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Battle Labs Closing

The Air Force Times reports that budget constraints are forcing the close of all seven of its battle labs:

The labs, which functioned as centers of innovation and technology aimed to improve or develop tools for combatant commanders, were stood up nearly a decade ago.

It is worth noting that the Air Force's first battle lab was established in response to the terrorist bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. Ironically, we are currently engaged with an enemy that constantly changes tactics and adopts new methodologies (read: innovates) in response to our superior physical force and technological advantages. One could argue that the Air Force has a smaller dog in the fight when compared to the Army or Marines, but the recent rash of aircraft that have been brought down over the skies of Baghdad should give every aviator pause.

If there is one thing all our armed forces need to be doing more of, it is innovating, which makes closing the battle labs a penny-wise, dollar-foolish mistake.

5 Comments

Considering the ever changing face of the battles we now fight, this makes absolutely no sense.

I had that thought that Senator Cornyn (R-Tx) was still fighting the fight to have some of these funds restored.

The mission is so important, I wonder if its possible to privatize the overall program.

They could punt some of this work to FFRDCs, but that wouldn't save a lot of money.

Alternately they could go very light-weight and cheap, with a skeleton crew backing up a Dell Idea Storm-like system for finding and fielding ideas, then passing the best out for RFP or even going the Spirit of America route.

All sorts of ways to make this work, just requires the smarts to recognize the importance in the big scheme of things. One JSF vs. a hundred, a thousand lives? You don't need advanced math skills to figure that out.

No doubt that the example of the cost of one Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) is one often used to show how a number of programs could be saved. I don't think that's what I meant, though. And I don't think that an existing FFRDC is a solution (aren't the seven Battlelabs' missions so different as to make this difficult, if not impossible?).

Privatization of the mission. If the mission is important, as you and I both believe, then one would think that one the many defense contractors could step in and replace the government. IMO, the mission is everything.

I still haven't seen or read any justification from DoD other than this:

Over the past two Program Objective Memorandum cycles, the labs have lost $7.8 billion in funding, said an Air Force spokeswoman.

“Additionally, fiscal pressures on near-term readiness … and long-term procurement priorities … forced us to make tough decisions regarding key innovation programs and closing all seven of our battlelabs is one of those tough decisions,” Maj. Morshe Araujo said.

The labs provided the Air Force with good information, she said, but budget demands make them unsupportable.

She said Air Force Material Command and other service agencies will continue battlelab research functions and practices “to the maximum extent possible.”

This doesn't make sense.

I was being somewhat facetious with the FFRDC line. The JSF comparison is a little fascicle, but still valid in my opinion; one less JSF isn’t going to lose us some future war with a fantasy far-off enemy, but a spare $30 million goes a long way right now.

No doubt there are those in industry who would be willing to take on some of this responsibility, but there is the wheat-to-chaff problem to consider. Their own decision-makers have to see the probability of some sort of profit (in the best sense of the word) down the road, and the ratio of good-to-bad ideas is going to be terribly skewed. There has to be a cheap/fast way of getting to the meat, which is why I suggest going open-source for the sorting. Ten battle labs, gear for requisite online presence and back-end processing, skeleton crew . . . maybe $10 million, which is somewhere around a “3” as measured in the cost-of-DOD-projects scale.

If they wanted to go really cheap . . . I understand the Army and Air Force both have after-action forums on their online spaces. That’s great for OPSEC, but not so great for the folks in private concerns that might be able to bring good ideas to life. With the death of the battle labs should come some openings into these spaces (limited privileges, audit trails) for vetted contractors.

Privatizing the effort is an option, but only if there is some reasonable assurance that the up-front investment is going to pay off. Uncle Sam might not buy what you end up selling. As motivated to contribute as some firms are, they still have to stay in business.

You know, maybe we're only "talking to ourselves" here, but I've just received a solicitation from the Federal Business Opportunities. While not specific at all to Battle Labs, one of the issues from DARPA includes "topics of interest" for Force Protection (a battlelab mission area) that includes the following language:

- enablers for improved vehicle and passenger survivability

- novel counter UAV capabilities

- aircraft survivability technologies and concepts

- defense of extended areas against rockets, artillery, mortars, bombs and missiles.

Again, while not directly related to the AF Battlelab missions, it seems odd that DARPA would be seeking Force Protection "tools" and that the battlelabs are closing. Or is this an example of the type of consolidation that you were speaking of earlier?