; we always needed to be better and get there first. The “Red Scare” was particularly acute in the 1950s and early 1960s, but as time progressed, the fear (and, eventually, the adversary as well) went away. Indeed, our situation has changed, but it is difficult to blame our lack of innovation on the waning Cold War, particularly with so many new and unpredictable military challenges today.

The past two decades have seen unprecedented growth in information technology, an area in which the military once led but now barely follows. Biotechnology is rapidly growing and becoming increasingly relevant to the military, yet it can do little to catch up. The confluence of aerospace technologies and high-technology information systems allows for entirely new ways of fighting- advanced small, unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles; laser weapons; and direct links from sensors to shooters. The military pursues all of these but with disappointing progress. Why is it so far behind industry and academe in areas so critical to its “revolution in military affairs”? Bureaucracy has grown, and the military seems to have lost focus on how to do this essential task. In fact, the seeds for this slowdown in military capability were planted long ago and have taken root for over 35 years. Thus began the slow move from the simple management of complex systems to the complex management of simple ones.

The Great Shift
in Management Philosophy 

Since the man in charge of the work himself determines what he needs as his work progresses, reviews at higher echelons of his detailed requirements are meaningless; such reviews make sense only when they are directed at the effectiveness of his work as a whole.

 - Air Force Scientific
Advisory Board, 1947

Whereas the general trend in large private and public organizations has been towards a small staff focused on identifying large issues for the consideration of the senior leadership, in [the Department of Defense] a large staff identifies relatively small issues. . . . Today’s [Office of the Secretary of Defense] staff bores into small issues regarding weapons inventories or stockpiles and conducts numerous analyses that are frequently inconclusive and contradictory. Too many of these analyses often involve issues that in isolation are too insignificant for senior leadership interest or action, and do not lend themselves to meaningful aggregation. And it is by no means clear that the senior leaders of the department in recent years have encouraged the development and serious consideration of potentially troublesome major issues.

 - Tooth to Tail Report on the Planning,
Programming and Budgeting System

How did the process get so enamored with analyses, stockpiles, or, for that matter, cost and schedule details that hide the real issues? Many opinions exist. Fundamentally, however, a clear shift in management philosophy took place during the mid-1960s.

Between 1962 and 1965, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara began a new trend in the Department of Defense’s (DOD) systems development. These reforms focused on quantifiable management metrics, decisions based on up-front analysis, centralization of authority, and end-to-end reliance on contractors for delivery. McNamara desired considerably more oversight across service-oriented acquisitions than did his predecessors. He directly attacked this issue on many fronts but always with extensive planning and centralization. He first organized a position of assistant secretary for systems analysis, held by Alain Enthoven, one of his first “whiz kids.” Enthoven’s group examined strategy, need, cost, and a host of other factors along with technical feasibility.4 Soon, all DOD actions were examined in light of systems analysis, an outgrowth of the game theories developed at RAND to model the unpredictable nature of nuclear war and bombardment.

The lengthy process of systems analysis removed decision-making authority from technologists and centralized it in the offices of Pentagon analysts. McNamara also implemented the Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System (PPBS), the detailed, multiyear planning process still used by DOD. This system further centralized decision making within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, reducing service autonomy and program-management flexibility. Finally, McNamara segregated the conceptual design and planning phases from the engineering and production phases under his Total Package Procurement Concept (TPPC), which drove a wedge between government technologists and contractors. The government undertook massive studies to define mission areas, specify performance measures, analyze feasibilities, and estimate costs. Essentially, the contractor pursued engineering development and production with little involvement or oversight from the government. Under TPPC, the government began to divest itself of its hard-won technical competence.

Reliance on prime contractors, up-front technical studies, and planning, however, did little to avoid costly and time-consuming technical problems. McNamara created several flagship programs to demonstrate the benefits of his improved approach, all of which produced mixed results at best. The TFX fighter (later known as the F-111) ran into a decade of engineering problems concerning variable-geometry wings and engine intakes. Engineers discovered both of these concerns late, despite extensive preplanning and analysis. In the absence of prototyping, such problems could emerge only as unpleasant surprises.5 Similarly, gross underestimates of empty weight and overestimates of wing-spar strength for the C-5 transport limited its initial usefulness to less than that of the outdated C-141, at least until it could undergo expensive modifications. The government’s technical oversight proved sorely lacking in both programs because they were just too complex to manage from contracts and plans alone.

Numerous other reforms have followed McNamara’s, each seeking to satisfy his original intent while simultaneously restoring the system to the level of lean competence that existed in the early Cold War. However, most have failed to restore agility, and many have worsened the bureaucracy and have further constrained program managers. For example, the Packard Commission reviewed weapons-system policy under Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird (1968–72), concluding that power needed to be decentralized to reverse many adverse effects of McNamara’s reforms. These reformers also wanted a better handle on cost growth, a comparison between the “as built” cost and some earlier cost estimate. Consequently, they created an elaborate set of review boards, including the Defense Systems Acquisition Review Council and service-level equivalents such as the Air Force Systems Acquisition Review Council. Furthermore, in light of an increased desire to control costs, specific reporting requirements were levied upon program managers to report to higher headquarters, DOD, and Congress on significant changes to cost, schedule, or requirements.6 Over the years, several other reformers, including Frank Carlucci (secretary of defense under President Reagan) made reforms in terms of dollar ceilings, numbers of critical milestones, and so forth, but the trend of management-centered acquisition reform has continued undaunted with little real change in theme: “There was a widespread belief . . . that ‘better management’ would solve the problem. ‘Better management’ had a tendency to be translated into ‘more management’ with an accompanying increase in rigidity, delay, and the suppression of initiative.”7

The Packard Commission of 1986 and the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1987 continued the process, increasing the number of reporting chains that programs had to go through. Program Executive Offices (PEO) were created along product lines to “streamline” the management of programs under the service secretaries. Keeping personnel and facilities under the uniformed services in traditional commands created two lines of authority, each with its own reporting requirements and bureaucracies. Although done in the name of streamlining, these actions have created the opposite effect. Goldwater-Nichols also set off a series of acquisition-reform movements that have revived a stronger version of McNamara’s TPPC concept under a new name- Total System Performance Responsibility (TSPR).

The Fundamental Nature of the
Management Shift

Generally, a belief has spread throughout DOD that has also been embraced by American society at large- that advanced planning and detailed processes lead to good decisions. Therefore, the focus on management reforms has usually involved reorganizations, the creation of new committees, or reporting requirements. Often, this belief in planning and process transcends the vision for the products themselves- or even the quality and preparation of the workforce that produces them. Rather, the new faith believes that a good manager knows how to set up the right procedures that will always lead to good decisions and project success. In The Death of Common Sense, Philip Howard discusses a generally worsening American trend of bureaucratic processes.8 He makes a strong association with earlier legal traditions and a shift toward increased management-oversight process that is deceptively rational but seldom delivers the desired results. Following this tradition, Americans are too quick to add one more management step or convene one more committee. With the increased management overhead, planning horizons keep getting longer, and opportunities are squandered.9 Recently, an Air Force laboratory was asked to plan its technological thrusts for the next 10 years. Einstein once said, “If we knew what it was that we were doing, it wouldn’t be research, would it?”10 There is little room for an Einstein in a laboratory with a 10-year planning horizon.

The process has become extremely cost-centered. Much of the current view of how to manage war became focused on developing a theoretical “science of war” in the form of two-person zero-sum games. To simplify the cost-benefit analysis, one needs a single, straightforward metric. Nearly all processes in place today for management of the defense-technology establishment entail seeking funding from Congress, distributing it to the services, reporting on its expenditure, and so forth. Tools such as earned-value management focus on expenditures and their tracking against targets. Technical alternatives and risks (even schedules) generally take a backseat to financial issues. In the past two decades, the desire to mimic industry has further reinforced the cost-centered point of view. We keep trying to quantify the cost of our outputs even though we can’t really quantify the outputs themselves. (For example, how many F-4s equal a B-2 bomber?)

In the management-centered organization, systems analysis was promoted from being a tool that provided data to a decision maker to being tantamount to the decision itself. A principal goal of systems analysis involved considering all other factors in extensive planning before embarking on a technological pursuit. “Crash programs” essentially stopped, as did a lot of prototyping and research. The pressure to subordinate innovation to other factors has remained constant. In the 1950s, the bomber generals, particularly Curtis LeMay, fought research and development (R&D) for ICBMs, believing that they were an expensive and unnecessary adjunct to manned bombers. Today, under the Goldwater-Nichols Act, funding authority for all major programs resides in operational commands that understand how to fight with current weaponry but may not appreciate the impact of new technologies that don’t resemble current inventories. Users, including war fighters, tend to think in evolutionary terms and generally start with the development of a concept of operations (CONOPS). However, it is nearly impossible to develop a CONOPS for systems that no one has imagined yet. Those without the necessary background who try such development tend to write science fiction about things that can’t be built. Scientific and engineering innovators must perform this function. We must give them the freedom and resources to do it, but the subordination of technology has hindered military innovators from developing capabilities that do not fall neatly into current force structures.

Finally, and perhaps most destructively, the new management ceased to understand the importance of human capital and replaced it with process. This management took a minimalist approach: don’t hire the best; hire only whom you need, and use the process to ensure that whomever you hire can do the job. Although great strides were taken to make the Air Force a pleasant place to work during this time, little occurred to ensure that key components of the technical workforce remained ready. A recent (and exhaustive) survey indicates that fewer than 15 percent of today’s Air Force officers in program offices have their highest degree in a technical specialty. In 1974 these officers made up well over half of the population- technical people for technical jobs (fig. 1). Today, we have shifted from technical qualifications to the Acquisition Professional Development Program (APDP)- essentially process indoctrination, which reinforces the idea that process, not people, will solve our problems. Furthermore, it encourages advancement by “ticket punching,” which at times reaches the level of absurdity. For example, an otherwise unqualified officer replaced an experienced physicist as chief technologist simply because the officer had APDP “Level-III” certification. Without proper tailoring, Developing Aerospace Leaders (DAL)- a new Air Force career- management system- might also endorse ticket punching by adding new breadth-of-experience requirements for officers seeking advancement. Those formalized requirements include professional military education, staff assignments, assignments within other specialties, and so forth. Under the constraints of DAL, technical officers might have only two or three assignments (6–9 years) within their technical specialty in an entire 20-year career. Even if the Air Force can live with such a short period of technical contribution from technical officers, they will lose their skills during the “broadening” assignments and become unable to bear fruit when their service needs them most. In short, if the Air Force wants technical leadership, it must not fail to nurture both the leadership and technical qualities of the individual. It must then use the abilities of a properly trained workforce. Process is a poor substitute for quality people.

Figure 1. Highest Academic Specialty Data, 1974 and 2001

Figure 1. Highest Academic Specialty Data, 1974 and 2001

Did the Management
Shift Bear Fruit?

Proponents touted that the preplanned, rational, process-oriented approach would ensure that systems were effective- that is, that they would accomplish their intended purpose. How about the management shift itself? Was it effective?

System Effectiveness and Cost Efficiency

McNamara’s triad of reforms (PPBS, systems analysis, and TPPC) focused first and foremost on improving effectiveness and efficiency. Developments were not to begin until paper studies demonstrated their effectiveness in advance. Further analyses sought to show cost efficiency by means of measures such as maximum enemy harm inflicted per dollar spent. Unfortunately, in spite of detailed studies, the effectiveness and efficiency of systems untried in battle are always difficult (if not impossible) to assess properly. Untold resources have been spent since the institution of these reforms, particularly on simulations and mathematical modeling intended to show the relative merits of one system over another. At best, the merits of these studies are debatable because politics plays a substantial role in establishing rules for the analyses. In the end, a leader must make a decision, often basing it on “gut feeling.” Prior to the advent of the systems-analysis approach to project selection, the Air Force built some enormously successful programs such as the B-52 and Minuteman missile, systems that remained operational with revolutionary peacekeeping capabilities which lasted for many decades (and are still in use). After the advent of the systems-analysis approach, we also constructed systems such as the F-15 and F-16, which proved quite effective in the Gulf War. (Interestingly, F-16 plans and analyses identified air superiority as its optimal use. In reality, it performed best as a ground-attack aircraft.) Did these studies make a difference? Does a metric exist?

Cost Control

Similar centralizing reforms aimed at reducing cost growth, a curious metric for military systems, quickly followed McNamara’s reforms. The ultimate and important metric is final cost. Since we have no way of really knowing what a system should cost, however, we assume that the original estimate will determine the “should-cost” baseline. Yet, because systems are so diverse, it is hard to compare whether a missile should cost more than an airplane, a satellite, or a computer system. Therefore, it is very difficult to know what the original estimate should be, and most prudent program managers pad costs or weaken requirements to deal with uncertainty. This situation did not deter reformers, however, who made idealistic claims. The Goldwater-Nichols reformers made bold plans in the early 1990s for what they might do with the enormous savings they forecast from their management-oriented approach. In the words of Jacques Gansler, “To pay for our Revolution in Military Affairs, we must wage a Revolution in Business Affairs in all areas and simultaneously.”11 The fact that it is nearly impossible to know what a particular development should cost does not mean that the exercise is entirely meaningless. One must use some basis of estimation for planning purposes. Yet, the point is that one gives more importance to these estimates than they deserve. After all, they are just estimates.

The reformers claimed that they would control cost growth. Unfortunately, the record is disappointing. In a 1993 RAND study, Jeffrey Drezner and others sought to characterize cost growth (variance between initial and final contract baselines) against a wide variety of factors. In general, they found that during the time period between McNamara’s reforms (1965) and 1990, cost growth hovered at around 20 percent, on average. This percentage is more or less constant, and “no substantial improvement has occurred in average cost growth over the last 30 years, despite the implementation of several initiatives intended to mitigate cost growth.”12

In the last 15 years, we have seen another round of reforms (the Packard Commission of 1986, Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1987, and Acquisition Reform movement). In spite of claims that these reforms would lead to cost reductions, Air Force cost overruns grew another 9.9 percent!13 If control over cost growth was a goal of these reforms, they have not delivered.

Quality of System Integration

Another justification for our burgeoning management structures is that they lead to more effective integration. Armies of managers, configuration specialists, quality-control engineers, logistics staffs, and others will assure that our systems work more effectively with each other. Since success or failure in these areas is substantially subjective, one finds it difficult to fully assess any potential gains from the growth of management. Although some people claim that Air Force systems have improved since the shift in philosophy, today’s capabilities do not compare favorably with those of the past. Early developers accomplished spectacular things, including the entire ICBM system, Distant Early Warning, the air defense network, and the Air Force Satellite Control Network. All of these were megasystems with tremendous integration challenges, yet their developers tackled them without the “benefit” of today’s enormous bureaucracies.

Audacity of Development

The Air Force’s R&D establishment exists to ensure that, technologically, our service is second to none. From 1950 to 1965, the Air Force undertook an unprecedented series of developments that will probably occupy a special place in world history. Capabilities that no one thought possible at the beginning of the period became operationally routine by the end. In Rescuing Prometheus, Thomas Hughes describes this era as “far more complex than that populated earlier by heroic inventors such as Thomas Edison and firms such as the Ford Motor Company.”14 After World War II, Americans (and most of the world) came to expect an unrelenting, even accelerating, technological progress as a simple fact of life. Much of this optimism is directly tied to aerospace and related technologies in the short 15-year period from 1950 to 1965. Indeed, the stuff of high technology is rooted in aerospace development, which includes jet fighters and bombers, thermonuclear weapons, intercontinental missiles, radar- and infrared-guided missiles, drones and cruise missiles, computerized C2 centers, micro-electronics, early warning radar, optical space surveillance, weather satellites, and the fastest airplane ever made. All of these aerospace developments shared several attributes: they were intellectually sophisticated, they were highly complicated to manage, they involved large workforces, and, not surprisingly, they were tremendously expensive.

From 1966 to the present, the Air Force entered into a phase that certainly improved and optimized prior developments but could hardly be considered revolutionary in the same sense. These evolutionary developments also involved large workforces and were tremendously expensive. They improved upon basic capabilities to make more versatile and capable aircraft, missiles that carried more payload, secure C2, and so forth. Innovation continued, and the list includes laser-guided and other precision weapons, stealth technology, real-time space intelligence, and satellite navigation- all of which represented considerable advances in the state of the art. However, one has difficulty comparing favorably the fruits of the last 36 years in the area of military innovation to those of the preceding 15 years, particularly considering that the money spent in modernization has remained roughly constant over that time period.

Many possible explanations exist as to why the early Cold War years were more productive than our recent past. Certainly, our competition with the Soviet Union created a sense of urgency that cut through much of the politics and red tape that characterize government-led developments. In fact, Hughes regularly points out that the more audacious projects, such as Atlas and Minuteman, probably would have failed had it not been for the times and the sense of urgency that they generated.15 Gen Bernard Schriever, head of missile development and a prime architect of the early Air Force technical establishment, claimed that the entire space and missile activity got a tremendous boost from the fear generated by the Soviets’ launch of sputnik- an opportunity for which he was ready. As time went on, fear of the USSR went away. Eventually, the USSR itself went away. Another possible reason for the disparity in development audacity is that the critical fundamentals had just been discovered. Rockets, turbines, computers, solid-state electronics, and nuclear and thermonuclear devices were all relatively new to members of the early Cold War generation. Just about anything they did was innovative. One might make similar arguments today. The potential for innovation in technology continues if we properly exploit biotechnology, polymer electronics, new device-fabrication techniques, optoelectronics, lasers, and many more fundamentals.

Innovation: Straightforward
but Difficult

Restoring simplicity to the management of complex systems requires a shift back to the timeless quality of leadership, beginning with the leadership to remove massive portions of the complicated management edifice built over decades. The military has attempted many streamlining initiatives in recent decades, from Total Quality Management to Acquisition “Lightning Bolts.” Although most of these initiatives could have been effective, they often made only minor revisions to the large, bureaucratic infrastructure. We need leadership to reimplement the timeless principles. Early Air Force technologist-leaders understood these principles even though they talked about them relatively little.

Principle No. 1: Put the Most Important Things First

Sometimes these are obvious, such as the importance of technology in combat. Our early leadership clearly understood this- witness Gen Henry “Hap” Arnold’s claim that “World War I had been won on brawn, World War II through superior logistics, but any future war would be won by brains.”16 Given the significance of just two atomic bombs in ending the largest war in history, we should not shrug off the importance of technology in our mission, and we must boldly advance aerospace technology.

Principle No. 2: Leadership Must Focus on Results 
More Than Process

For system builders, results come in the form of successfully used products. Process must be a tool to generate results- not the other way around. Many successful corporations are quick to point out that although processes are helpful and sometimes elaborate, they are only tools to elucidate decisions. Ultimately, people make decisions. Leaders make decisions. If the process gets in the way, the leader must decide to put the product first. This is often difficult when processes are sometimes codified in regulation. Leaders must use their maximum latitude and stand up for their results and for their people. One sees this principle at work in the way General Schriever handled aerospace contractors who accused him of violating competition laws and regulations by serving as systems integrator for ICBMs. The general vigorously defended his decision as a successful promotion of competition: “The assertion which I have heard a number of times is that the present management approach eliminates competition. The fact is that the opposite is true. We are opening up the program for competition. The top electronics companies have been invited to compete for the development of the radar tracker, and the same applies to the computer and inertial guidance system. . . . In other words, we are going to the industries where the greatest competence exists for each [of] the major components of the system.”17

Good systems are made out of good components. In a 1955 memo, General Schriever answered aerospace industry’s criticism of his decision to use the government as system integrator.18 He stated that the best components, part by part, tended not to come from a single integrating contractor since the latter tended not to favor the best design. Rather, such contractors promoted their own developments, even if they were inferior. Schriever clearly understood the importance of having the best propulsion system, the best guidance and control, the lightest booster shell, and so forth. His intention was to build a quality missile system.

One must manage good developments from a whole-system perspective. When they build a new car, automakers are just as concerned about the manufacturing process, ser-vice, and parts as they are about design. Military systems have the same fundamental need although the variables differ since quantities are much smaller and the market dynamics are different. For example, some military systems can have “bugs” worked out downstream. Manufacturing efficiency is less an issue for one-of-a-kind systems, such as some spacecraft. Still, the system perspective remains. For example, ICBM pioneers understood that their system had to be a military system. It had to be hardened, redundant, and fail-safe with robust C2. They insisted on including a substantial cadre of government (including military) scientists and engineers to ensure that the system was not only the best that it could be, but also militarily relevant and useful.

A third corollary holds that the customer cannot always choose the best product in advance. Early leadership in technology saw a host of audacious developments, from hydrogen bombs to missiles to pilotless air vehicles, as being critical to our war-making capabilities. But before they could begin, they needed sufficient authority to serve as their own advocates. Initially, nearly all developments in the late 1940s and early 1950s were direct consequences of war-fighter requirements, resulting primarily in bombers of increased range and envelope. A shift took place in the early 1950s: “developmental planning offices” pursued the development of systems not driven by war fighters (or “pulled” by requirements). Rather, they focused on “technology push”- systems that should be built merely because they could be built and because they would be significant in battle. Perhaps the most notable of these was the ballistic missile program. Missiles were particularly unpopular among the bomber generals, and, at the time, they had no operational organization to advocate their use. The engineers and scientists who proposed them had to serve as their own advocates.19

Principle No. 3: Be Good at What You Do

Steve Jobs of Apple Computer often claimed that the success of his company was based on its personnel policy: hiring people “insanely great” at what they did.20 Early Air Force leaders clearly understood this to mean that the service’s technical personnel should have excellent technical skills. Perhaps Louis Ridenour put it best in his Scientific Advisory Board report of 1949: “Under no circumstances should a highly technical job carrying responsibility and authority be filled by anyone except a fully qualified technical man.”21

Our current philosophy of substituting APDP’s process indoctrination for in-depth qualifications falls far short of the kind of excellent workforce known for stellar output. The Air Force must learn to expect contributions on the job- the kind that come only from technically savvy people with the necessary experience and education.

Principle No. 4: Use Leaders Who Can Lead and
 Earn Respect

Early technical leaders in the Air Force had strong scientific or engineering credentials from top institutions, and they surrounded themselves with similar people. Membership of the Scientific Advisory Board read like a “who’s who” of science at the time, featuring such prominent people as Theodore von Kármán (leading aerospace scientist), Ridenour, and John von Neumann (primary inventor of the digital computer) at the head. When General Schriever was standing up the ballistic missile program, he chose two well-published, prominent engineers (Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge) to head the effort. He intended to attract talent under skilled leadership, and the approach appears to have worked. Jobs described a similar situation at Apple in the mid-1980s, when the company replaced its technical-managerial staff with “professional” management. In his words, these people “knew how to manage, but they didn’t know how to do anything.”22 Apple had to hire back much of the technical talent as managers to produce systems as innovative as the MacIntosh. Air Force technical leaders must be technically qualified and respected by their workforce. Our service must not use technical-leadership jobs as mere “broadening” opportunities for officers from other areas unless they also have the required background and command respect.

Principle No. 5: Don’t Outsource Your Thinking

Early Air Force R&D centers were very active in prototyping, developing, and testing. General Schriever created both a coordinated team of government personnel and his integrating contractor, Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation (later known as TRW). “Military engineers worked all the way down to the subsystem level at every phase of development from basic research to mass production.”23 Using a government-centered team, the general could always trust his people to choose the best components from a myriad of providers, rather than restricting themselves to a single aerospace contractor, who often provided substandard options. He also used military engineers to ensure that the systems could stand up to combat conditions. For example, the Atlas ICBM (developed by Convair) at first had no shelter to protect it from enemy attacks. General Schriever and his military/Ramo-Wooldridge team corrected that deficiency through the design of the silo-based Minuteman system. In his article “The Need for Technical Warriors,” Col J. Douglas Beason outlined the importance of having a brain trust of technical officers within the military to manage contractors with insight, organize efforts, and define requirements.24 Successful organizations take control of their own destiny.

What Can Be Done?

Although PPBS is mandated, the Air Force could take a minimalist approach and use the process as a formality in the budget cycle. At a minimum, the service could stop creating its own corollary additions to the bloated bureaucracy, such as innovation steering groups (which “plan” future innovation activities). To the maximum extent possible, the Air Force could encourage its organizations to work within flat funding lines and submit a simple annual budget. The Air Force did this before with great success and could do so again. Generally, PPBS has not changed the bottom line of most organizations anyway, so we could assume something approaching flat funding and consolidate program elements (PPBS line items).

Increasingly, we need to focus attention on managing in conditions of uncertainty by using a changing technology base in a fluid, often chaotic, world. Doing so requires restoring human judgment and leadership as the guide, as opposed to plans that quickly become obsolete. Judgment requires skill, and there is no substitute for it. People, not plans, really are the most valuable asset. Quite simply, the Air Force must stop the death spiral of technical talent. Fixing this problem requires investment and a culture change. The only alternative is to continue down the current, unfruitful path. Furthermore, education and recruiting alone cannot fix our personnel problem. We must match the work environment to an appropriately skilled workforce. For example, we could work the short-turnaround budgets through a process that more closely resembles the marketplace of ideas rather than multiyear advanced planning. This change would allow the most innovative people to quickly get the resources they need to pursue their ideas and would remove the layers of checkpoints they must currently navigate. In the place of planning and budgetary controls, the workforce could be managed through incentives. Although promotion is clearly a key incentive, often the mere growth of a program, based upon its own success, is incentive enough for the kind of excellence-driven employee we need. Maximizing the authority of local leaders to promote people locally within their workforce goes far in this regard, and Air Force Materiel Command has already seen successful results from two pilot programs that delegate promotion authority to the lowest levels for civilians. Even though military members are promoted through a central board, local procedures could be used to differentiate between performers and nonperformers much more effectively.

This kind of change is a massive culture shift, and it may require reexamining other sacred cows within the Air Force. For example, the service has the opportunity to redefine the boundaries between laboratories and program offices. Currently, those offices must do the unstructured, creative work of conceptual design, followed by the disciplined management of a detailed build with all of the configuration management and support issues this process entails. Perhaps it would be better to move the conceptual-design activity and associated resources into the laboratory, where a culture of high-technology innovation is more easily fostered, and keep the downstream activities in a more disciplined program-office environment.

Another option entails relocating certain activities where they are more likely to prosper. For example, locating laboratories in “high intellectual capital” areas such as the West Coast or Boston may be expensive and politically difficult, but these are the logical places for laboratories since they have the necessary academic and industrial infrastructure to feed a leading R&D center. All of these suggestions are difficult, but we cannot continue to wallow in the current bureaucratic state.


Recent decades of scientific management have born little fruit in military-system development, and this situation comes with a very high overhead in terms of direct cost as well as loss of flexibility and initiative. Currently, “agile acquisition” is a hot topic within the Air Force, but one cannot restore agility without reducing the management choke hold that requires years of questionable, up-front analyses and a minimum budget turnaround of two years. We need to perform these analyses and plans more quickly, and the organization must learn to accept the uncertainty that lies beyond. Agility requires a restoration of the subjective elements to decision making as well as rules that allow the timely pursuit of opportunity. Much can be done to restore the Air Force to a position of technical prominence.


1. A1C Paul Grove, “Air Force Taking Steps to Ensure Minuteman Reliability,” Air Force News, 30 June 1998, on-line, Internet, 29 January 2002, available from "http://www.af.mil/news/%20Jun1998/n19980630_980959.html" .

2. Peter Pae, “Upgraded Missiles Found Less Accurate,” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 2001, on-line, Internet, 30 January 2002, available from "http://www.globalsecurity.org/org/news/2001/010809-mm3.htm" . To be fair, these programs are not “upgrades” but forced refits of older technologies now obsolete. Because of known incompatibilities with modern manufacturing technologies and current environmental regulations, many of the noted performance degradations were predicted at the beginning of the refurbishment.

3. Giles K. Smith, Hyman L. Shulman, and Robert Leonard, Application of F-117 Acquisition Strategy to Other Programs in the New Acquisition Environment (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1996).

4. John Joseph Bennett, “Department of Defense Systems Acquisition Management: Congressional Criticism and Concern” (PhD diss., George Washington University, 1974), 48–49.

5. Robert S. Coulam, Illusions of Choice: The F-111 and the Problem of Weapons Acquisition Reform (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977).

6. Michael H. Gorn, Vulcan’s Forge: The Making of an Air Force Command for Weapons Acquisition (1950–1985), vol. 1 (Andrews AFB, Md.: Office of History, Headquarters Air Force Systems Command, 1985), 85–87.

7. Frederic M. Scherer, quoted in Bennett, 49.

8. Philip K. Howard, The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America (New York: Random House, 1994).

9. For an excellent discussion on the overuse of strategic planning and its ill effects, see Henry Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning: Reconceiving Roles for Planning, Plans, Planners (New York: Free Press, 1994). Mintzberg discusses the fact that long-term plans seldom come to fruition and that planning sometimes causes organizations to make suboptimal decisions for a variety of reasons. He singles out the government’s PPBS system as an example of a planning system gone wrong and quotes a leading scholar (Aaron Wildavsky in The Politics of the Budgetary Process [Boston: Little, Brown, 1974]) as saying, “PPBS has failed everywhere and at all times” (121).

10. Einstein Quotes and Sayings: Famous Einstein Quotations, on-line, Internet, 30 January 2002, available from
"http://home.att.%20net/~quotations/einstein.html" .

11. This particular quotation came from a statement of Dr. Gansler to the Senate Subcommittee on Readiness, 4 March 1998, on-line, Internet, 30 January 2002, available from "http://www.senate.gov/~armed_services/statemnt/980304jg.htm" . Numerous high-level DOD leaders have made many similar statements, including former secretary of defense William Cohen. Perhaps the best discussion of the subject can be found in Gansler’s book Defense Conversion: Transforming the Arsenal of Democracy (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995).

12. Jeffrey A. Drezner et al., An Analysis of Weapon System Cost Growth, MR-291-AF (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1993), 52.

13. David S. Christensen, David A. Searle, and Caisse Vickery, “The Impact of the Packard Commission’s Recommendations on Reducing Cost Overruns on Defense Acquisition Contracts,” Acquisition Review Quarterly, Summer 1999, 251–62.

14. Thomas P. Hughes, Rescuing Prometheus (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), 3.

15. Ibid., 79–84.

16. Ibid., 94.

17. Gen Bernard Schriever, memorandum to Lt Gen Thomas Power, commander, Air Research and Development Command, subject: Promotion of Competition, 4 February 1955.

18. Ibid.

19. Gen Bernard Schriever, Washington, D.C., interviewed by author, 23 March 2001.

20. In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies (Schaumburg, Ill.: Video Publishing House, John Nathan and Sam Tyler Productions, Harper & Row/Warner Books, 1985), videocassette, based upon the book of the same title by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. (New York: Harper & Row, 1982).

21. [Louis Ridenour], Research and Development in the United States Air Force, Report of a Special Committee of the Scientific Advisory Board to the Chief of Staff, USAF (n.p., 1949), 5.

22. In Search of Excellence videocassette.

23. Schriever interview.

24. Col J. Douglas Beason, “The Need for Technical Warriors,” Aerospace Power Journal 14, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 70–76.


Lt Col Steven C. Suddarth (USAFA; MS and PhD, University of Washington) is chief of the Commander’s Action Group, Air Force Materiel Command, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. He previously served as program manager for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research at Wright-Patterson and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (now the Missile Defense Agency), Washington, D.C., and as exchange engineer to the French national aerospace laboratories. Colonel Suddarth is a graduate of the Brazilian Air Command and Staff College and the US Air War College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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