War inevitably presents unexpected challenges. From Germany’s use of mustard gas during World War I to North Vietnam’s surprisingly effective use of its air defense system during the Vietnam War, the United States has always faced unanticipated threats in combat that have required agile responses. U.S. troops on the ground continually adjust to changing enemy tactics with the capabilities they have at hand. Yet the part of the Defense Department that trains and equips those troops has rarely been as flexible.

This is a paradox that would surprise most people outside its walls: the Pentagon is ill equipped to address urgent needs that arise during wartime. The Department of Defense has a fairly good track record of making smart and deliberate long-term acquisitions, as evidenced by the substantial qualitative advantage the United States holds over any potential adversary. Although the department still struggles to contain the costs of military systems, it has come a long way in providing better buying power for the taxpayer. The Pentagon has also, by sad necessity, pioneered advances in medical technology, particularly in such areas as prosthetic limbs and the treatment of traumatic brain injuries and posttraumatic stress disorder.

But the same system that excels at anticipating future needs has proved less capable of quickly providing technology and equipment to troops on the battlefield. I have spent much of the past five years, first as undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics and then as deputy secretary of defense, trying to address this shortfall. With the Iraq war over and the war in Afghanistan coming to a close, it is important to understand what prevented the Pentagon from rapidly meeting immediate demands during those wars, what enduring lessons can be learned from its efforts to become more responsive, and how to put in place the right institutions to ensure success against future threats when agility is crucial.


Introducing a new capability on the battlefield involves three main steps: deciding what is needed and selecting what to acquire from various alternatives, coming up with the money to pay for it, and fielding the capability (which includes delivering it to the troops and training them in how to use it). Over the course of the last decade, attempts to fast-track each of these steps ran up against a number of obstacles, ultimately hindering the Pentagon’s responsiveness to the needs of American forces on the ground.

At the outset of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon made two fatal miscalculations. First, it believed these wars would be over in a matter of months. Accordingly, since it normally takes years to develop new capabilities, the Pentagon saw little value in making acquisitions unique to the environments of Afghanistan and Iraq that would be irrelevant by the time they were ready. Second, the Pentagon was prepared for traditional military-versus-military conflicts -- a characterization that applied only to the early stages of the Iraq war. As a result, the military was not well positioned to fight an enemy without uniforms, command centers, or traditional organizational structures. The Pentagon initially failed to see the conflicts as requiring entirely new technologies and equipment, even as it became clear that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other makeshift tactics of an insurgency were more than nuisances -- they were strategic threats to U.S. objectives.

The unexpected length and nature of the wars -- particularly their evolution into protracted counterinsurgencies -- demanded materiel solutions that the Pentagon had not planned for. The usual process of writing “requirements,” an exhaustive process to determine what the military needs based on an analysis of new technology and future threats, would not suffice in Afghanistan and Iraq. That is because the system known inside the Pentagon as “require then acquire” demands complete information: nothing can be purchased until everything is known.

Additionally, the division of labor between the military services and the combatant commands complicated the Pentagon’s ability to fund urgent needs. The services generally focus their investments on future capability requirements, force structure, and modernization, whereas the combatant commands are charged with fighting today’s wars with current equipment using funds primarily appropriated for operations, not for equipment development or procurement. There was essentially no structure within the department to bridge the gap between immediate and longer-term requirements.

Next came delays in funding. The Pentagon usually crafts its requests for funding as far as two years in advance. It must submit detailed budgets to Congress and then wait until the money has been authorized and appropriated before getting any program off the ground. This lengthy lag time makes it difficult to pay for urgent needs. Furthermore, the Pentagon has little flexibility to finance new needs that arise outside the budget cycle. Any significant movement of funds requires securing permission from Congress, which can take months. The process can also lead to an unproductive competition for resources within the Pentagon and around the country, where those whose money is transferred make their voices heard in protest.

The difficulties do not end as soon as Congress sets aside the money. To actually purchase anything, defense officials must navigate an intricate web of laws, regulations, and policies that are geared toward the acquisition of complex weapons systems and equipment in large quantities over years. The system was designed to foster fair competition among manufacturers and to maximize the buying power of taxpayers’ dollars -- but not to move quickly. Moreover, the officials responsible for acquisitions are loath to take risks, since they can be held personally accountable if something goes wrong. So when balancing cost, performance, and schedule for major acquisition projects, the last is often the least risky variable to compromise. The problem is that if an acquisition is necessary for the battlefield, every day of delay can risk the lives and safety of the troops.

Finally, in order to quickly field new capabilities, the Pentagon needed rapid contracting to transport the equipment and all the supplies and personnel necessary to sustain it. In landlocked Afghanistan, with primitive roads and few railways, this was especially challenging. The troops also had to be trained to use the new equipment in the field, since it did not exist when they were preparing for deployment.


In 2004, the Pentagon, faced with dynamic enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq, finally realized that it needed a better way of doing business. That year, Paul Wolfowitz, then the deputy secretary of defense, formed the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell, a collaborative body that ascertained the needs of troops on the battlefield from information provided by U.S. Central Command, which oversees both Afghanistan and Iraq, and facilitated the responses of the military services. JRAC acted as the focal point within the Department of Defense for prioritizing among different requirements, identifying solutions, and enabling the funding and fielding of new equipment.

Wolfowitz also expedited the usually slow and deliberate system for determining needs and allocating resources. He established the Joint Urgent Operational Needs process to fill gaps in the troops’ capabilities across the services that, if left unaddressed, could threaten lives and combat missions. JRAC then helped identify funds and make sure the right equipment got to the battlefield by assigning a military service or agency as a sponsor. Nonetheless, as the wars ground on, it became clear that the normal system, even with JRAC facilitating a new requirements process, was neither responding fast enough to the needs of the combatant commands nor taking advantage of impressive new technologies. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates later said, “The troops are at war, but the Pentagon is not.”

One of the first emerging threats in Afghanistan and Iraq to highlight this weakness was the IED, a kind of crude homemade bomb that insurgents often placed alongside roads to target troops when they were most vulnerable. IEDs have caused more than 60 percent of U.S. combat casualties in the two wars. What makes them such a formidable weapon is that they are easy to construct and can be assembled with readily available commercial materials, such as fertilizer. They are also difficult to detect and easily disguised in the surrounding terrain, such as in trash heaps or even animal carcasses. Long before these wars, IEDs had become the weapon of choice for guerillas and terrorists from Northern Ireland to Chechnya, and their use in asymmetric warfare had been extensively studied. But the widespread availability of new technologies, such as wireless transmitters, electronic triggers, and longer-lasting batteries for detonators, rapidly increased their efficiency and potency in Afghanistan and Iraq. The sheer scope of their use in those wars caught the Pentagon off-guard and posed a grave risk to both campaigns, particularly since the American public’s tolerance for casualties was tempered by expectations of short and easy wars.

In 2006, to better protect U.S. forces against this threat, then Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, building on efforts in the army, established the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), which reported directly to him. Congress endorsed the idea and appropriated over $22 billion to combat IEDs -- one of the few pockets of relatively flexible funding that legislators provided for rapid-response projects. Since then, JIEDDO has saved lives with such solutions as sensors that detect IEDs in the ground and electronic jammers that prevent their detonation. The organization has also covered the cost of critical counter-IED training for service members and, what is perhaps most valuable, funded the analysis of the enemy networks responsible for IED attacks, allowing U.S. forces to go on the offensive against what previously seemed a faceless threat.

JIEDDO helped double the number of counter-IED systems fielded by the Pentagon and cut in half the average amount of time it takes to get them to the battlefield. These efforts have contributed to lowering the rate of IED attacks that result in casualties by as much as 500 percent. And JIEDDO has helped reduce the severity of those IED attacks that do occur. By funding new protective undergarments, for example, JIEDDO made possible the roughly 32 percent drop from 2010 to 2011 in the number of catastrophic genital injuries to U.S. soldiers who were the victims of IEDs. At the Walter Reed medical center, I met the father of one soldier who had been wearing the undergarments when he stepped on an IED. The father approached me in the hallway, gave me a hug, and said, “My son will always have to use prosthetics to walk, but at least I still have a chance of being a grandfather.”

Despite these significant successes, the increased attention and money provided by JIEDDO were not enough. Although the military deployed jammers and increased the armor on its Humvees, the insurgents found ways of building more effective IEDs, making U.S. vehicles and the troops inside them unacceptably vulnerable. Early on, field commanders had urged the creation of a new and more protective vehicle, but the perception within the Pentagon was that such a vehicle could not be funded and built before the wars ended and were thus unnecessary.

That skepticism was not limited to defense officials. In 2012, Vice President Joseph Biden recalled that when he was a senator, many of his colleagues on Capitol Hill opposed the development of an expensive counter-IED vehicle. He recounted one senator arguing that since the vehicles would not be needed once the wars were over, they were a total waste of money. Biden commented, “Can you imagine Franklin Roo­sevelt being told, ‘We need x number of landing craft on D-Day, but once we land, we’re not going to need them all again. So why build them?’”

It wasn’t until 2007 that Gates decided -- at the urging of then Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, commander of the Multinational Corps in Iraq -- to find a way to mitigate the threat to troops on the roads, regardless of the cost. Gates dubbed it “the highest-priority Department of Defense acquisition program” and immediately created a task force to accelerate the development and fielding of what became known as MRAPs: “mine-resistant, ambush-protected” vehicles. First led by John Young, who was undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, and then by me when I served in that position, the MRAP Task Force was charged with taking “extraordinary steps” to cut through red tape, rally the defense industry, and deliver the vehicles.

With the support of Congress (including substantial flexible funding) and the attention of the most senior Pentagon officials, we decided to focus above all on getting MRAPs made quickly, accepting significant tradeoffs on less important parameters, such as the number of troops each could carry and their suitability for other kinds of conflicts. We considered only mature technology and chose manufacturers based on their ability to deliver the vehicles as soon as possible. The task force anticipated and helped alleviate potential industry bottlenecks that could have held up the process -- for example, by paying to boost the production capacity of two tire-makers and by waiving regulations to allow the army to purchase specially hardened steel. The group also worked to standardize the vehicle’s parts, such as turrets, jammers, and communications systems, across the various military services in order to expedite the fielding while also building a flexible design that could accommodate upgrades and improvements.

As a result of these efforts, we were able to build and ship more than 11,500 MRAPs to Iraq in 27 months and to build more than 8,000 all-terrain MRAPs for Afghanistan in only 16 months. Ultimately, we sent more than 24,000 MRAPs to the two theaters of war -- the largest defense procurement program since World War II to go from decision to full industrial production in less than a year. Not only did these vehicles save thousands of lives; they also showed just how much can be accomplished with the full backing of leaders in Congress and the administration.

Task forces became the model of choice to address needs that could be met only outside the traditional processes. Another example of their effective use was for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. The Department of Defense had well-established procedures for managing and allocating the ISR capabilities it had already developed, but it had limited experience in rapidly developing and fielding new ISR capabilities, especially down to the tactical level. To do so required thinking of aerostats and unmanned aircraft as consumable goods, more like body armor than satellites -- that is, seeing them as tools that could be fielded quickly and operated by units in the field rather than by the intelligence agencies. Gates thus established the ISR Task Force in 2008, which successfully helped identify emerging urgent needs and technological opportunities and then bypass the normal roadblocks to procuring and fielding the resulting ISR tools.

Task forces worked well for specific individual problems, but few problems in wartime are narrowly defined, since military conflicts erase the boundaries between previously separate issues. Gates thus became frustrated with the Pentagon’s inability to support the troops through the normal processes. Accordingly, in November 2009, he created the Counter-IED Senior Integration Group (SIG), which I headed alongside the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The group consisted of senior defense officials who met every three weeks to prioritize requirements and take stock of all counter-IED initiatives. Gates soon realized that this kind of high-level attention was needed for all urgent war-fighting requirements, not just counter-IED measures. So in June 2011, he converted the Counter-IED SIG into the Warfighter SIG, which became the Pentagon’s central body for senior officials to weigh solutions to battlefield problems, locate the necessary resources to pay for them, and make the right acquisitions.

Gates soon expanded the Warfighter SIG’s mandate further, to include what are called Joint Emergent Operational Needs. These are needs that arise in theaters where there are not ongoing wars but one could come at any moment, such as on the Korean Peninsula. We called the whole system of Joint Emergent Operational Needs and Joint Urgent Operational Needs “the fast lane.” Even when the precise cost and ultimate specifications of a fast-lane project couldn’t be fully known in advance, we got started anyway, standing the system on its head. In other words, instead of “require then acquire,” this was “acquire then require.”

According to a 2012 Government Accountability Office report, the heightened level of visibility within the Pentagon provided by the War­fighter SIG, together with the fast-lane process, decreased the median time needed to locate funding for projects from nine months to one month. The report found that initiatives that enjoyed attention from the top of the department were four times as likely to receive adequate funding as those that did not. The system is far from perfect, but it has injected some badly needed agility into the Pentagon’s notoriously slow bureaucracy.


The challenge for the Pentagon now is to lock in these gains and make sure that the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq are not forgotten. The clearest takeaway, as the Warfighter SIG has shown, is that wartime acquisition works best when senior leaders are paying attention. That’s because only top officials can assume the risks that come with sidestepping general procedures. In practice, this means that the upper echelons of the department cannot simply issue policy guidance; they need to focus on specific threats and capability gaps. They must be willing to do so even when the projects are small in size and scope compared with the issues they normally deal with, given that winning wars and saving lives are at stake.

Furthermore, there must be a structure to the way senior officials grant their time and attention to such projects. Methods that bypass the normal acquisition process cannot be sustained if they rely solely on the support of a particular individual. And even the best ideas will remain unrealized if there are not clear procedures for bringing them to fruition -- especially in the Department of Defense, which thrives on order and discipline. At the very least, the department ought to retain the nascent institutions that ultimately proved successful in Afghanistan and Iraq, such as the Warfighter SIG and JRAC.

Of course, the Pentagon cannot acquire any equipment or technology without adequate funding. And the current budget process simply does not allow for the development and deployment of solutions to urgent problems on the battlefield. The Department of Defense has developed several mechanisms for addressing such needs, and it must keep all of them in place.

First, Congress should continue to approve funds in limited quantities for general overall goals, such as the funds that paid for the MRAPs and other counter-IED initiatives, a process that offers the military the necessary flexibility to get capabilities from the laboratory all the way to the battlefield. The authority for this approach currently exists but is set to expire in 2015.

The ability to rapidly move a small percentage of the defense budget -- known in the Pentagon as “reprogramming” -- has allowed the department to pay for many capabilities not covered by a specific fund. Reprogramming enables crucial projects to move forward in weeks and months, rather than years, while still preserving Congress’ role in approving funding. Another key tool that the Pentagon must retain is its congressionally authorized “rapid-acquisition authority,” which allows the secretary of defense to repurpose up to $200 million a year from the $500 billion defense budget for the most urgent needs. Congress could help bolster the Pentagon’s quick-reaction capabilities by expanding the scope of allowed acquisitions and increasing the funding available under this authority.

In this era of tight resources, some in Congress have legitimate concerns about giving the Department of Defense more budgetary discretion. However, the amount needed for an effective flexible fund is a tiny fraction of the department’s total budget -- just enough to kick-start urgent initiatives while still taking the customary months to navigate the usual channels for the full funding of projects. The Pentagon’s successful management of previous flexible funds demonstrates its ability to responsibly manage this flexibility.

Even with flexible funds and the right structures in place, the Pentagon also needs to get better at identifying threats as early as possible. This does not mean war-gaming for five to ten years down the line -- something the department currently does in its Quadrennial Defense Reviews. Rather, it means determining what troops in the field need at any given moment. Staff at the command or headquarters level are often slow to recognize when a new threat becomes truly dangerous. During a war, the Pentagon must continuously scan the tactical environment and analyze how new dynamics impact the campaign. Initiatives such as the Warfighter SIG create a real-time bridge between ground-level troops and the department’s senior leadership, allowing battlefield challenges to be quickly brought to the attention of the highest levels so that they can execute solutions accordingly. One example was the rapid processing of a Joint Urgent Operational Need to design and deploy a new type of body armor, based on insights from the ground, to correct for a battlefield vulnerability before insurgents were even aware of it. Another was the constant adjustment of MRAPs in response to feedback from troops. No detail, even the positioning of windows, was too small for the Warfighter SIG.

Moreover, the Pentagon must always have a watchful eye on the horizon, anticipating needs and gaps in capabilities before they become dire. These findings should drive rapid research and development, particularly experimentation with new or improved technologies and the building of prototypes. Investing in science and technology early on ensures that the Pentagon will have something on the shelf when it needs it, so that it does not have to start from scratch when it is too late. Technology that the Pentagon has already invested in has allowed it to respond rapidly through the Joint Emergent Operational Needs process to potential new threats in the Middle East and Asia. These technologies include improvements to weapons systems that allow them to operate in an electronically jammed environment, modified radars to improve detection and warning capabilities, and better methods of preventing electronic detection by enemies. Similarly, the department was able to quickly initiate the development of improvements to the Patriot missile defense system to keep pace with emerging threats in the Asia-Pacific region.

Once the Pentagon identifies emerging threats, its leaders need to approve responses to them, since those in the thick of combat cannot be expected to have all the insight needed to judge and prioritize requests. Time is of the essence at this stage; the need for the MRAP, for example, was identified by forces in the field soon after they started encountering roadside bombs, but leaders let the request linger for too long before acting on it. As soon as a need has been identified as urgent, the Pentagon must improve the way it assesses potential solutions. Normally, such evaluations require a series of time-consuming steps, such as conducting market surveys, hosting events at which the military can inform vendors of its needs, requesting bids, and conducting months-long selection processes. In normal times, this system allows the Pentagon to acquire the best technologies on the market at the best prices. In urgent situations, it will have to settle for something that is good enough -- an imperfect solution that nonetheless fills a gap.


Afghanistan and Iraq provided much of the impetus for the Pentagon to sidestep its traditional ways of doing business. After all, it is difficult for anyone in Washington to deny funding or prevent initiatives when the men and women at war need them. But what happens when the last troops have left Afghanistan, and the slowness of the acquisition process no longer appears to be a life-and-death problem? Simply learning the lessons of the wars is not enough; the Pentagon must institutionalize those lessons so that it does not have to start anew the next time they are relevant. In fact, many of these changes need to happen immediately, as the country faces potential new threats.

In my final year at the Pentagon, under the leadership of Leon Panetta and then Chuck Hagel, we considered various models for how to build on the successful initiatives of the past decade. The first possibility we considered was to tweak, but largely leave in place, the way the Pentagon operated before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the military services remaining solely responsible for their own forces. That approach would allow the Pentagon to avoid creating any new permanent organizations, a significant plus during a time of austerity. Distributing responsibility across the services would also enable each of them to draw on their deep knowledge of land, air, and naval warfare. The downside is that the military services tend to prioritize investments in their own long-term modernization requirements -- unlike the combatant commands, which are primarily concerned with immediate battlefield needs -- and thus may not be best equipped to move quickly and take risks. Under this plan, there would still not be a clear mechanism for adjudicating conflicts between the services and the combatant commands. Spreading the responsibility for acquisitions across the military could also result in redundancies or gaps.

An alternative model would be to create an entirely new agency with rapid-acquisition and contracting authorities. Such a body would directly support the combatant commands by anticipating battlefield needs, determining the appropriate responses, and procuring the necessary technology and equipment. Although this approach would correct for many of the shortfalls of the first model, creating a brand new organization, with its own bureaucracy and overhead costs, would strain the Pentagon in an era of tight budgets. A new centralized agency might also find itself disconnected from the rich expertise of the military services.

We ultimately decided to pursue a hybrid approach that draws on the advantages of both models. The Warfighter SIG will continue to meet regularly, supported by JRAC, to ensure that the Pentagon’s senior leadership remains focused on responding quickly to battlefield needs. JIEDDO and the ISR Task Force will get smaller but will be retained to meet the Pentagon’s enduring requirement for fulfilling urgent needs. The comptroller’s office is also working to institutionalize funding mechanisms for both Joint Urgent Operational Needs and Joint Emergent Operational Needs. These mechanisms should allow department leaders to quickly reprogram funds and make use of the rapid-acquisition authority.

By making these structures more permanent, the Pentagon hopes to retain the ability to meet the urgent needs of the troops long after the end of operations in Afghanistan. It is already using the Joint Emergent Operational Needs process to upgrade munitions and targeting systems for operations over water, in order to respond to the potential use of speedboats by Iran to swarm U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. The military has also developed and built prototypes for improvements to a penetrating bomb that would allow it to target hardened, deeply buried facilities. And last year, the Department of Defense decided to build the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, a transportable system that can destroy chemical weapons stockpiles wherever they are found. This system was developed as part of the Joint Emergent Operational Needs process months before the United States knew it would be discussing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. It is now ready for deployment whenever required -- a capability that enabled the U.S. government to include this possibility in its recent UN negotiations.

Institutionalizing these practices will also allow them to be applied beyond Central Command, which has overseen most of the fighting during the past decade -- a particularly relevant factor as the Obama administration continues its “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific region and focuses more on threats from other parts of the world, such as Africa. For example, JIEDDO has already begun to support missions of U.S. Africa Command, and its expertise will help combat IED threats in such countries as Mali and Somalia.

When wars end, leaders are often eager to move on to the next challenge. That is why it is crucial to make permanent the institutional innovations resulting from the hard-earned lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, while the experiences are still fresh. Too many lives were lost in the early years of those wars because the Pentagon failed to keep up with a changing battlefield. Never again should it make the same mistake.

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  • ASHTON B. CARTER was U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013. From 2009 to 2011, he served as Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics.
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