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By Robert A. McDonald Sr.M. Sam Araki and Robert Wilkie

The U.S. military is getting older faster than it is getting modern. As currently postured, “the U.S. military continues to be only marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests.” The crisis is most evident in the Pacific.

The Middle Kingdom’s military is not only rapidly expanding, but it is buttressed by financial muscle of which the sclerotic Soviet Union could only dream. But China is not invincible: It has structural, ideological and geographic vulnerabilities that can be exploited be a vigorous America. But we must act now — invest in new weapons, divest legacy systems, and harden our space and cyber assets. Unleash Silicon Valley to condense the kill chain by turning to artificial intelligence. But we must also burst out of industrial-age acquisition and developmental straitjackets.

As we begin 2022, there are two factors that impact national security. We believe they require urgent attention. First, there is a growing threat from China in the area of technology. Second the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force are facing challenges in their acquisition processes. We believe there is a unique acquisition approach — what we call the “7 Tenets” — that can be employed to address this dilemma. But, first, we will clarify the dual challenges.

Over the past two years, the national security community as well as the media have made it clear that China’s development of weapons technology is on a trajectory where it is likely to exceed that of the United States. Various media sources have underscored this in their reports, pointing out that (1) China already has exceeded the U.S. in development of hypersonic technology; (2) the best proposed way to track hypersonic vehicles is via space-based sensors; and (3) China is rapidly catching up to the U.S. in space capabilities.

Over the past year, the DoD has placed an urgency on reorganizing Air Force and Space Force acquisition systems. The existing acquisition processes may not be best positioned to respond to the threat. In congressional testimony last year, a senior Government Accountability Office official noted that over the past decades, the DoD has faced a variety of challenges in its space acquisitions, such as schedule delays, multibillion-dollar cost increases, significant reductions in capabilities and in some cases cancelation.

In a December 2021 Breaking Defense article, journalist Theresa Hitchens wrote that the task of acquisition reform will not be easy because of the “hidebound and byzantine space acquisition bureaucracy” that currently exists.

What does that mean? We see it as the “sludge” that Harvard professor Cass R. Sunstein has written about. He has explained that “sludge” is anything that slows down the process of meeting objectives; it is the unmovable and undesirable tasks and diversions associated with doing business. “Sludge” is the obstacle to DoD modernization and acquisition.

How can that “sludge” be reduced or eliminated?

It is not rocket science. The 7 Tenets shaped an environment of creativity during the Cold War and resulted in revolutionary changes. Eliminating the “sludge” will move toward the rapid development of innovation. In a nutshell the tenets were:

  1. Clearly identify the threats and respond with specific objectives to overcome them.
  2. Establish short deadlines and work quickly.
  3. Ensure that funding and staffing are adequate and stable.
  4. Use breakaway teams that are collaborative.
  5. Employ experienced experts who have proven themselves.
  6. Use the latest technology and adapt it for your objectives.
  7. Establish a short chain of command, and avoid bureaucratic “sludge.”

These principles were applied to the development and operation of five Cold War-era U.S. overhead photographic spy systems that resulted in dramatic innovations in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

In the 1950s, it was the U-2, which was an advanced spy plane that could fly at 70,000 feet and acquired photo coverage of some 15% of the USSR. In August 1960, it was the Corona spy satellite, which was the first to take photographs. In the 1960s, it was the Gambit spy satellite, which could take photographs of such high quality that automobiles could be identified. In the 1970s, it was the Hexagon spy satellite that could photograph large areas of the Earth where one image could cover the distance from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Washington, D.C. In 1976, it was the Kennen spy satellite, which opened the era of digital photography by taking digital images.

By applying the 7 Tenets, the intelligence community was able to develop and begin operation of these complex systems within three to 60 months. For example, the high-resolution space imaging system became operational within only 24 months.

Today’s environment is very different from the Cold War. Applying the 7 Tenets won’t be easy, but it is essential to adapt the 7 Tenets to today’s aerospace-engineering intelligence and acquisition challenges.

To do so would enable the DoD, first, to eliminate what Cass Sunstein has described as “sludge,” and then to be able to meet the expectations of DoD leadership to encounter today’s threat posed by China.

Robert A. McDonald Sr. is emeritus director at the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance, a retired CIA officer, and a former professor of national security and psychology at the National War College. M. Sam Araki served as president of Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space, and the engineer who pioneered the development of the Agena spacecraft, the upper-stage space vehicle that served as the stable camera platform for the first imagery satellite, code-named Corona. Robert Wilkie served as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness and as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.