How to Use the Past to Understand the Future

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A new book published by the Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense describes changes in military weapons systems acquisition during the 15 years following World War II.

“Rearming for the Cold War 1945-1960” by retired Air Force Col. Elliott V. Converse III is the first in a five-volume series of books focusing on the history of the acquisition of major weapons systems by the Defense Department. The book’s 766 pages contain a detailed examination of military acquisitions during the early years of the Cold War, and they are full of case studies, personality profiles, charts and photographs.

During a recent joint interview with AFPS and The Pentagon Channel, Converse said the book and its companion volumes were not written for historians. Rather the effort is “primarily aimed at the acquisition workforce, the people who do acquisition day-to-day and perform acquisition for their careers.”

It’s anticipated that defense policy decision makers would also gain something from the books, he added.

Converse earned a doctorate in history from Princeton University and served as the lead historian on the Defense Acquisition History Project team. During the joint interview, Converse said he was attracted to studying this “very dramatic” period of time.

“This was the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. When the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, Americans realized we might be vulnerable if they can put a satellite up there,” Converse said. “There was great concern that our weapons systems counter a threat like that. There was a lot of drama in the 1950s and 1940s.”
Following World War II, U.S. defense policy makers were convinced that the United States’ ability to maintain military supremacy rested on having superior technology, Converse said.

“One important thread that runs through the volume is the consensus that American leaders had at the end of World War II that the United States would seek security in the future by maintaining an advantage in the most technologically advanced weapons systems over any possible opponents,” he said. “They realized that the U.S. could not have an army as big as the Soviets or the Chinese or probably deploy as many systems as they could. So, the theory was that by having the most advanced systems, we’d be able to offset that advantage in terms numbers and equipment.”

That idea of the necessity of maintaining technological superiority to ensure national security affected how weapons systems were developed, produced and deployed, Converse said. It also determined how the Defense Department and the military services organized their acquisition efforts and led to changes in the acquisition workforce.

The strategy of concurrency “was in contrast to the way systems were developed before World War II,” Converse said, noting the pre-war system “was a sequential, deliberate system. You would design the weapon, you would develop the prototype, you would test it, you would produce it. All that would be done in series.

The problems associated with the strategy of concurrence were forgotten after the Korean War, Converse said, as the U.S. entered into an arms race with the Soviet Union to develop ballistic missile systems that could deliver nuclear warheads from continent to continent. Each of the services used concurrency in their acquisition programs to develop ballistic missiles, he said, and they encountered the same problems with concurrency that had been encountered during the Korean War. But the situation was now different.

Despite facing the same conundrum, Converse warned against trying to create exact analogies between current situations and those of the past.

“People have said that history does not repeat itself -- it rhymes,” Converse said. “You can’t draw exact lessons from the past because the situations are not the same. … The value of history is that by taking a look at the past you can see how your predecessors in this field addressed problems. … History tends to broaden your perspective.”

Converse presented his book May 10 to an audience in the Pentagon during the second installment of the DOD History Speaker Series.

He was joined for a panel discussion by several other authorities. Benjamin F. Cooling, a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, set the book in the overall historical context of defense acquisition. Jacques S. Gansler, a former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, offered his perspective on the book based on his experience managing DOD acquisition. Roy L. Wood, dean of the Defense Systems Management College, moderated the panel.

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