The New Iron Triangle: The Three “A”s as Barriers to Innovation

By Robbin Laird

The first of four parts.

A new iron triangle has emerged derailing American innovation.  The old iron triangle of DOD, Congress and the defense industry has been a target of critics for decades.  But unnoticed, largely because the critics are part of it, is the new iron triangle.

This new iron triangle has created a circular logic, which impedes the ability to innovate.  By living in the past, and not imaging the future induced by technological and organizational change, this new iron triangle shapes a focus on the past as the determinate of the present.

And because the participants in this iron triangle have never built anything, new systems can be built by concepts and briefing slides, rather than the sweat of the workingman.

The three “A”s brings together Asserted Facts Journalism, with Aspirational Cubical Commanders, and, finally, with Analytically limited governmental auditors.  Each of the elements of the system comes together to denigrate any new systems, platforms, or approaches created in reality, but each has there own distinct contribution to prioritizing the past over the future.

For this piece, I will start with the impact of Asserted Facts Journalism.  In the next piece, I will deal with the Aspirational Cubical Commanders and then in a separate piece will deal with the GAO.  Finally, I will discuss the impact of this new iron triangle on stunting procurement and innovation.

Many journalists who do their homework contribute to the national debate about defense and foreign policy.  These analytically oriented journalists seek to shape a public understanding of what is going on in the defense, security and foreign policy worlds.  My friend Steve Erlanger from The New York Times comes to mind as an example.

Unfortunately, there is another  style of journalism which is becoming far too prevalent.  And this style is what I refer to as simply asserting facts not yielded by any fieldwork or real analysis.  This brand of journalism impedes serious debate about new systems and how to use those new systems in creating new capabilities.

Assertion is used to discredit; it is not designed to inform.  It is designed to denigrate, not stimulate.

Asserted journalists simply assert facts, which can come to them over the internet in their cubicles.  It is too hard to actually do field work, to interview workers building systems, soldiers fighting in the field, or to sit down with regional industries providing tools for soldiers innovating in combat or those building new systems, which provide for significant new ways of operating.

The current reality is asserted, rather than engaged in.  Travel is just too hard. And you can get your Internet assertions on multiple platforms with easy.

There is no better example of Asserted Facts Journalism than The Economist’s recent treatment of the F-35.  Unnoticed by the journalist who wrote this piece was the reality of the introduction of the F-35A into the Eglin inventory or the success of the F-35B in Pax River testing.

Such “realities” are not important to the Asserted Facts Journalist. And, of course, you might have to travel to out of the way spots, or do something other than to feed of the Inside the Beltway Babble.

The article strings together a range of asserted facts in the guise of analysis.

First we learn that the program will cost too much to buy and support.  The trillion-dollar support number is conjoined with a 40-year production number to create a projected financial nightmare.

Enter the iron triangle.  We saw this with the USCG modernization program, Deepwater, “the most expensive USCG program in history.”

The USCG is replacing everything of capital value and if you projected 40 years of program costs, you get the largest USCG modernization program in history.  But it is also beside the point; the per year cost is reasonable; but to derail the modernization you hold the 40 year modernization cost up and beat the service to death in the short term.

And of course, everyone is an expert on the state of USCG technology.  Asserted Facts Journalists which much more knowledgeable about the Service and its needs than the Service itself, because its views are biased by experience.

With the F-35 the situation is even more ludicrous.  The F-35 is replacing an entire manned fleet and laying down the framework for innovation for the next decades.

The F-35 is being manufactured on a line which can build several planes a month on a significantly automated line, with per capita costs significantly lower at peak than in development.  And much of this cost in the manufacturing line has already been spent.

None of this is important to our Asserted Fact Journalist because he does not even mention manufacturing once in his article, and in a journal called The Economist.

But it gets better – the plane we learn will cost more than a trillion dollars to operate.  The USAF Association for one has driven a stake through the heart of this analytical slander.  But I am sure our Asserted Fact Journalist would not bother to read publications of the USAF Association, for he only needs to Assert Facts not in evidence.

And the USMC has publically and frequently underscored savings of at least 30% in their maintenance systems with the new aircraft.  But what a fighting service does is not important in the world of Asserted Facts Journalism.

And of course, we will pay no attention to the significant demonstrable savings from building a common fleet for the USAF, the USN or the USMC.  We don’t care about the significant savings in weapons modernization and it is not in the scope of assertive facticity for this style of journalism.

Weapons modernization will be significantly facilitated by the F-35 and its commonality.  The current situation is software Babel whereby weapons are integrated on each platform in a certain configuration.  This takes time and costs a LOT of money.  With the F-35 there is a single software code across the configurations, which allows common solutions and SIGNIFICANT savings of TIME and MONEY.

Our Asserted Fact Journalist would get rid of the F-35B and of course he knows nothing of the actual state of the aircraft or its impact on the USN-USMC team.  This would get in the way of Asserting Facts.  It is better to sit in one’s cubicle in London and Assert away.

One immediate priority should be cancelling the jump-jet variant of the F-35 for the Marines. It has been the main cause of the technical and weight problems that have bedevilled the programme. Having been put on two-year “probation” by Mr Gates in January, this version should be put out of its misery.

We have argued elsewhere that the Administration needs to be put on probation not the F-35B.  Let us toss 60 years of aviation innovation into the dustbin of history because Asserted Facts Journalism says so.  It used to be said about academics that there are those that can do and those that can teach.  Now with the Asserted Fact Journalists there are those that can cast aspirations, and those can create the future.

Of course, this journalist knows that the future will be the unmanned system.

For all its sophistication, against a “near peer” opponent the F-35 may not be able to do the job for which it has been intended nearly as well as the next generation of pilotless armed drones and hypersonic cruise missiles. Indeed, it could be obsolescent only a few years after it enters service.

How on earth does Asserted Fact journalist know this?  And one might note that his own country is engaged in trying to win a competition in India that will ensure the future of the next manned European combat aircraft.  But such a development need not affect Asserted Fact Journalist, because he already knows the future.

Such all-knowing Asserted Fact Journalism is a key contributor to undercutting innovation in practice.  And such Journalism is aided and abetted by cubical “think tank” commanders who are frequently quoted by AFJs in creating a self-sustaining system of “critical thought.”  On to this system in the next piece.


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