Murphy's Law: Poisonous Ground


July 25, 2009: Israeli defense firms would like to work together with their American counterparts to develop new weapons and equipment. There have been many attempts to do this, and most have ended in a quiet divorce. The cause is usually the American tendency to add bells and whistles that, while popular with American politicians, and their Pentagon allies, are anathema to the frugal Israelis. As a result, the Israelis go on to produce a cheaper, and just (if not more so) effective item. Sometimes the U.S. will end by cancelling their own effort, and buying the Israeli model. The Israelis are hoping that, eventually, the Americans will catch on and learn to do things fast and cheap. This is already happening with the RFI (Rapid Fielding Initiative).

The original RFI program allowed U.S. Army commanders to go out and buy equipment, and even weapons, immediately, without going through the usual lengthily acquisition process. The army began doing this in the 1990s, based on decades of success by Special Forces with a similar approach. So far, this has put over 400 new technologies into Iraq and Afghanistan, and more to come.

The primary problem with RFI is getting repairs and spare parts for the new gear. When the army officially accepts equipment into service, it makes spare parts available through the army supply system, and trains soldiers to do the maintenance. With RFI gear, the users have to go direct to the manufacturer for spares and repairs. Sometimes, civilian technicians will be flown to the combat zone. But more often, army technicians will get in touch with the manufacturer and get advice on how to make the repairs themselves. If possible, broken equipment will be sent back to the factory. The army does this itself, sending all sorts of gear back to army maintenance depots. These are usually run and staffed by civilians. While it's more work to maintain the RFI gear, this helps by making it easier to drop RFI items that don't perform up to expectations. The RFI gear really has to deliver the goods if the troops are going to put up with the additional maintenance burdens.

Now many politicians are noticing the similarity between RFI and the way the Israelis go about military procurement. The seed of reform has been planted. But that's no guarantee that it will grow in the poisonous ground of the Pentagon and the American Congress.



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