High-technology brain drain takes heavy toll on U.S. military projects
When Paul Kaminski completed his graduate work in 1971 with degrees from
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford, he started
building advanced airplanes for the U.S. Air Force. By the time he
stopped several decades later, he had played a pivotal role in producing
a flock of new weapons, including radar-evading stealth aircraft.
If Kaminski were coming out of a university today, chances are that he
would be going to work for the likes of Microsoft or Google.
Over the past decade, as spending on new military projects has reached
its highest level since the Reagan years, the Pentagon has increasingly
been losing the people most skilled at managing them. That brain drain,
military experts like Kaminski say, is a big factor in a breakdown in
engineering management that has made huge cost overruns and long delays
the maddening norm.
Kaminski's generation of engineers, which was responsible for many of
the most successful military projects of the 1970s and '80s, is aging.
But declining numbers of top young engineers, software developers and
mathematicians are replacing them. Instead, they are joining high-tech
companies and other civilian organizations that provide not just better
pay than the military or its contractors, but also greater cachet - what
one former defense industry engineer called "geek credit."
Precise numbers are scarce, but one measure of this shift can be found
at the air force: As a result of budget cuts, the demands of fighting
two wars and the difficulty of recruiting and retaining top engineers,
officials say, the number of civilian and uniformed engineers on the air
force's core acquisition staff has been reduced by 35 to 40 percent over
the past 14 years.
The downsizing "has taken a toll in our inability to refresh our aging
acquisition workforce," said the air force's engineering chief, Jon Ogg.
When Kaminski and Ogg talk about military spending and the decline of
engineering management, they tend to use measured, military tones. But
with the Pentagon planning to spend $900 billion on development and
procurement in the next five years, including $335 billion on major new
weapons systems, the depth of their concern is reflected in a rising
alarm among many in Washington.
At a recent hearing, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services
Committee, Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, said cost overruns on
military projects had "reached crisis proportions" and called for the
creation of an internal Pentagon office to oversee costs. A recent
Government Accountability Office study of 95 military projects worth
$1.6 trillion reported cost overruns totaling $295 billion and an
average delay of 21 months. Often a prime culprit was deficient
"We're having awful problems with the execution of defense programs,"
said Kaminski, who was the Pentagon's top acquisition executive from
1994 to 1997. "It's absolutely critical to start becoming more
efficient, more effective."
Kaminski is devoting much of his time as a private citizen to that goal,
leading a high-level task force and visiting university campuses and
defense companies to spread the word about the need for better
As he and other experts explain it, the central problem is a breakdown
in the most basic element of any big military project - accurately
assessing at the outset whether the technological goals are attainable
and affordable, then managing the engineering to ensure that hardware
and software are properly designed, tested and integrated.
The technical term for the discipline is systems engineering. Without
it, projects can turn into chaotic, costly failures.
Increasingly, that has become the case. What is more, the loss of
government expertise has magnified the difficulties associated with
another trend: In recent years, the Pentagon has transferred more and
more oversight responsibility to its contractors, who themselves often
lack sufficient systems-engineering skill and the incentives needed to
hold down costs.
Kaminski's task force, organized by the National Research Council, an
arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of
Engineering, was composed of 18 defense experts, working together with
the Air Force Studies Board, another high-powered group.
Their report scolded the air force for handling basic
systems-engineering steps haphazardly or ignoring them altogether. Among
those steps: considering alternative concepts before plunging ahead with
a program, setting clear performance goals for a new system and
analyzing the interaction between different technologies.
The task force identified several programs that, hobbled by poor
engineering management, have run up billions of dollars in cost overruns
while falling far behind schedule.
A military satellite system designed to detect foreign missile launches
that Kaminski said was inexplicably designed with two sensors that
cannot operate simultaneously on the same spacecraft without extensive,
costly shielding to prevent electromagnetic interference generated by
one from disabling the other.
An ambitious army modernization project, known as Future Combat Systems,
that moved into development before performance requirements were resolved.
A complex network of communications satellites that the Pentagon started
building without a coherent plan for integrating an existing system with
the new one or devising a consistent set of requirements to bridge the
different needs of the four military services.
Kaminski and other experts see no easy fix. High-level reports and
recommendations about poor engineering management have piled up over the
years with little remedial action by the Pentagon, they said.
General Bruce Carlson, the head of the Air Force Materiel Command, which
plays a leading role in acquisition programs, said he agreed with the
panel's recommendations. Responding to questions by e-mail, he said that
every air force program was now required to develop a
systems-engineering plan. In addition, the service has established
educational programs for its systems engineers and created a new degree
in systems engineering at the Air Force Academy.
Similarly, naval officials are working with the National Academy of
Engineering on a plan to encourage more interest in the sciences in
school and improve the navy's recruitment and retention of engineers,
mathematicians and other specialists. And universities like Georgia Tech
and Purdue, responding to the kinds of concerns raised by Kaminski, are
expanding their systems-engineering programs.
Still, the military is hard-pressed to compete with the corporate stars
of the high-tech era.
"Ten to 20 years ago, many mechanical engineers went into a limited
number of industrial sectors, automotive and aerospace - including
defense - among the largest," James Jones, associate head of Purdue's
School of Mechanical Engineering, said in an e-mail message.
Recent surveys of Purdue graduates, he said, show engineering students
heading into a much broader array of jobs, including finance, management
At MIT, a 2007 survey showed that 28.7 percent of undergraduates were
headed for work in finance and 13.7 in management consulting, but just
7.5 percent in aerospace and defense. The top 10 employers included
McKinsey, Google, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, Bain, JP Morgan and
Oracle - but not a single defense contractor or government office.
The same survey showed that the average annual starting salary in
finance and high-tech was more than $70,000, compared with $37,000 at
the Defense Department. The average in the defense industry was $61,000.
MIT does not have comparable survey data for 10 or 15 years ago, but
officials there say the trend is unmistakable.
"Google calls me every other week looking for systems engineers," said
Donna Rhodes, a systems-engineering expert at MIT.
The dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech, Don Giddens,
noted an additional factor limiting the recruitment of highly trained
engineers into defense jobs: More than half the engineering doctoral
candidates at American universities are from abroad and so are
ineligible for jobs requiring security clearances.
Stuart Kerr, a software developer with advanced degrees in mathematics
and electrical engineering, left the defense sector in 1999 after 10
years to work for a high-tech company. He said the protracted
development time for defense projects amounted to "a professional death
sentence" for scientists and engineers who want to keep up to date with
Kerr, who now directs computer systems research at the Aerospace
Corporation, a federally funded research organization that supports
national-security space programs, said young engineers were also put off
by the multi-layer bureaucracies associated with defense projects.
Gilbert Decker, a member of Kaminski's task force and a former assistant
secretary of the army for research and development, said he understood
the appeal of nondefense work. In 1999, after retiring from government,
he became the top engineering executive at Walt Disney Imagineering,
which designs and handles the engineering work at Disney theme parks.
"We did the rides, shows, hotels, the whole works," he said.
Kaminski has not taken that route.
A precise, fit graduate of the Air Force Academy, he spent most of his
career running big defense projects, including development of the F-117
fighter and B-2 bomber, the world's first stealth aircraft. These
projects are now regarded as models of technological audacity and
successful management. Now 66, he serves as a consultant and is a
director of General Dynamics and several other defense contractors. He
also advises the FBI and the National Reconnaissance Office on
In his role as engineering Johnny Appleseed, he uses the history of the
F-117 as his gospel. He appeared at UCLA in March and MIT earlier this
month, and will speak later this year at Aurora Flight Sciences, a
Virginia defense contractor.
"Defense acquisition problems should be the subject of acute concern to
Americans," he said in a recent interview at his home office in northern
Virginia, miniature models of the aircraft he helped develop arrayed
atop the bookshelf.
"This is an area in which our country has enjoyed a fundamental
advantage. It's has been vital to our great economic strength, and our
strength in national security. If we don't address the problems, those
strengths are going to erode. In fact, they are eroding."
Though his F-117 lecture can be densely technical, the message is clear:
Successful projects require exacting preparation and continual testing
of assumptions and technologies.
"You start by analyzing the problem a bit, building a little something,
testing what you've built, and finding out from those tests what you did
that was stupid and learn from those mistakes," he said. "After you've
done enough of that in a few areas, you're ready to start putting things
Kaminski said that while he was encouraged by the Air Force response to
the task force report and recommendations, he knew even before the
recent dismissal of the service's two top leaders that some commanders
would probably not be around long enough in a new administration to make
"You can be sure I'll be knocking on the doors of their successors," he