Procurement: What China Learned From Americans


December6, 2006: Acknowledging a trend that began in the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Defense has been trying to cut down on the bureaucracy and time consuming procedure that result it a new weapons or piece of equipment requiring a decade or more of "development" before the troops got it. This reform effort has had only limited success. A lot of the bad habits evolved during the Cold War, and the decades of peace after the Vietnam war. The main purpose of all this paper shuffling was to insure that no one got blamed for any screw ups. It was a matter of "safety first," but only for the bureaucrats (in and out of uniform).

There were also business and political considerations. The Department of Defense preferred to deal with a smaller number of large companies. The procurement bureaucracy preferred predictability over risk, even the risk of procuring more effective weapons and equipment. The large defense contractors reinforced their monopolistic position by lobbying politicians at the state and federal level to protect their high-priced projects. Combat effectiveness was not high on the priority list.

But there was change in the air. In the late 1980s, SOCOM (the Special Operations Command) made official a long time (unofficial) custom of the Special Forces; getting the best weapons and equipment from wherever they might find it, and not bothering with the tedious Pentagon procurement process. The Special Forces were discrete about it and the brass let it pass. But now the Pentagon has made it official policy to cut procurement "process" (paper shuffling and foot dragging) by at least fifty percent. Moreover, more money is being given to units to buy whatever they think will work, no questions asked (or permission required). This policy began to gather steam in the 1990s, although some combat units had earlier unofficially scrounged up money for unofficial, but superior equipment (and sometimes weapons.) That required a commander who was willing to stick his neck out, and risk his career to get unauthorized gear. There were never enough commanders like that.

In the last five years, as units went out and bought some of their own gear, the policy proved to be doubly valuable. First, it led to the discovery of new equipment that was useful in combat, and having troops actually use it for months, and often in combat, quickly revealed which of these items (mostly civilian gear) was capable of surviving military service. The growing amounts of discretionary funds combat unit commanders had to spend was proving to be an excellent example of how to get new equipment into the troops hands quickly.

But it was also noticed that during the 1991 Gulf War, and the later wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, when new weapons were needed, they could be designed, built, tested and delivered to the troops within months. Some people in the Department of Defense finally realized that speed was more helpful than harmful in developing new equipment. There was another factor at work, and that was the ever increasing speed at which new products were being produced for civilian markets. In the 1980s, it took nearly twice as long to develop a new product. But computer aided design and highly automated factories have cut down on the time needed to design and produce a new product. Moreover, many new products, with military applications, are coming from other countries. Potential enemies thus have the opportunity to obtain new technology before American troops can.

It has also not gone unnoticed that wealthy criminal gangs and rebel organizations have been quick to get the latest civilian communications and navigation (GPS) gear, as well as night vision equipment and a lot of the exotic weapons that are showing up on the legitimate, or black, markets. Thus speeded up acquisition is becoming a matter of life or death for American troops. Often U.S. troops are losing the race because of the inherently slothful Pentagon approach to adopting new technologies. This is made worse by the hostility of the American mass media, and many politicians, to an approach that depends on the arrival of new, but as yet unknown, technologies. Thus the U.S. Army's attempt to develop a FCS (Future Combat System) is criticized as a waste of money. That will change when someone else gets there first, but then it will be too late. China is pursuing an FCS policy. Chinese military publications are full of proposals to "defeat the Americans" through the use of future technologies. The Chinese see this as a key strategy in their plan to become the most powerful military force on the planet.


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