Thursday, September 15, 2011

JSF as Death Star? A Star Wars perspective on defense acquisition (UPDATED)

EDIT: Wow, I suspected I might be late to the game on this, but I didn't realize Danger Room had already DONE AN ENTIRE POST ABOUT IT. I'm an a-hole. Thanks to Spencer Ackerman for bringing it to my attention, and kudos to Adam Rawnsley for both catching this first and writing a better post than mine. (I promise I had no idea!)

I want to introduce you to what is easily the best article I've seen in a defense acqusition trade publication in my entire time following the subject: "Don't Come to the Dark Side: Acquisition Lessons From a Galaxy Far, Far Away" (pdf) by Air Force LTC Dan Ward, in the current issue of Defense AT&L magazine. Look, I get it -- BEST DEFENSE ACQUISITION ARTICLE EVARRR!!! isn't exactly a glowing endorsement: these magazines are filled with poor writing, meaningless buzzwords, and unoriginal ideas, the articles churned out by bored public affairs folks in acquisition commands who are tasked with little more than pushing out the talking points. But seriously, read this. It's funny, very well-written, and it makes several really important points about the crippling flaws that can creep into major acquisition programs. I don't want to steal LTC Ward's thunder, but here are a couple of his prescient observations:

1. The "single most realistic scene in the whole double-trilogy" is in Return of the Jedi, when Darth Vader complains about the second Death Star's construction being behind schedule.
Consider the implications of pop culture's most notorious schedule overrun. In the Star Wars universe, robots are self-aware, every ship has its own gravity, Jedi Knights use the Force, tiny green Muppets are formidable warriors and a piece of junk like the Millennium Falcon can make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. But even the florid imagination of George Lucas could not envision a project like the Death Star coming in on time, on budget. He knew it would take a Jedi mind trick beyond the skill of Master Yoda to make an audience suspend that much disbelief.
2. "The Death Star's combination of inadequacy and vulnerability may be the second-most realistic aspect of the entire saga." Heh. Enormously complex systems mean enormously complex acquisition programs, which means you've got a program management team trying to catch a whole bunch of possible problems -- and one is almost certain to slip through the cracks.

3. The awesome destructive and deterrent potential of the Death Star meant that the Empire was willing to overlook its overwhelming cost and possible vulnerabilities and put all its eggs in one programmatic basket, so to speak, channeling all its efforts into the construction of just one system for just one job.
Consider the fact that even the Empire, with all its vast resources and the full power of the Dark Side, could only build one Death Star at a time. Building two at once was clearly more than it could handle. This reminds me of Norm Augustine's famous prediction that at some point, the entire DoD budget would purchase just one aircraft for all the Services to share. The Empire apparently arrived at this singularity long, long ago. I'm not convinced this achievement represented real progress.
4. Droids are a great example of the sort of multifunctional, utilitarian systems that can justify their cost in a range of different mission sets.
Whether it's repairing the Millennium Falcon's hyperdrive, destroying a pair of Super Battle Droids, conveying a secret message to old Ben Kenobi or delivering Luke's light saber at the critical moment on Jabba's Sail Barge, [R2-D2's] always got a trick up his proverbial sleeve.
That kind of quiet competence and dependability is what led George Lucas to call R2-D2 "the hero of the whole thing."

Seriously, read this article. It's funny, it's literate, and it'll make you think about serious defense issues in a new way. (The only flaw is that it ends before you want it to.) A whole bunch of blog folks spend a whole lot of time geting all nutty about Star Wars or LOLcats or whatever other goofy pop-culture meme is going around at the moment; if they could make that nonsense this incisive and relevant, it would probably cease to be simultaneously the most boring and most annoying thing on the internet.

UPDATE 2: Keith Boyea tells us in the comments that LTC Ward has a blog, which you can find here.


  1. No love for Danger Room?

  2. Spencer -- I'm an a-hole: I totally missed that. Edited to reflect my stupidity. (Guess I need to read more Danger Room!)

  3. Here's Dan's blog:

    He's not updating it now--I think he is still deployed. Back when I was a young Lt, Dan and I exchanged emails about acquisition reform. He's a good officer and a fantastic writer. He's got a bunch of books for sale on lulu:

  4. Thanks for the heads-up, Keith. Putting that link in the main text, too.

  5. Not to toot my own horn, but if you're looking for "horrible sci fi acquisition programs", the Deathstar is a poor example. The DS was, by and large, a extremely successful program.