Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Bensahel blasts back: What Tom doesn’t understand about defense technology

Here is Nora Bensahel’s response to my comment the other day that her paper on the state of the defense establishment, while generally good, was off track on defense technology. I agree with her point about the defense acquisition process, and wonder if we simply should shutter it. “We actually agree more than we disagree ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Here is Nora Bensahel's response to my comment the other day that her paper on the state of the defense establishment, while generally good, was off track on defense technology. I agree with her point about the defense acquisition process, and wonder if we simply should shutter it.

"We actually agree more than we disagree about the importance of maintaining U.S. technological superiority in the future.  You rightly point out that explosive growth of advanced technology is coming primarily from the civilian sector and not the defense sector - which I should have emphasized more clearly.  And I completely agree that maintaining technological superiority will require the U.S. military and defense industry to focus on adapting civilian technologies for military use whenever and wherever possible.

However, I see three big challenges ahead.

Here is Nora Bensahel’s response to my comment the other day that her paper on the state of the defense establishment, while generally good, was off track on defense technology. I agree with her point about the defense acquisition process, and wonder if we simply should shutter it.

“We actually agree more than we disagree about the importance of maintaining U.S. technological superiority in the future.  You rightly point out that explosive growth of advanced technology is coming primarily from the civilian sector and not the defense sector – which I should have emphasized more clearly.  And I completely agree that maintaining technological superiority will require the U.S. military and defense industry to focus on adapting civilian technologies for military use whenever and wherever possible.

However, I see three big challenges ahead.

First, the current acquisition process would need to be completely overhauled in order to rapidly incorporate cutting-edge technologies.  Apple releases a new version of the iPhone every year, while even the speediest acquisition programs take years. Plenty of ink has already been spilled about how to reform the acquisition process (including a report that I co-authored last year).  Fundamentally, this is a whole lot easier said than done. 

Second, innovative civilian technologies are being developed around the world, not just in the United States, and that trend will only grow in the future.  DOD will continue to have some understandable security concerns about relying on technologies developed outside the United States, even if those technologies provide the best capabilities.

Finally, some defense technologies simply cannot and will not be produced by the civilian sector.  Companies that are motivated primarily by market share and profits will never produce everything that the U.S. military needs.  That’s why I argued that DOD still needs to invest in its own research and development – but only in those areas where civilian technologies cannot provide a solution. 

What I have in mind is very different from an approach “rooted in the industrial approach used in the Cold War.”  Hopefully, this discussion will help make that much more clear.”

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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