When Paul Kaminski completed his graduate work in 1971 with degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford, he started building advanced airplanes for the Air Force. By the time he stopped several decades later, he had played a pivotal role in producing a flock of new weapons, including radar-evading stealth aircraft.
If Kaminski were coming out of school today, chances are he would work for the likes of Microsoft or Google.
Over the past decade, even as spending on new defense projects has reached its highest level since the Reagan years, the Pentagon has increasingly been losing the people most skilled at managing them. That brain drain, defense experts like Kaminski say, is a big factor in a breakdown in engineering management that has made huge cost overruns and long delays the maddening norm.
Kaminski's generation of engineers, which was responsible for many of the most successful defense projects of the 1970s and '80s, is aging. But declining numbers of the nation's top young engineers, software developers and mathematicians are replacing them. Instead, they are joining high-tech companies and other civilian firms that provide not just better pay than the military or its contractors, but also greater cachet – what one former defense-industry engineer called “geek credit.”
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Precise numbers are scarce, but one measure of this shift can be found at the Air Force: Through a combination of budget cuts, the demands of war, and the difficulty of recruiting and retaining top engineers, officials say, the number of civilian and uniformed engineers on the Air Force's core acquisition staff has been reduced by 35 percent to 40 percent over the past 14 years.
The downsizing “has taken a toll in our inability to refresh our aging acquisition work force,” said the Air Force's engineering chief, Jon Ogg.
When Kaminski and Ogg talk about defense spending and the decline of engineering management, they tend to use measured, military tones. But with the Pentagon planning to spend $900 billion on development and procurement in the next five years, including $335 billion on major new weapons systems, the depth of their concern is reflected in a rising alarm among many in Washington.
“We're having awful problems with the execution of defense programs,” said Kaminski, who became the Pentagon's top acquisition executive from 1994 to 1997. “It's absolutely critical to start becoming more efficient, more effective.”
Kaminski is devoting much of his time as a private citizen to that goal, leading a high-level task force and visiting colleges and defense companies to proselytize for better engineering management.
As he and other experts explain it, the central problem is a breakdown in the most basic element of any big defense project – accurately assessing at the outset if the technological goals are attainable, then managing the engineering to ensure that hardware and software are properly designed, tested and integrated.