Sometimes, Cutting Budgets Spurs Innovation

Sometimes, Cutting Budgets Spurs Innovation

Posted on March 16th, 2012 in Blog, Top Picks

Current and planned DoD budget cuts have set off painstaking turf wars across the Pentagon. As programs get reduced or eliminated, leaders tend to assume a zero-sum game mentality whereby one group’s win is another’s loss. The implication is that the armed forces will become less capable but evenly impacted across the services because the sum total of materiel has been reduced.  However, this assumes that all materiel was being used to its utmost effectiveness to begin with. At a moment when senior leaders are rolling back new starts and looking across portfolios to eliminate redundancies, the best way for the military Services to maintain operational capability is through a rigorous and objective analysis of interoperable effectiveness.

Consider an unexpected lesson from our recent experience in Iraq:  With the drawdown of forces well underway in the spring of 2011 there were still several months remaining during which soldiers and civilians would be in harm’s way. By April, however, DoD announced that the primary mechanisms for rapidly equipping Soldiers [including Operational Needs Statements (ONS), Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statements (JUONS), and 10-Liners] were no longer being worked for Iraq because there was insufficient time to develop and deliver solutions.  This initially caused concern we’d be handicapping US Forces because they had to use the same tools to fight an ever-evolving adversary. In actuality, though, the lack of new tools simply drove innovation and improvisation – meaning, to paraphrase one senior Army Officer, “I’ve already got 50 tools in my toolbox. I don’t need the 51st tool, I need to figure out how to use the 50 I have more effectively.”

For example, the reduced posture of US Forces after the Iraqis assumed responsibility for the country in October 2010 induced an increase in indirect fire (IDF) attacks at US bases throughout Iraq. In response, US Forces began investigating integrated base defense. There was a wide variety of sensors and monitoring systems that were in use for this purpose but many still operated in isolation from each other.  The de-confliction of several radar systems illustrates this point; each radar system had an effective coverage area and associated “blind spots” – but these blind spots are different for each system, and integrating them provided much better coverage.

If it worked there it can work here – and if no one attempted to optimize system performance in a combat environment where their lives were on the line until the money was cut off, what is the likelihood that program managers have been communicating to optimize interoperable effectiveness in DC while the money was flowing freely?  With the right policy guidance from OSD perhaps the current budget environment can be used to compel program offices to seek interoperable effectiveness gains across the board, and demonstrate that “no new starts” doesn’t have to mean “no new capabilities.”  This isn’t to paint too rosy of a picture — most experts agree the cuts will be painful because such radical funding shifts always are.  But taking an open look at combining and making interoperable the capabilities embedded within the many novel tools developed in the past decade may ameliorate some of the otherwise foreseeable decline in capabilities and allow us to improve our posture even as we cut our purchases of new items.