WASHINGTON — The nominee for the Pentagon’s next acquisitions chief has a simple message when it comes to developing advanced technologies like hypersonics: Don’t be afraid to fail and learn from those mistakes.
“You don’t learn anything by failing a test,” Bill LaPlante told the US Senate Armed Services Committee at his hearing on Tuesday’s nomination for undersecretary for acquisitions and maintenance.
In his opening remarks, LaPlante said the Pentagon’s procurement system must focus on providing new capabilities that troops need — not just today, but well into the future — to counter the rapidly evolving threat from China and other leading adversaries.
To do that, the military must turn emerging technologies like hypersonics, quantum sensing, artificial intelligence, autonomous devices and directed energy into record-breaking programs and field them for operational use, he said.
But LaPlante agreed with an observation by Senator Angus King, I-Maine, that the Pentagon tends to be “risk-averse” and is reluctant to conduct a test unless it is certain it will be successful.
“Our opponents have a different philosophy,” King said. “They test and test and test and fail and fail and fail and learn every time and end up beating us in things like hypersonic and directed energy.”
LaPlante pointed to the fallout from two unsuccessful hypersonic glide vehicle tests conducted by the Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2010 and 2011.
“The two tests both failed, and the United States has halted work on hypersonic glide vehicles,” LaPlante said. “China and Russia just kept going. … That’s how you learn.”
Senators from both parties commended LaPlante, a former Air Force acquisitions chief and current chief executive of Draper Laboratory, for his experience and knowledge, and no issues were discussed that seemed to jeopardize his endorsement. The committee also spoke to Erik Raven, the nominee for undersecretary of the Navy, Marvin Adams, the nominee for deputy director of defense programs for the National Nuclear Security Administration, and Tia Johnson, the nominee for the Armed Forces Court of Appeals judge.
LaPlante and the senators agreed that the nation must do more to strengthen the defense industry base and the supply chains on which it depends.
Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the committee, expressed concern that ammunition stockpiles in key theaters of war around the world were running low and the nation’s inability to produce ammunition and munitions fast enough. Inhofe was particularly concerned about the lack of a hot production line for making Stinger missiles at a time when the United States is sending thousands of surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine to help it thwart the Russian invasion resist.
LaPlante said the US needs “multiple” hot production lines to make weapons like ammunition and unmanned aerial systems.
“They’re a deterrent on their own, and that’s something we need to focus a lot more on overall,” LaPlante said.
LaPlante also said that if confirmed, he will immediately accelerate shipments of equipment and weapons to Ukraine and NATO partners and work to replenish stockpiles that have been tapped for those donations.
Defense industry consolidation in recent years has also hurt the Pentagon, LaPlante said, by reducing the competition that drives innovation and speed.
And LaPlante said the Pentagon must continue to pressure prime contractors to thoroughly understand their supply chain “three or four levels down” so they know where critical points of failure might lie.
Defense officials and industry leaders have regularly spoken out about how their supply chains have been battered during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has limited access to key components like microchips, driving up costs and pushing industry to find other ways to keep their supply chains running.
LaPlante also said the Pentagon needs to break down the barriers that prevent small, non-traditional or startup companies from doing defense technology and industrial base businesses. That includes helping them access reliable financing and resources, he said, and working with the broader acquisitions community to create more opportunities for innovative small companies to subcontract to existing prime contractors.
“Small companies in industry need to see that if they are successfully innovating, there is risk involved, that they have a profitable business,” said LaPlante. “You don’t just get a one-off contract for a prototype.”
And increasing opportunities for small and startup companies that may have a new, better way of doing things is also a way to ensure large, traditional defense companies don’t become “complacent,” LaPlante said.
“We want as much competition as possible,” LaPlante said. “If there’s actually a new entrant, small business, or startup that can do your job, you’ll be competitive with them, and it will lead to better behavior.”
Between 2019 and 2020, according to the National Defense Industrial Association in its most recent Vital Signs report, the number of new vendors entering the defense industry base fell from 6,500 to 6,300. NDIA said the decline was “worrying” and could lead to production or innovation bottlenecks.
LaPlante said the decline in the number of small businesses at the grassroots defense industry needs to be reversed. He promised to focus on fixing the issues small businesses are struggling with if confirmed.
“We need these small companies and these startups in our industrial base,” LaPlante said. “It’s the ace up the country’s sleeve.”
He cited studies showing that problems with cost accounting standards, intellectual property concerns, and the department’s sluggish acquisition and “authority-to-operate” processes are some of the biggest obstacles discouraging small businesses.
“To get a network, even for critical, unclassified information, it can take months for the government to step in and give them authority to operate their network,” LaPlante said. “All of these things need to be pushed together so that a small business can say they can have confidence that things will get better for them.”
LaPlante also emphasized the importance of developing weapons with modular open systems that can be easily upgraded with new technologies, like the B-21 Raider bomber was designed for.
“We’ve known about modular systems for 20 to 30 years,” said LaPlante. “We need to build them into all of our new systems, into the [request for proposal]. The B-21…was designed from the ground up with an open standard, allowing for continuous technology upgrades for decades to come. That should be in all of our systems.”
Stephen Losey is an air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Prior to that, he covered US Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for The Air Force Times.