Interview with Gen. Patrick O’Reilly: On Leadership and Bureaucracy in MDA

Given your experience, what do you think the difficulties in institutionalizing a knowledge based approach to acquisition programs are, whereby production sequentially follows technology and product development?

 

You’re talking about institutional processes which include the DOD, the defence industry, and Congress. When you’re dealing with a large bureaucracy, by its nature those investments are not going to be concentrated. That’s just a fact of life. If you’re going to put one organization in charge of all of these investments that occur with acquisition, technology, production, and so forth, you would obviously come to a very well defined, definitive plan. That’s what businesses do in order to be effective.

 

But, when you have publicly debated institutions, and you share that responsibility, it is different. Congress does not have the technical means by itself to devise the missile defence program. Normally, the Congressional Missile Defense budget and program is created in collaboration with a combination of government and industry.

 

If I’m a huge corporation, and I just spent 10 years investing in a technology, I’m going to figure out how to get that technology into the acquisition plans of the government. I’m going to hire people who are full time focused on trying to do that because I’m going to make the biggest profit if I do, since I’m going to have a competitive advantage by being the one who developed this new technology. By it’s very nature, this process is not going to operate efficiently. I have been a part of this process for 35 years at all different levels and worked very closely with Congress and industry. It’s an inefficient system by design because there is going be political, military, and industrial compromises and a schedule built around the Congressional budget process. So investing a lot of money in one technology that accomplishes a tremendous amount of progress in a short period of time is rarely going to happen.

 

I think the military has made great progress in that area with the JCS and the Goldwater-Nickels Act of 1986. All of that shows we have a greater ability to allow one service to take the lead on a capability instead of being redundant; but, there is still that constituency that has to be addressed. When you address different political, industry, allied, and military constituencies- all of these agendas end up being part of a compromise which makes acquisition less efficient. Ultimately, MDA’s budget was determined by Congress no matter what we or my leadership proposed.

 

Where do you think the fascination arises, especially on behalf of Congressmen, with numerical quantities of an instrument, often at the expense of the technological maturity of that instrument? In connection with this, what dangers are associated with politicians imposing deadlines based on numerical quantities (as Chuck Hagel’s speech did in 2013 by calling for 14 new GMD deployments by 2017), instead of technological maturity?

 

I was not in missile defense in 2013, but had not been out of it for very long either. I think the Congressional budgets had shown that the investment and the number of missiles we had supported were affordable, and that was the plan.

 

What Hagel was referring to there may have been presented as an objective, but it was actually what the plan was going to be anyway. We were working to deploy 44 missiles even before I got to the agency and I can be blamed for some of the delays that occurred because you can have aspirations, and you can have objectives, but you also need heavily funded risk reduction approach.

 

By a heavily funded risk reduction approach, I’m not referring to proceeding with a technology, and after encountering problems, you then invest money to go pursue another technology. The most effective risk reduction programs I’ve seen in industry are in the Silicon Valley- and I work in the Silicon Valley so I have some exposure to how they do things so quick.

 

They approach risk reductions the opposite way of the government. They will start multiple alternative technologies in the beginning of a project, and then they only turn off those alternative technologies when your mainstream technology has proven itself and proven to have eliminated all serious risks when the alternative programs are no longer warranted. When you take that approach you can do things much faster because you’ve already got alternative technologies in development if your core technologies have an issue.

 

What I experienced though, was that MDA budget’s routinely had risk reduction programs de-funded during the Pentagon’s budget development process. So risk reduction is extremely important, but it often does not survive budget compromises and we just accepted the higher risk.

 

The problem is, you run into a situation like I did back in the early part of this decade, when we had not completely proven that an interceptor of a new design was fully reliable, yet we were getting ready to put them into production. The risk of placing them in production, and then finding out that there is a problem with those interceptors, is that you must retrofit them after they have been deployed at great expense.

 

My recommendation, expressed in Congressional testimony, was that we don’t continue putting missile defence assets into production and deploying them when they have not been fully tested on the ground first or proven through a flight test program. When I did that, it caused the number of missiles to go down from 44, which was the planned number before I took over the agency, to a number less than that.

 

What Secretary Hagel was referring to was an increase back to the 44, so they must have satisfied themselves with data from the flight testing program that I was looking for. When you count the number of silos originally placed in operation, you will see that we were always building 44 silos.

 

Do you think the situation which you referred to, where kill vehicles like the CE I and II were deployed without being initially tested, and MDA did not have the money to have risk reduction programs of the kind you described in Silicon Valley, could be created or exacerbated by political pressure that is ultimately is detrimental to the end you’re trying to achieve?

 

Again, part of the political decision is how much risk you want to accept in deploying a military capability. That’s a political decision, not an operational decision. An operational decision would be to rely on means of deterrence other than missile defence.

 

But, ideally, for acquisition programs, you would have industry and the operational test community (which makes a lot of the final calls) say this is a very low risk technical system to put into operation, and then your political leadership would announce that’s your capability.

 

They always have the opportunity to accept higher risk for other reasons, like deterrence reasons, and they would then say that we are going to go ahead and declare that this system is operational, even though it may not have met the full reliability testing requirements that we otherwise would ask for. That was a big reason that motivated us back in the last part of the last decade to develop a test program and submit it to Congress, and say all these things need to be tested to give yourself confidence. So look at that test program and look at where we have succeeded and where we have failed and that gives you a pretty good indicator of where we are in achieving the full certification and validation of a new missile or a new weapons system. That approach is not unique to missile defence. That’s any missile system, any ship, or any aircraft, that they put out there. That is the approach that’s always been taken because I don’t know of one better than thoroughly testing something operationally and realistically.

 

So you can logically make deployments prior to that, it’s just that you are accepting a higher level of risk. Your risk is lower the further ahead you are in your test program successfully, before you make that announcement to deploy. So the decision was made to accept a lot of risk early in the program around 2004 and to go forward with the early deployments by 2004, and that was a remarkably short time; but, right upfront, they said that they knew they were not going to have enough time to fully test the system by then, yet they were going to accept the risk. That risk has been going down over the years as more and more testing occurs.

 

After two consecutive test failures involving the CE-II EKV you decided to stop further delivery of CE-IIs intended to replace CE Is and you required a successful test prior to further delivery of CE IIs. Why was this sort of leadership absent in 2004, for example, when achieving an initial operative capability by December 2005, after the stationing of 8 GMD systems, the program was not halted to address problems at the time, but instead continued the delivery and production of CE I’s?  Is there friction involved there between the agency and the political demands?

 

There is not really a friction at that level. The friction, if there is one, would occur at the Secretary of Defense (Sec. Def.) level, because my predecessors and myself, we were bound to: 1) report everything as truthfully as we possible could and 2) to make proposals and recommendations, and to execute the program that was under the constraints given to us. Those constraints were set not only by Congress and funding, but also the President, and through the President, the Sec. Def.

 

The director of MDA (my predecessor, successor, or myself) did not make his decisions in a vacuum. We make recommendations, so the more credibility the MDA director has, the more power that recommendation carries. There is also the fact that we have to testify to Congress based on what we know to be true. All of that puts us into a position where multiple channels of communication exist for our recommendations to be known.

 

I reported directly to the Under Secretary for Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (USD AT&L). When I first got on board, that was Ash Carter who ultimately became Sec Def.; but, the reporting chain is that the Director of MDA reports directly to USD AT&L, who reports directly to the Sec Def., who reports to the President. It is an extremely short chain of command compared to most other 3 star positions.

 

When superiors tell the Director of MDA that you will operate under these constraints, with these objectives, the Director of MDA has only two choices: 1) either do the best he can and tell them his recommendation on what he thinks the risks are or 2) quit. So I felt, during my period of time, very fortunate with Sec. Carter, and when I reported to Carter he gave me – and the other leadership in the Pentagon- a very open forum to talk to him and to express myself. I’m referring now to when he was the USD AT&L. He was one step removed when he became Under Secretary of Defense and when he became Sec Def. I had actually retired.

 

I can speak personally to the decision to stop or delay the production of those interceptors until we achieved the proper testing. I was fortunate that my recommendations were always well received and considered by Carter, and he would then pass the recommendation on to the Sec Def. and go forward. So they all agreed with the recommendation I made; but, it was not done just by myself, it was done through that process.

 

It is incumbent on MDA Directors to make those decisions within the risks that they’re given. If we were told that you are going to accept a high risk, and we know it’s high risk, but go execute your program- basically the director is in a position where the best thing he could say is that were confirming that this is in fact high risk or we are working on reducing that risk.

 

One of the things that is nice about our Congressional testimonies is that it was my personal testimony, which gave me the opportunity to express my personal recommendations. I was also very fortunate in working with a chain of command where I don’t recall a case where they did not actually concur with what I recommended. If they didn’t concur, I would have understood that; but, I was in a good position where they gave me access to make arguments and where the substantiation of my recommendations were well received. I think that’s about the best you can do in weapons acquisition arena.

 

The history of this inefficient process goes way back before President Eisenhower’s famous final speech about being beware of the military industrial complex. I used to talk to college students often, and I would often talk about the trials and tribulations of the early defence acquisition programs of the US back in the early 18th and 19th centuries. None of this is new.

 

The system is set up to be one of consensus and one of being made by many decision makers who are all driven by different agendas and that’s intentional. It is not the same as an industrial development process and it never will be. So you’re not going to get that kind of efficiency. I was very fortunate to have a set of senior leaders that concurred that the risk ought to be lower, or as low as we possibly can make it, with the deployment timelines. So again, I think Sec. Hagel did not make that pronouncement in a vacuum. He was given the advice of probably my successor in making that announcement. All I can say is that it is fairly consistent with the plans that we already developed and it was all driven by testing first.

 

So the MDA director is only allowed to operate within the scope defined by the USD AT&L?

 

The director’s directions and actions are reviewed often. We used to have a review of my decisions at least every 6 weeks. Decisions would be reviewed by a very high level of leadership in the Pentagon, representing all the services, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the USD AT&L.

 

When you have a whole series of meetings, year after year, every 6 weeks, where you’re explaining what you’re doing, and what your issues are, there is a lot of input and concurrence by the participants. The Secretary could always override me, but I had the opportunity to make my recommendations and they had the prerogative of deciding whether to concur with them, and in most cases they did concur with my recommendations.

 

Again, the nice part is that the Director had the platform in which to speak to these leaders in a combined group, and I thought that was very powerful. That process was set up by my predecessors and I just continued it. So every 6 weeks or so I had the chance to tell them what I was doing and if they wanted to give me guidance that was contrary to that, I had the opportunity to incorporate their guidance into my planning. It made for very nice management structure. They did not oversee the day to day activities, I did that.

 

When you do that over many years, it really is a fairly involved upper management process, and they were again very gracious in the amount of time they gave me to discuss what I had done recently, and what my issues and plans were. So they could change them, but the vast majority of plans and execution in that process was actually created by director of MDA and his staff and I really had a great staff.

Photo: Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly via Department of Defense. Public Domain.


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

About Touraj Riazi

Born and raised in Kuwait, with Iranian origins, Touraj has spend the last 5 years in Canada, where he is currently undertaking a Political Science major at Concordia. He is in the last semester of his studies and plans to continue his education by pursuing a Masters in International Affairs next year. Touraj’s academic interests revolve around history, diplomacy, strategy, and statecraft, with a particular focus on European history and the balance of power. Touraj also works for the Canadian Centre of Strategic Studies (CCSS), a recently established and rapidly expanding think tank, as the ‘Insights’ editor, where he produces and edits content concerned with insights on current affairs. Previously, he was the Vice President of Internal Affairs for the Iranian Student Association of Concordia University where he was involved in establishing connections with the Iranian community in Concordia and Montreal. He can be contacted at tourajriazi@gmail.com