New Military Gear Doesn’t Have to Cost a Fortune
There’s a better way to develop high-tech systems
I didn’t ask to be put in charge of the BRITE project. In fact, given a choice I almost certainly would have declined. The odd little system looked distinctly underwhelming—and promised to be a blip on my radar, a forgettable job to be passed off to someone else as soon as possible.
Boy was I wrong. My work on the Broadcast-Request Imagery Technology Environment—a system for sending satellite imagery to troops on the ground—changed my thinking about how we develop military gear.
Bottom line, new weaponry doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t have to involve thousands of people and take years or decades to design.
It was 2002. The war in Afghanistan was new, the invasion of Iraq was still in the future and I was a young Air Force captain assigned to the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.
I already had a day job developing a large communication system, but when BRITE’s previous program manager moved on, somebody had to pick up the baton. I was that somebody … and BRITE became the latest additional duty on my growing list.
I’m embarrassed to say it felt mildly insulting to be handed this task, maybe even a bit of a demotion, because the project seemed so minor and unimportant. The foolishness of that initial reaction dissipated quickly as BRITE saved lives and changed my life.
What was BRITE? The 2004 National Defense Authorization Act described it as “a unique capability to disseminate timely, tailored imagery products … to forward deployed tactical military forces.” The authorization went on to note “Special Operations Forces and others” used the system in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My annual performance report provides more detail, including the fact that we delivered “quality imagery in three minutes versus hours [or] days.” Back then, computers were slower and bandwidth harder to come by, so delivering a large file in a few minutes was considered quite speedy, particularly if the guy on the other end was a special ops troop in an austere location and not some analyst sitting in an air-conditioned building.
I fell in love with BRITE almost immediately. As a military technologist, most of my career to that point had been oriented towards developing tools for a distant future, so it was exciting to have a project that provided an immediate impact.
The fact that BRITE directly supported actual operations overseas was awesome. I also enjoyed the experience of being in charge. As the lead government guy, I called the shots, made the decisions and worked directly with both the developer and the troops.
This was a rare opportunity for a junior acquisitions officer.
All the same, it’s a bit of a stretch to say I was “in charge” of the project—because I had no budget to speak of and no staff whatsoever. I was really only in charge of myself.
Fortunately, I was not alone in my aloneness—the small defense contractor that built BRITE had assigned one guy to work it, also part-time. John had as many other duties as I did, but like me, this was his favorite.
Our main customer in those early days was special operator who went by the call sign “Scrounger.” He was an inventive and enthusiastic guy who made BRITE do things John and I never imagined.
Several of the innovations we delivered were a direct result of his feedback from the front lines. My performance report for 2003 notes that BRITE “was critical in prisoner recovery operations” and quotes an unnamed special ops soldier—spoiler alert, it was Scrounger—as saying “it’s like magic.”
The kind words about BRITE’s magical performance may have shown up on my record, but Scrounger waved the wand and deserves most of the credit.
Not everyone loved our program the way John, Scrounger and I did. Specifically, the budgeteers had a tendency to leave it out of their accounting spreadsheets. In fact, the aforementioned authorization act complains that “despite the urging of the Congress, NIMA failed to include funding for BRITE” in its proposed budget three years in a row.
Congress earmarked money for BRITE each year, anyway, which gave me a whole different perspective on news reports about the legislative branch funding programs the military didn’t ask for.
Interestingly, the funds I remember receiving through these budgetary plus-ups is much smaller than the amounts identified in the legislation. I seem to recall a conversation or two in which objections were raised about BRITE being shortchanged, but we were told NIMA’s decision to spend the dollars elsewhere was necessary and appropriate. I’m sure it was.
Of course, the green-eyeshade crew was only following orders from the people higher up in the agency. One day, as I was on my way back from a meeting, my boss stopped me in the hallway to let me know some bad news. “They tell me I should cancel BRITE,” he explained, “because it’s making the larger programs look bad by doing so much good for so little money.”
He grinned as he continued. “But don’t worry. I’m an old man and my hearing’s not what it used to be. You keep up the great work and I’ll keep the vultures away.”
That’s not a conversation—or a leader—one quickly forgets.
At that point in my career I was just starting to understand the defense technology business and to formulate opinions as to what constituted a good system. Working on BRITE challenged my previous assumptions about the value of large, expensive development programs … and showed me the wisdom of going small.
Long before Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that “the best solution isn’t always the fanciest or the most expensive,” I got to live this important truth.
BRITE brought innovative, first-in-class, best-in-class capabilities to the pointy end of the spear, helped with the first prisoner-of-war recovery effort since the Vietnam War and did it all with a skeleton crew and a shoestring budget.
It proved that top-shelf technology can support operations at the speed of need without consuming vast resources. It showed the importance of deliberately pursuing elegant simplicity in both the technical design and the organizational structure supporting that design. It set the foundation for much of my later work in the area of rapid, low-cost innovation, both as an engineer and a writer.
It also destroyed my ability to contentedly work on a large, expensive, complex program designed to address a far-off, hypothetical need. For that, I am deeply thankful.
Speaking of expensive programs, BRITE was a stark contrast to one of my other duties, the infamous Future Imagery Architecture program, which I worked on for about a year. FIA was terminated in 2005 due to significant delays and cost overruns.
The specifics are still classified, but The New York Times reported that the cost was upwards of $18 billion, a number I can neither confirm nor deny.
It is a bit generous to say I “worked” on FIA. Mostly I was dragged to endless meetings where I listened to people debate whether the previous week’s meetings had resolved some obscure issue—they hadn’t—and whether the current meeting should be considered a technical interchange meeting or a technical exchange meeting.
Because if it was a TEM, we clearly did not have the right participants in the room and thus would need to reschedule. I wish I were making that up.
I soon figured out a way to stop going to those pointless meetings, but nevertheless my annual performance report praised my work on the “security accreditation plan for Future Imagery Architecture” which was apparently “lauded by seniors.”
The two programs could not have been more different. BRITE was simple, focused and effective. It provided actual users with combat-relevant capabilities that were previously unavailable, such as overlaying signals intelligence and Blue Force Tracking data onto minutes-old high-resolution satellite imagery—and it did so with minimal overhead.
Along with serving well in Iraq and Afghanistan, it went on to support security efforts for the Olympics. It was the very definition of a successful technology innovation. Naturally, this is the program certain mid-level managers wanted to cancel and refused to fund.
FIA on the other hand was hugely complex, both technically and organizationally. It aimed to deliver a wide range of futuristic capabilities and received bottomless buckets of funding as well as strong support from many fronts.
However, it was so complicated it ended up not delivering much of anything at all, although I hear the security accreditation plan was really something special. When FIA finally got terminated, over much wailing and gnashing of teeth, The New York Times labeled it “perhaps the most spectacular and expensive failure in the 50-year history of American spy satellite projects.”
As far as I know, the Times has yet to publish an article about BRITE, which is almost certainly a good thing.
Ironically, many commentators and supporters insist FIA was grossly underfunded as well as undermanned and inappropriately rushed. According to their analysis, all it needed was a little (lot) more money, a little (lot) more time and a (much) larger team of workers.
This is a regrettably recurring theme in the defense technology business. People in charge of enormous programs tend to blame their long delays and stratospheric cost overruns on not being given enough time and money in the first place, as if $18 billion is a recipe for failure but $36 billion, twice as many people and another decade or two would guarantee a successful delivery.
The belief that anything is possible given infinite resources is entirely unsupported by data but is held with nearly religious fervor by people who also dismiss a project like BRITE as a hobby-shop toy, despite its demonstrated contributions to combat operations.
There are still people who insist FIA was a good idea with a solid approach that would have been super-duper, if only we’d been able to properly fund it. I shudder to think I was on track to become one of those people until BRITE came along and showed me what a good program really looks like.
I learned first-hand that small teams can do incredible things when time and money are in short supply, while large teams have a hard time getting anything done at all when expending enormous sums of money and pursuing distant deadlines.
Perhaps FIA’s failure was genuinely the result of a mismatch between the allocated resources and the assigned mission. It is entirely possible the FIA requirements could not be satisfied on a meager budget of $18 billion-ish, which I can still neither confirm nor deny.
However, what the more-is-better advocates need to understand is that there are two sides to the equation. Instead of calling for more time and money, the FIA team could have applied existing resources toward a more realistic goal and thus improved their odds of actually delivering something.
Rather than doubling-down on the investment, delaying the ship date again and hoping for the best, a wiser course of action would have been to follow BRITE’s more restrained approach.
BRITE was a deliberately simple system, managed by a tiny but enthusiastic team who were forced to work efficiently because we had no time to waste and had to make every dollar count. By contrast, FIA was a hugely complex system manned by a committee of thousands, several of whom were so busy debating administrivia they forgot to solve actual problems.
At the end of the day, BRITE spent less money than allocated and delivered more capability than expected. It served the actual needs of actual troops, both in the short and long term, and in doing so gave the American taxpayer a very nice return on a modest investment.
Meanwhile, FIA over-spent and under-delivered, leaving intelligence analysts and front-line combatants in the lurch—to say nothing of the impact on taxpayers.
One of the main differences was that BRITE embraced its constraints and actively pursued opportunities for thrift, simplicity and speed. We were proud to do so much with so little and never tried to expand our team or our schedule.
FIA took the opposite approach, continually adding more people, more dollars and more complexity, all the while doing precious little with oh so very much … and constantly asking for more.
Surely there is a lesson here.
On that note, the idea of producing cutting-edge capabilities from minimal resources is not limited to spy satellites and special operations soldiers. Examples of such frugal innovation can be found in a wide range of contexts, including software, bridges and medical devices, so the underlying principles are clearly relevant outside of the Defense Department, as well.
Should every program look just like BRITE, with two-person teams and fractional budgets? Of course not, and any search for a single solution to all our technology woes is misdirected from the start. But my experience with BRITE began a decade of research and experience which convinced me the Pentagon would do well to shift its default approach towards building more BRITE’s and fewer FIA’s or, as I wrote elsewhere, more droids and fewer Death Stars.
Troops and taxpayers alike benefit from small, focused innovations, while both groups get kicked in the teeth by over-reaching, over-spent, over-engineered programs. The BRITE approach made a lot of sense in the early 2000s, when military budgets were rising. It makes even more sense in today’s austere fiscal environment—and tomorrow’s.
Dan Ward is an Air Force lieutenant colonel currently stationed at Hanscom Air Force Base. He is the author of FIRE: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained, and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation. The views he expressed in this article are solely his and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force or Department of Defense.