The pilot’s seat

When most of us fly, we buckle in, silently grouse at the knee room and put in headphones and tune out for the rest of the trip. We trust the men and women behind the locked doors to be so good at their jobs that we effectively forget they are there. A cursory expression of gratitude as we exit the plane offers a moment of wonder that we flew hundreds, if not thousands, of miles without worrying much about where we were going or whether we were going to get there once the wheels were up.

That kind of blind confidence is unique. Back on the ground, particularly in business, skepticism is the order of the day. That can be especially true in today’s defense industry. Cost estimates are rarely accurate, either from the government or its suppliers. Lateness is acceptable. The politics of spending taxpayer money on weapons systems and wars is as contested as ever, and will be more so as overall acquisitions funding is expected to fall further.

The aviation legacy in the defense business is an important one. The Jet Age roots of today’s companies are intertwined in tales of audacity and precision that mastering emerging technologies required. As the 21st Century enters its second decade after more than 12 years of war, it is a time of searching, not certainty.

This puts a special burden on the corporate boards of directors, civilians and senior military officers in charge of spending hundreds of billions of dollars each year. They need responsible leaders in the industry who want to take real risk. Those are incompatible elements today for customary political, legal and financial reasons. They should not be.

At first glance the first place to look for the right kind of leaders in the defense industry would be to the aviation world; people who know what it feels like to put a plane safely on the ground or lead a squadron on a combat mission. People who know Washington; people who understand Congressional appropriators; people who know which Pentagon entrance is quietest during the afternoon rush home. That instinct is understandable. It may not be correct.

When Ford Motor Co. tapped Alan Mulally as CEO in 2006 the move was notable because this was not a car guy with motor oil in his veins. He started at Boeing Co. right out of college. This was fresh air with an engineering pedigree and a new way of looking at an industry’s old problems. A man who understood when to use aluminum and when to use steel in order to defeat the aviation, and auto, engineer’s relentless enemy: weight. For somebody who knew how generous the U.S. government can be with the nation’s biggest corporations, he also steered the automaker away from a federal bailout during Ford’s dark days.

If there ever were a moment for the defense industry to look to skilled and accomplished outsiders who are not creatures of the government’s decades-long bad habits of weapons buying, it is now.

If the government is to provide its armed forces affordable, effective and reliable resources at a time of breakneck technological change, the defense industry needs to be in steady hands of somebody used to keeping one eye on the horizon for the next big thing and the other cast skeptically at the status quo. Those may not be the hands of a pilot that government, lawmakers and the military are used to seeing at the front of the plane.