Building Weapons: Where 70% Trumps 100%

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The 70% Solution: Cranking out B-24 warplanes at Ford's Willow Run assembly line in Michigan during World War II

There’s a lot of talk these days about reducing the cost of military technology projects. The most intelligent conversations on this topic inevitably converge on the idea of building the proverbial “70% solution.” These streamlined, focused, inexpensive systems are almost universally praised as being the most desirable type of product, particularly when contrasted with the over-engineered, excessively complex Wonder Weapons that make so many headlines when busting their budgets, exceeding their schedules, failing their tests and disappointing their users.

I’ve noticed an interesting pattern in these discussions. When I’m talking with sharp engineers, program managers and technologists, they emphatically insist they would love to quickly deliver 70% solutions, but they aren’t allowed to because the warfighters demand complex, exquisite, gold-plated technologies.

The problem, they say, is not that we don’t know how to rapidly develop, test and deliver affordable systems, nor is it the case that the convoluted acquisition process forbids it. The problem is that such simple, low-cost solutions are not accepted by the end users. Such proposals don’t even get a foot in the door, particularly when competing against fancier, pricier, more complex alternatives.

As you might imagine, there are two sides to this story. In conversations with experienced warfighters and users, they say the exact same thing as the techies, but with the roles reversed.

The users insist just as emphatically that all they ever wanted (even before the current Age of Austerity) was a simple 70% solution to address a constrained requirement set. It’s those darn techno-geeks who can’t stop shoveling on more and more extraneous features, functions and capabilities, forcing users to wait endlessly for shiny objects they neither asked for nor wanted.

These users tell me they know very well which requirements are essential and which are unneeded. Their simplest requests produce mountainous proposals of eye-watering complexity. Even when a program manages to start out on a simpler path, users are unable to stop the engineer-driven expansion of system attributes, with its corresponding cost inflation and schedule extension.

Put those two stories together and we discover the military is perfectly capable of quickly requiring and delivering simple, low-cost systems. Unfortunately, those technologists / warfighters – depending on which side you’re talking with – keep mucking things up.

The funny thing is both the users and the developers are correct, at least in their assessments of their own capabilities and preferences. Yes, we know how to require 70% solutions. We also know how to build them, and everyone wants to do business that way. When we go in the opposite direction, it’s only because the other guy forced us down the wrong path.

The situation brings to mind Jerry Harvey’s Abilene Paradox, in which a group of otherwise rational people agree to pursue a course of action which nobody actually supports. The end result: everyone ends up doing something no one wants to do. That seems to be what’s happening here.

To put it plainly: we all want simple technologies, delivered on short timelines and at affordable prices. The military tech community knows how to do that. The main thing keeping us from doing it is… ourselves.

How do we break the cycle? For starters, it might help to explicitly recognize that the 70% solution is not a poor alternative to a 100% solution. It’s actually a superior option to the 0% solution, which is what we end up with when we over-reach. In actual practice, the 70% approach delivers something within a timeframe where the 100% approach delivers nothing.

To be sure, some somethings are better than other somethings, but almost any something will beat a nothing.

And it’s never really 100% versus 70%. The 100% solution inevitably expands to become a trouble-prone, late-to-need, over-engineered 120% or 130% system, if it delivers at all. Meanwhile, the restrained 70% solution elegantly lands in the 60% to 65% range, usually ahead of schedule, and goes on to make actual contributions in the field.

Most of the time, that’s exactly what we needed in the first place.

Lt. Col. Dan Ward is an active duty acquisitions officer in the U.S. Air Force, currently deployed to ISAF HQ in Kabul, Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force.