Agility is increasingly vital in manufacturing, too. The F-35, America’s newest jet fighter, is a marvel of networked computers that can hover and fly supersonic. But much of it is still built by hand in a Texas factory where each plane steps along an assembly line from one production station to the next, notes Stacie Pettyjohn, director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security.
The Pentagon’s next generation of equipment will need to rely on commercial industries’ advances in production technologies, from 3-D printing to factory automation, says Pettyjohn. “New manufacturing systems for new defense systems will be critical.”
Equally ripe for an overhaul is how the Pentagon turns ideas into equipment. The military needs eye-popping quantities of some items, such as artillery shells and rifles, but a lot of equipment is needed in versions customized for specific tasks, which can vary widely across services and in elite units such as special forces.
How to combine mass production and variety has long plagued defense planners. The F-35 was envisioned 30 years ago as a single low-cost plane with different options for the Air Force, Navy and Marines. But in traditional fashion, costs and complexity ballooned as delays mounted.
“The Defense Department has a poor track record in rapid development and production,” says Pettyjohn. “They’ve shot for the moon on everything.”
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