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Two score and eight years ago (somehow that doesn’t sound as long as 48 years ago), I was working as Assistant Director of Defense Research and Engineering in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and it occurred to me that just as physical systems obey certain laws of nature, perhaps defense acquisition obeys certain laws of human nature. To my amazement—and everlasting regret—this turned out to be true. (Caveat: To protect the innocent as well as the guilty, the views expressed in Augustine’s Laws are purely my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employers—past, present, or future.)
The earliest of my immutable laws—perhaps the most infamous among them—addressed the increasing cost of tactical aircraft. It showed that the unit cost of such machines increases at a very predictable rate—a factor of four every 10 years (6 db/decade for the electrical engineers)—independent of everything else (performance, quantity, military department, inflation, etc.). This led to the following law, based on a straightforward extrapolation of the defense budget and the entire half-century’s experience then available in building military aircraft:
In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will buy just one tactical aircraft…which will have to be shared by the Navy and the Air Force 6 months each year, with the Marine Corps borrowing it on the extra day during leap years.
Recognizing that this represents a not inconsiderable extrapolation, I rationalized that economists in Washington frequently extrapolate based on a single data point.
Fast-forwarding to today, The Economist magazine recently devoted a full page to updating this law, which was initially promulgated in 1967 (and published 35 years ago in the Defense Systems Management Review). The Economist’s analysis confirmed that the prediction is still right on track. In fact, it is now possible to refine the previously projected 2054 date: it will actually be July 23, 2054. Indeed, the number of aircraft being built each year has declined precipitously (96,000 per year at the peak of World War II) and, as predicted by Law XIV—using Roman numerals makes it seem more profound—the pilots of said aircraft are gradually being squeezed right out of the cockpit.
It is therefore with considerable regret that one must conclude that most of my laws have in fact withstood the test of time. The principal exception wherein they seem to have missed the mark is my projection of the ineffectiveness of Congress in carrying out its principal role in defense acquisition—an attainment that has considerably underperformed my lack of expectations.
Consider Congress’s major responsibility to produce a budget for national defense as assigned in the Constitution. In my initial set of laws published in Defense Systems Management Review, it was noted that Congress was slipping later and later into each successive fiscal year before it produced an operating budget (note that in contrast to virtually any commercial firm, Congress does not even attempt to produce a capital budget). Finally, the point was reached in the mid-1970s where fully 60 percent of a year had passed before a budget was provided.
Unabashedly extrapolating the above trend, I was able to predict that in another 13 years from that time no budget would be provided until the fiscal year had passed into history. As a Russian acquaintance explained to me at the end of the Cold War, speaking in his case of his nation’s propensity for historical revisionism, “Not only do we have an uncertain future, we have an uncertain past.”
Drawing—incorrectly as it turned out—on my experience in industry, I concluded that this level of nonperformance would prompt an immediate uprising on Capitol Hill that would focus on discipline, accountability, and consequences throughout the legislative process. But as it turned out, the legislative branch had a far more imaginative solution to the dilemma than merely implementing the principles of Management 101. Instead, in 1976 Congress simply redefined the fiscal year, slipping it by 3 months…thus (presumably), making it possible to produce a budget on time once again (overlooking the minor arithmetical inconsistency inherent in this illogic).
The problem, of course, was that the date of the National Defense Appropriations Act immediately began slipping further and further into the new fiscal year just as it had in the old fiscal year, until in the most recent 5-year period the year was 38 percent over, on average, before a budget was approved. Presumably, another redefinition of the fiscal year will be forthcoming, followed by yet another, thus providing a never-ending solution to the tardy-budget dilemma—a sort of self-eating watermelon.
On the other hand, Congress has done a rather good job of placing demands on others. For example, over the most recent one-third of a century the number of reports it requires the Executive Branch to submit by a certain date has increased by no less than 351 percent. And in its newly available free time the Congress has increased the income tax code from a mere 16 pages 80 years ago to 45,622 pages today—while legislating that ignorance of the law is no excuse.
The original bookform of Augustine’s Laws, now published in six languages, contained 52 laws. But, it has turned out that creating laws is such a target-rich battlefield that I have now collected more than enough material to proclaim yet another 52 laws—but, probably fortunately, with no time to record them.
Many of the original laws about defense acquisition have actually been found to have application to a wide range of fields, spanning from healthcare to education and well beyond. Consider, for example, the difficulty of producing more engineers—a profession critical to the defense acquisition process. Of the 93 nations evaluated in one recent study, the fraction of baccalaureate degrees going to engineers placed the United States solidly in 79th place (most closely matching Mozambique). Worse yet, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) standardized test scores in mathematics for U.S. high school students have not improved in the past half-century, even though public school spending per student has grown markedly. Thus, in 1970 it cost just $15.30 per student per point scored on the NAEP mathematics test, whereas today the cost is $36.07 (in constant dollars). This does not seem to bode well for the future of defense acquisition…or, for that matter, the nation’s economy. One creative solution would, of course, be to increase the maximum number of points that could be scored on the examination.
When I first began publicly proclaiming laws about the failures of industry and government it, perhaps not unreasonably, stirred a degree of angst on the part of my employer. I was reminded that, being a defense contractor, people who live in glass houses should not throw stones…or something to that effect. However, other than one minor episode—a friend of mine, then Chief of Staff of the Army, took public umbrage at the law I had endorsed, which states that “Rank times IQ is a constant” (sadly, this applies in industry, too)—the laws have generally been embraced as merely unwelcome nuisances.
I actually received a note from Yogi Berra saying, “If you’ll promise to stay out of the laws business, I’ll promise to stay out of the airplane business!” But much more condescending was the letter I received from Laurence Peter, of the Peter Principle, asserting that I had undermined his entire life’s work. He said that I had risen not one, but two levels above my level of competence. This hazard of proclaiming new laws was perhaps best described in a three-sentence essay about Socrates written by a fourth-grader: “Socrates was a philosopher,” she wrote. “He went around telling people what was wrong. They fed him hemlock.”
Whatever the case, the gauntlet laid down by Augustine’s Laws seems to be more relevant today—and certainly more demanding—than was the case at the time they were conceived. And, for the record, my newest law goes as follows:
If you send money to the management of a project that is in trouble, they will remember you the next time they need money.
You first read it here.
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Norman R. Augustine
Mr. Augustine is retired Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin and served as Under Secretary of the Army, Chairman of the American Red Cross, President of the Boy Scouts, Chairman of National Academy of Engineering, Defense Science Board, and American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He is a holder of National Medal of Technology and five-time recipient of the Department of Defense Civilian Distinguished Service Medal. Mr. Augustine is the recipient of 33 honorary doctorates and served as Trustee of Princeton, MIT, and Johns Hopkins and Regent of University System of Maryland.