Procurement: Milspec Died For Our Sins

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July 8 2006: More rugged, reliable and cheaper technology has its drawbacks, particularly if you are using it in a combat zone. The military used to have many items made to special military specifications (Milspec). But that increasingly became too expensive. At the same time, commercial equipment was taking advantage of all the new technologies that have been showing up over the last few decades. It was becoming obvious that, for less money, you could get better performance by substituting older military equipment with some of this civilian gear. This proved to be the case with things like communications equipment, computers, generators, unarmored vehicles, and many sensors.
But there were new problems as well. The commercial equipment wasn't designed or built to handle the extraordinary conditions of a combat zone. This includes a lot more dust and sand, and longer operating hours. Then there's the occasional explosion (not counting the ones that outright destroy equipment) and operators who are not as skilled or experienced as their civilian counterparts. These conditions have not changed, except that today's military operations tend to be more 24/7 than in the past. Even Milspec stuff has a hard time in this environment. The troops, in order to get the benefits of the new gear, adapted. When the military supply and maintenance system was unable take care of repairs, the troops did it themselves. That was only possible because, these days, the troops have Internet access, and Fedex will deliver to the battlefield (or at least close enough for a pick up.)
Lots of replacement parts were needed. Unlike equipment of a generation ago, current gear uses more computers and complex components. You can's fix things with a screwdriver and a soldering iron anymore. These days, you are expected to simply replace "assemblies", and toss the busted ones. Often, just to find out what's wrong, you need complex diagnostics equipment. All this works better in the civilian world than it does in the combat zone.
Why not go back to Milspec? That won't happen because it takes too long to develop and implement the military specification for new equipment. The speed at which things become obsolete means that, by the time you came up with the Milspec for a new item, an even newer, and more effective one would be available. As a compromise, the military tries to get "heavy duty" versions of the commercial stuff, and special deals on diagnostics gear and spare parts. The more adaptive and energetic firms meet these demands, seeing them as an opportunity. That's because there is a civilian market for "ruggedized" equipment for use in the field (construction sites, factory floors, camping.) Often, people will want to buy the more expensive, "militarized" gear simply because it is, in terms of price and durability, the top-of-the-line.
Finally, the Internet has enabled the users, the troops, to quickly discuss new gear among themselves, and either figure out a way to make it work in the field, or vote it off the battlefield.

 


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