William D. O’Neil

As a small child, during and immediately after World War II, the conflict loomed very large. What was it that was sending people dear to me to far distant places, some never to return, and threatening the entire order of my little world? Soon the awful threat of the Cold War joined these concerns. As a teenager, I read Winston Churchill’s books on the Second World War as they appeared, along with the naval histories of Samuel Eliot Morision—books not only about the actions of the war but about how it was conceived and managed. At the same time, I started to take an interest in the management of the great corporations that gleamed so brilliantly in the pages of my father’s copies of Fortune magazine. He was a journalist and my mother was deeply interested in literature; writing, books, and language were central throughout my childhood.

Before the Great Depression my father had studied to become a scientist, and science was my other major interest. An exceptional mathematics teacher, Robert C. Crawford, drew me into the subject in high school. To me, math was the queen of all the sciences, the science of structure and order, the key to the innermost processes of the universe.

With my father ill and the family’s finances in chaos I got through UCLA working nights as a computer programmer and engineering aide in the aerospace industry, getting my first exposure to corporate life and major defense programs. After graduating early in 1960 I joined the U.S. Navy and was commissioned in June. For the next two years I sailed the Pacific aboard the ammunition ship USS Vesuvius (AE 15), serving as her navigator as well as a watchstanding officer at sea and command duty officer in port. Then I was transferred to the Navy Electronics Laboratory in San Diego to work on applying digital computers at sea, confronting issues that involved not only ships and bits but management and high-level Navy policy.

I worked for a series of defense-oriented firms after leaving the Navy in mid-1964, getting my master’s degree in quantitative methods in business (involving a heavy dose of quantitative economics and finance) at the same time and also taking graduate courses in math and systems engineering at UCLA. While working for then-giant Litton Industries I got drawn into my first contact with corporate strategy issues.

I’d retained my Naval Reserve commission and after a period of duty in Washington working on a study for the Navy was asked to come back as a civilian GS-15 employee serving as an advisor on technology and acquisition programs on the staff of the Secretary of the Navy. Although it involved a pay cut, it sounded terribly intriguing and my wife was, as always, ready to support me.

I got commendations, but the Secretary of the Navy certainly never learned nearly as much from me as I did from my work. That was when the entire vast business apparatus of the U.S. government really came into focus. After four fascinating years I was asked to join the staff of the Director of Defense Research Engineering (DDR&E), then the number-three official in the Pentagon, with responsibility for all Defense acquisition. The staff was filled with exceptionally able people and I had the opportunity to work with many, drawing from their knowledge. Much of what I learned in my 11 years with DDR&E is summarized in my report, “What to Buy? The Role of Director of Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E): Lessons from the 1970s,” IDA Paper P-4675 (Alexandria, Virginia: Institute for Defense Analyses, Jan 2011).

By the time I left the Pentagon as a Senior Executive I’d been intimately involved in the direction of scores of major programs, many of which had not gone well—in some cases due in part to my input. With my fascination with underlying structure and pattern I’d come to see that projects that failed, whether partially or entirely, did so in very much the same ways, regardless of whether they were being conducted in industry or government. I developed a certain skill in stopping things that were headed for disaster, and some in setting them on a track for success. But I learned that accurately foreseeing and explaining that major problems lay ahead very often had little effect in persuading decision groups to alter course.

While directing a major office in the Pentagon with responsibility over acquisition programs costing more than $60 billion per year (in today’s values) was fascinating (if frustrating), I felt I needed more operational experience with systems engineering and management. In 1984 I joined Lockheed Corp., then number 30 on the Fortune 500. I worked with the top management of the aircraft division in Burbank in understanding and meeting government requirements before becoming the first chief of systems engineering for what has now become the F-22A stealth fighter. I went to corporate headquarters as the director of Lockheed’s strategic planning, which drew me into mergers and acquisitions, involving me with the managements of other firms, including a non-defense super-giant that was interested in acquiring Lockheed.

Over all my time in Washington and back on the West Coast I’d continued with the Naval Reserve. Instead of attending weekend drills at the local armory, however, I served with units that were directly attached to and involved with top-level Navy organizations in the Pentagon and the Fleet, acting as an additional office on their staffs. In the way of such things, my special knowledge and access from my civilian employment and from my Reserve service combined and reinforced one another.

The ending of the Cold War led Lockheed in directions I wasn’t very interested in going, and in 1991 I became a vice president and division director with the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), back in the Washington area. CNA is a non-profit dating from the early days of World War II, with a very intimate involvement in the affairs of the Navy and increasingly those of the Department of Defense and other Services. This again brought me close to a broad range of major acquisition programs as well as the management of the Navy and the Department of Defense themselves.

Since 2006 I’ve been consulting, writing reports and articles on a variety of subjects, and researching and writing this series of books.


You can e-mail me at

For more of what I’ve written, see