Some DoD Acquisition Problems

Our DoD’s failure with battlefield drones (as opposed to large surveillance and targeted raid drones) is shamefully demonstrated by a small US drone builder and Ukraine’s position on and need for actual, small, battle-capable drones.

Most small drones from US startups have failed to perform in combat, dashing companies’ hopes that a badge of being battle-tested would bring the startups sales and attention. It is also bad news for the Pentagon, which needs a reliable supply of thousands of small, unmanned aircraft.

One aspect of the American problem stems from too much dependence on DoD specifications.

American drone company executives say they didn’t anticipate the electronic warfare in Ukraine. In Skydio‘s [a Silicon Valley company] case, its drone was designed in 2019 to meet communications standards set by the US military.

How is it possible that our own military establishment, with its battlefield experience, has so badly misunderstood battlefield communications threats, counters, and needs? One reason—not the only one, since military officers are capable of learning from the past and anticipating the future—is that our military establishment hasn’t any current battlefield experience, only experience at fighting terrorist organizations. Even as recently as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US military didn’t face a qualified army, for all its formal army-like structure.

There’s this, too, particularly related to acquisition, although here applied specifically to drone acquisition:

Several startup executives said US restrictions on drone parts and testing limit what they can build and how fast they can build it.
Those restrictions have proven a problem in the drone battles that sometimes require daily updates and upgrades, said Georgii Dubynskyi, Ukraine’s deputy minister of digital transformation, the agency that oversees the country’s drone program.
“What is flying today won’t be able to fly tomorrow,” he said. “We have to adapt to the emerging technologies quickly. The innovation cycle in this war is very short.”

But the bureaucrats don’t care. They only care about their personal imperatives. One result of this bureaucratic interference and failure:

Ukrainian officials have found US-made drones fragile and unable to overcome Russian jamming and GPS blackout technology. … American drones often fail to fly at the distances advertised or carry substantial payloads.

There’s that communications failure again, along with a general failure to perform.

Skydio is showing the way [emphasis added]:

Skydio employees went back to Ukraine 17 times to get feedback, Bry said. Its new drone is built around Ukraine’s military needs and feedback from public-safety agencies and other customers, he said, rather than US Defense Department requirements that are sometimes divorced from battlefield realities.

None of our DoD acquisitors have done that. That’s as much on SecDef Lloyd Austin and CJCS General Charles Brown, Jr (and General Mark Milley before him) as it is on the acquisitors, though.

Skydio‘s growing success from its more independent development process is illustrated here:

Ukraine has requested thousands of the new Skydio X10, which has a radio that can switch frequencies on its own as soon as its signal is jammed by electronic interference. It also has better navigation capabilities so it can fly at high altitudes without GPS, Skydio said.
“It is critical for Skydio, and I think the US drone industry at large, that we make X10 succeed at scale on the battlefield in Ukraine,” Bry said. “There’s no alternative. As a country, we can’t miss on this.”

These problems—and they aren’t the only ones, they’re just a few exposed by DoD drone incompetence—will prove fatal in American battles, and so damaging if not fatal to American national security—independence.

We badly need to clean house in the DoD, following that with a removal of the civilian bureaucrat contingent in DoD acquisition (returning them to the private economy, rather than reassignment withing the Federal government), and we badly need to elect a President and Congress with the national security awareness and political courage to do so.

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