The Department of Defense has made “a huge leap” forward in unmanned systems in five years, said Dyke Weatherington, currently performing the duties of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (OUSD) (AT&L.)
Speaking at the Potomac Officers Club Tuesday, Weatherington said “it’s difficult” to quantify the enormity of the advances “because every month the quantities were going up quite a bit.”
Speaking of his experience with both the Predator and Reaper programs, Weatherington said that while they were “very innovative” in some areas of the programs, there were opportunities for improvement in areas that operated very similarly to legacy systems.
“Looking at virtually every weapons system, and [seeing] what improvements in capability, what reductions in cost, what improvements in speed, we can get” for improvements in capabilities and in reacting to threats, yields a wealth of potential opportunities, said Weatherington.
“A well-orchestrated system can be very dynamic in how we … improve capabilities over time,” he said. Economy and decision aids are another area that he said could be improved greatly and “you can apply that to any weapons system.”
Weatherington, a retired United States Air Force veteran, said most people familiar with the military know that it’s not “delivering the shiny box – it’s delivering that shiny box with all the associated elements that deliver combat capabilities” that is the challenge.
“It’s hardware; it’s people; it’s supply chain; it’s logistics support; it’s training; it’s everything necessary,” he said. Depending on the system, those could be fairly straightforward, or fairly complex, he added.
Unmanned systems have the ability to handle processes that machines perform better than humans, while enabling individuals to focus “on things that humans do really well,” said Weatherington. Another clear advantage for unmanned systems on the battlefield is that an American’s life is not at stake.
Given the dynamic nature of warfare today, human capital is the most expensive investment. Unmanned systems can speed decision-making and reduce costs, which can be turned into savings for “additional capabilities [that] I can push through the system much more rapidly,” he said.
Weatherington said he often hears that the acquisition process is too slow but that “from my perspective, while we do need to maintain some discipline in the acquisitions process, the process can move pretty fast.”
Using the Predator as an example, he said that it took about 20 months to deploy. Today’s acquisition process has a lot more flexibility than it did in 2000-2005 timeframe, he said.
A lot of the problems stem, not from the acquisition or requirements process itself, but from the Pentagon’s perennial budgeting woes, said Weatherington.
The department has been under “incredible financial stress” in recent years, and “one of the ways” to “control that appetite” is to “throttle the requirements process,” he said.
Key positions in the Defense Department still need to be filled, and several important decisions await the appointees. While career civil servants are doing their best to make sure the trains run on time, the number of unfilled positions remain a challenge for the DOD.
“Secretary Mattis is doing a lot of the heavy lifting pretty much by himself right now, and getting some other folks on staff that support him, and his picks for his team, would significantly help,” said Weatherington.
The 2017 budget did not have as much set aside for procurement as Congress had expected because the administration chose to focus on readiness. The 2018 budget should show an increased focus on procurement, said Weatherington.
The military “services have a wish list; hopefully soon we’ll have a topline number to budget against,” he said. “My guess is it probably won’t be as optimistic as some people have reported it to be.”
He hazarded that the topline number might be slightly above inflation, but that the department’s budgeting woes were not getting “dramatically healthier.”
“The threats increase every day,” said the Air Force Academy graduate. “Frankly, when I was wearing a blue uniform, there was a threat and we understood it pretty well. We had reasonably good intelligence on it; we knew what their priorities were. Today, not so much. That threat is much more diverse; it’s across the entire spectrum of conflict. We’re engaged in a fight today [where]… it doesn’t look like that fight’s going away; yet I’ve got almost the other spectrum that’s continually increasing and so we’ve got to balance a limited budget across all those areas.”
One of the greatest challenges that the government faces today is cultural, said Weatherington.
Some programs, like the space program, have run for decades in a low-threat environment and were typically very risk-averse, due to any issue turning into an enormous cost overrun.
That is fine; but “when the threat changes, now I need to motivate a very large culture to do things differently: be faster, take more risks, be more innovative,” said Weatherington. “That is a challenge, especially when you look at the workforce dynamics of [a] community” where highly specialized people have remained fairly stagnant.
“Fortunately, I think senior leadership understands that,” he said; but it can take time to change dynamics on the ground and in the hiring processes.