You may wonder why I chose “legacy” as the topic for my monthly column. It is because the simple term “legacy” has a somewhat different connotation for Defense, and legacy is certainly in the news due to current work on the FY 2022 Defense budget. In fact, legacy is at the core of a watershed controversy right now in Washington, D.C.
As “Defense Speak Interpreted” readers have surmised, the weapons systems of yesterday, today, and tomorrow are under review, both with President Biden and with the Congress now in control by Democrats.
But “weapons systems of yesterday”? In the fast-paced consumer electronics world, “legacy” never comes up. Who takes their cellphone or laptop to a dealer just to keep it working? Sure, we upgrade software or maybe add on a new hardware feature. But, if our device breaks down, we just bite the bullet and buy a new one. I remember 15 years ago when my 10-year-old car lost the digital speedometer feature. “You need a new board” was the only choice I had—or risk a speeding ticket. The “new” board came in and was dropped into place. I asked to have the old board as I wanted to examine it for tin whiskers, a hot topic at the time. I was refused because my defective board was going back to be repaired to keep other “legacy” cars operating. The same is the ongoing situation for Defense.
So, how do we define “legacy”? Here is the definition from Merriam Webster:
Noun definition 2: Something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past. The legacy of the ancient philosophers: The war left a legacy of pain and suffering.
Adjective definition 2: Of, relating to, associated with, or carried over from an earlier time, technology, business, etc. With that as the general definition, here is the definition of a legacy system as its pertinence to defense:
Organizations can have compelling reasons for keeping a legacy system, such as:
- The system works satisfactorily, and the owner sees no reason to change it
- The costs of redesigning or replacing the system are prohibitive because it is large, monolithic, and/or complex
- Retraining on a new system would be costly in lost time and money, compared to the anticipated appreciable benefits of replacing it (which may be zero)
- The system requires near-constant availability, so it cannot be taken out of service, and the cost of designing a new system with a similar availability level is high. Examples include air traffic control, energy distribution (power grids), nuclear power plants, military defense installations, and systems such as the TOPS database
- The way that the system works is not well understood. Such a situation can occur when the designers of the system have left the organization, and the system has either not been fully documented or documentation has been lost.
- The user expects that the system can easily be replaced when this becomes necessary
- Newer systems perform undesirable (especially for individual or non-institutional users) secondary functions such as a) tracking and reporting of user activity and/or b) automatic updating that creates "back-door" security vulnerabilities and leaves end users dependent on the good faith and honesty of the vendor providing the updates. This problem is especially acute when these secondary functions of a newer system cannot be disabled
Much of the current debate concerning Defense budgets revolves around the semantics of the term “legacy.” It is hard to write into an appropriation bill just what is legacy and what to do about new systems. This is complicated by the valuable production/repair of legacy Defense systems in one congressional district when a replacement may be produced in a different district. No congressman wants to see loss of contracts with associated jobs and benefits in their district. In short, “How DoD defines ‘legacy systems’ will drive tens of billions of dollars of investment, sustainment activities, and force structure. Everyone criticizes legacy systems, and in an era of declining budgets and rising major power challengers, they are targets for cost-cutting efforts to fund modernization.” 
One example of a controversial legacy purchase was announced in 2020—the procurement of up to 78 new Boeing F-15EX fighter jets. The first F-15 was flown in 1972, some 49 years ago.
Of course, this is not simply the 49-year-old version of the F-15, as these new ones have upgraded electronics, weapons, and jet engines. However, there comes a time when a decision has to be made about new weapons concepts. I touched on concepts in my January 2021 column, “Your Best Friend is a Skyborg?” That is, when does Defense emphasize no-pilot planes with enhanced artificial intelligence? I also addressed this in my May 2020 column, “What’s an RCV?” versus a crewed tank or personnel carrier.
Of course, if you are going to have a rough and tumble Congressional game of “what does it cost to procure and maintain?” you need a referee. One such referee is the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office at Defense. CAPE describes itself as, “We are part think tank, part consulting firm, and part investigative agency.” To maintain independence the CAPE office reports directly to the Secretary of Defense. In this legacy fight game, the “instant replay booth” is Congress itself and it can overrule decisions made at the Secretary of Defense level. Remember to “follow the money,” since Congress holds the purse-strings.
To bring you up to date, we need look no further back than to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s March 4 “Message to the Force” about innovation and modernization. He said:
“The Department will innovate at a speed and scale that matches a dynamic threat landscape. This will require advances in our joint warfighting concepts and a commitment to rapid experimentation and fielding of capabilities. Where necessary, we will divest of legacy systems and programs that no longer meet our security needs, while investing smartly for the future. In turn, we will improve the efficiency of the force and guarantee freedom of action in contested, complex operating environments.”
So, again, what is legacy? The Air Force may consider legacy replacement as newer manned planes for older manned planes. The Navy has not completely committed to “drone ships.” The Army is dabbling with “optionally manned” combat vehicles. Almost certainly, the 2022 Defense budget will be “flat” at about $715 billion. Will Congress dictate what is new and what is legacy, or will the flat budget force each service to define its own path to modernization?
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said the Pentagon would work with Congress to make "difficult decisions" to "phase out" legacy weapon systems unsuitable for competition with China, but she also committed to help developing technologies bridge "the valley of death." Hicks, who spoke during a virtual event with the National War College, reiterated a message Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has delivered publicly several times: China is the "pacing challenge" for the Pentagon. "We must invest ourselves not only financially, but culturally.
A final hint on direction from the White House (dependent on Congressional funding, of course): “While the 2023 budget next year will be the first the Biden team will build on its own,” Hicks said the 2022 submission “will provide early insight into our strategic approach,” indicating that there will be some real movement on prioritizing the new administration’s vision.
- “Legacy,” Merriam Webster.
- Legacy system, Wikipedia.
- What’s In a Name? Billions In Cuts Depend on Defining ‘Legacy,’ March 10, 2021, breakingdefense.com.
- Boeing Lands F-15EX Mega Deal Worth Up to $23 Billion, July 13, 2020, National Defense Magazine.
- Message to the Force, March 4, 2021, Secretary of Defense memo.
- Hicks previews ‘difficult decisions’ on legacy systems, pledges to bridge ‘valley of death,’ May 11, 2021, Insidedefense.com.
- Software, Missiles, Testing At Top For Budget, Says DepSecDef Hicks, April 30, 2021, Breakingdefense.com.
Dennis Fritz was a 20-year direct employee of MacDermid Inc. and is retired after 12 years as a senior engineer at (SAIC) supporting the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana. He was elected to the IPC Hall of Fame in 2012.