News | Nov. 1, 2003

Alternative Governance: A Tool forMilitary Laboratory Reform

By Timothy Coffey, Kenneth W. Lackie, and Michael L. Marshall Defense Horizons 34


Military Laboratory ReformOverview

Throughout the Cold War, the United States maintained an edge over adversaries by fielding technologically superior warfighting systems. This strategy depended on a strong research and development (R&D) effort in both the public and private sectors, and the community of military laboratories in the Department of Defense played an essential role in the overall effort. Because of the importance of these labs during the Cold War, defense planners continually focused on ways to improve and strengthen them. 

The end of the Cold War, however, shifted the focus away from laboratory improvement toward consolidation, closure, realignment, and personnel downsizing, as many came to believe much of the R&D done by the military laboratories could, and even should, be done by the private sector. Scrutiny of the labs greatly increased as a constant stream of base realignment and closure and other cost-reduction efforts sought to decrease their roles and size. Because these actions focused almost exclusively on efficiency, little attention was paid to improving the effectiveness of the labs—their ability to carry out their assigned missions. Most activity directed at improving laboratory operation has dealt with incremental modifications of the current governance model. Currently, the military labs are Government-owned, Government-operated organizations. As many studies have noted, this governance model puts the laboratories at a great disadvantage and complicates their ability to accomplish their assigned missions. Alternative approaches have been suggested by lab reformers but have never been implemented. Since the current governance model is well known, and attempts to modify it are well documented, this paper discusses several alternative governance models for the labs, with emphasis on the Government-owned, contractor- operated and Government-owned corporation models. While there would be issues with regard to conversion of an existing military lab to a Government corporation or comparable entity, the long-term, mission-enabling benefits of such a conversion could far outweigh any near-term complexities.