Defense Acquisition Woes
In the October 2009 issue of National Defense, Gen. Peter Chiarelli expressed frustration about the acquisition process. In the same issue, Sandra Erwin may have nailed it when she wrote that the current acquisition regulation can be traced to the Robert McNamara era. Perhaps the basic problem is not that acquisition policies are antique, but rather that they are not “antique.” In the early 1960s something that was not really broken was replaced. What is in place now is not broken, it is shattered.
In January 1942, the Sikorsky R-2 made its first flight. It would become the first U.S. helicopter to actually be deployed. By 1962, the military had designed, developed and deployed approximately 18 distinct helicopters. Between 1962 and 1982, the Pentagon had fielded about six helicopters. Between 1982 and today, two distinct helicopters have been deployed, three if you count the V-22 Osprey.
In October 1942, the P-59 Aircomet made its first flight. This was the first U.S. jet propelled aircraft. By 1962, the U.S. military had designed, developed, and deployed 38 variants of combat jet aircraft and seven jet trainers with an aggregate production of between 45,000 and 50,000 aircraft. This does not count the one to two dozen types that never made it out of development. It also does not count those aircraft that were developed and deployed to fight World War II.
Between 1962 and 1982, six jet combat aircraft were deployed. Counting the F/A-18E/F, since 1982 there have been about four combat aircraft fielded.
It should be noted that the RFP for the F-22 was issued in 1986 with an initial capability achieved in 2007. Production will be halted soon at 189. Most of the not-so-good aircraft from the 1950s had higher production numbers than that.
The M4 Sherman tank started development in about 1940. By 1960, the Army had fielded at least six distinct tanks. Since then, there have been two if you include the much-maligned M551 Sheridan, which really was not a tank.
What happened to make 1962 so significant? Other than being a convenient 20-year benchmark for several classes of weaponry, it was also the first year that the McNamara acquisition and procurement management policies began to take effect.
As the Defense Department looks for ways to reform acquisition, perhaps the best place to start is in the past. Given development track records before and after 1962, it would appear that we could do worse than to return to policies of the 1950s.
In your October 2009 Defense Watch, “New Business Model Needed to Replace the Status Quo,” you stated a plethora of studies have been made pertaining to the weapon systems acquisition chaos. These studies have reasonably well indentified the problems, but have not laid out a detailed organizational and management structure to implement an effective resolution.
In the mid 1990s, I projected the problems we were having with the acquisition reform policies enacted by Congress and the Defense Department. I indicated that it would take some 10 years for the department to recognize the problems it had created. Then it would take another five to 10 years to rebuild what it had systematically destroyed. I accurately predicted the resulting situation.
The amazing part is that the Defense Department and Congress have been so reluctant in the past years to make any changes. And they still will not acknowledge the reason why, perhaps since most of the political appointees related to acquisition come from industry.
Now with the Levin-McCain Reform Act and the DAPA (Defense Acquisition Performance Assessment) recommendations, the Pentagon seems to be undertaking a significant effort to resolve the acquisition problems. From what little I can determine, this effort is going to result in another huge bureaucratic layer — the last thing they need. We need to eliminate the review staffers, since the turnover rate is always a couple years and they rarely get time to understand the objective of their job. The Defense Department needs to rebuild its in-house technical laboratory capability, which means a major modification of its organizational and management structure to implement an effective weapons systems acquisition work force.
You referred to Defense Secretary Robert Gates telling the services to banish their Cold War worldview of arms buying. I’m assuming that refers primarily to what should be developed to make up the force structure, not necessarily the RDT&E per se. Up to the late 1970s, China Lake had evolved one of the most cost effective RDT&E weapons systems acquisition processes.
When the Vietnam conflict concluded, the budget declined. As new reform was enacted, industry lobbied to reduce in-house laboratory participation and to have the Defense Department interface directly with them. Over time, this reform increasingly limited the role of in-house laboratories, resulting in the government essentially relinquishing their technical management responsibilities to industry. This has principally led to the current situation.
There is no question that a new business model for acquisition needs to be developed. The amazing thing is that no one seems to have reviewed past organizations and practices. If they went back to the 1955-1970 era, they would see how the China Lake acquisition process was effective in partnership with industry for the RDT&E and production of reliable, cost effective operational weapons systems. We cannot relive the past, but we can certainly benefit from it.
Even then industry was intent on limiting the participation of in-house technical centers — as they grumbled all the way to bank.
I applaud your Defense Watch article in October’s National Defense Magazine. However, I can tell you that the call for business model changes should not just be limited to the acquisition end of the spectrum. From my perspective, there is significant opportunity for business model changes in the front end of the enterprise as well. In order to rapidly transition emerging technologies to the war fighter, the U.S. defense community needs to significantly increase the throughput of its R&D enterprise as well. Many of our business models haven’t kept up with downsizing, teaming, reduced acquisition and other post-Cold War realities affecting the defense R&D industrial base and the business models that control them.
To pose a variation on a Gandhi quote: “For things to change, things have to change,” and in my opinion things haven’t changed.
Mark BennettRecruiting Talent
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In reference to Defense Watch, September 2009, “Attracting New Blood Tougher Than Building Jets and ICBMs,” it occurred to me that what we need is a recruiting and scholarship structure similar to what major universities employ for the recruiting of blue chip athletes. Universities should recruit students for specific disciplines and offer superior “aid” packages like those (and superior to those) that athletes get. Retention of these scholarships would depend on maintaining adequately high grade point averages and participation in activities that demonstrate the adequacy of their study-learn-work-produce ethic.
These students would also be required to remain within a certain core curriculum and within specific high-need disciplines to keep the perks of these beefed-up aid packages. We need to provide the incentives to high school students to apply themselves adequately to compete for these blue-chip scholarships.
Paul KiktaTechnology Challenges
St. Louis, Mo.
The November 2009 issue of National Defense included a call for technology in the cover story, “Today’s Fights Expose Technological Weak Spots.” It also featured editorials calling for management of the industrial base and to cut waste by stopping additional reforms and short articles about acquisition reform, the Army’s need for a few good geeks, shortcomings in communication interoperability, and a discussion about whether the Pentagon should pick winners and losers.
All of these issues are linked and deal with policies on how the government acquires technology. If we look at the great inventors in history as well as the Fortune 100 companies, an overlooked similarity should become readily apparent. The vast majority of these technology leaders did not originate in government labs, universities, or existing mega-companies.
Indeed, many of the truly innovative and game changing technologies were the product of people without gold-plated backgrounds and advanced degrees. Here, we should think of Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and other garage inventors who set out to build their dreams. The question to be answered in order to overcome all of the challenges outlined in your articles should be “where are these innovators and how can they be focused on the technical challenges at hand?”
I don’t know where the innovators are but they are most likely not found in universities or in the mega-companies. If they do happen to be in these places, they may not have the motivation or opportunity to focus on game-changing technologies. Innovators are most likely found in small businesses where patent issuance is nearly 10 times the rate of big business invention. A glance at any university’s licensing budget should be sufficient evidence that academic research (though important) does not result in commercial or usable inventions — this in spite of greater access to money, resources, and cheap labor.
Ignoring these facts, the government makes small business participation in technology innovation near impossible. While a token commitment to SBIR grants does exist, the amounts available in these grants are not adequate to fund a garage operation let alone any effort requiring the participation of more than one scientist in a laboratory with specialized equipment. As a result, many innovators resign themselves to tackling problems that do not have the hurdles of dealing with the government or overly burdensome accounting and management practices. Can a small business afford to operate hand-to-mouth when the government does not pay invoices in an expedient fashion, when invoices cannot be paid until end-of the-year accounting to justify overhead costs are completed, or when checks from defense agencies bounce?
What must be done in order to achieve rapid development of innovation and to guarantee the participation of those people most likely to introduce disruptive technologies is to remove barriers for doing business with the government and to shift from the focus on unproductive investments in academic centers of excellence into centers of excellence dedicated to support small businesses and inventors from wherever that might be.
David P. Dumas
San Diego, CA
In your November 2009 cover story, “Today’s Fights Expose Technological Weak Spots,” you mention the disruptive challenges of roadside bombs, combatants camouflaged as civilians, and insurgent camps that are undetectable. In Vietnam, there were the same challenges, but they were referred to as booby traps, Viet Cong without uniforms and hidden jungle camps. So I would not consider them disruptive when they have been known for so long. And those outside the military establishment, who were saying from day one that Iraq is going to be another Vietnam, seem to have been correct.
Newport News, VA
Air Force Tanker
In reference to the November 2009 article, “Why the Air Force Needs a New Tanker,” as an old Air Force staff sergeant during the Korean War, I was upset at the “game” the Air Force played in the bidding war for the new tanker a few years ago. Differences in the specifications presented to each bidder caused this long delay. The Government Accountability Office pounced upon this and ordered a new bid with a level playing field. I am not sure how level it really is, though.
Northrop has had a good working relationship with Boeing for a long time. I have worked for both companies. They both build wonderful airplanes. I believe Congress should step in and mandate a single source using the “best” numbers from both companies. Boeing and Northrop would make a great partnership — not prime contractor and subcontractor — but a real partnership. We would keep the jobs at home where they are needed during this economic downturn. And it would certainly help the federal and state tax base.
F. Eugene Barber Defense Acquisition
Las Vegas, NV
There have been numerous articles and studies on the defense acquisition process and how to fix it. While excellent in their description of the processes, little is said about the environment in which programs have to be executed.
All programs, particularly major ones, are subjected to significant congressional scrutiny. The Air Force’s KC-X program is a good example. Each of the competing contractors is strongly supported by congressional delegations in whose districts the work will be done. Both candidates are commercial aircraft which can be readily adapted to the tanker mission, but based on several years of competition and millions of dollars invested by both contractors, it is doubtful that a protest by the loser can be avoided.
Another factor in the environment is that established programs can be cut by Congress, because of budgetary or other problems. While not necessarily fatal to a program, it will cause reopening of the contract and a subsequent negotiation, always resulting in increased cost and schedule delays.
It is also the prerogative of the Defense Department and the service comptrollers to also take some of the program budget to fund more critical needs. Based on experience, it is a lonely time for a program manager who has to cope with a sudden cut.
The complexity and sophistication of our weapon systems has grown dramatically over the past 25 to 30 years. In many cases, software, not hardware, is the dominant challenge to program management. These developments have occurred over a period when the numbers, the quality, and experience of the acquisition work force has slowly declined.
Goldwater-Nichols did much to improve the operational execution of the armed forces. But moving acquisition responsibility to the service secretary and removing the service chief from that responsibility did not help. The PEO process that also resulted just confuses accountability. The service chief owns all the resources in the acquisition work force and program execution is done in the field, not in Washington. Several sources, including CSIS, reviewed the situation and recommend that Congress restore the role of the service chief in the acquisition process. At the moment he is neither accountable nor responsible.
To execute today’s complex acquisition business, there needs to be service acquisition institutions with strong leaders who are empowered to manage the processes and control the acquisition work force so that education and career progression can be afforded and controlled.
The front end of a major program initiation is critical. The intended operational user of the new system will invariably tend to overstate the system requirements. A strong service acquisition leader, participating in the system requirements process, can argue for realistic requirements.
The intended user will also tend to want to accelerate the front end of the program schedule. Under pressure, program managers will sometimes accept unnecessary schedule risk. A strong service acquisition leader can also mitigate that schedule risk.
System requirements changes during the course of a program are a cause célèbre
of program cost and schedule growth. Some changes are inevitable, but with the combined effort of the user and the service acquisition leader, the justifiable change can be clearly defined and folded into the schedule with minimum disruption and with sufficient funds to contractually implement it.
Finally, it will take years to acquire, train, and assign sufficient numbers to rebuild the acquisition workforce. This is, and should be, a fundamental responsibility of the service acquisition leader. The time span to do this will far exceed the average tenure of statutory and military leaders, therefore it must be embedded in such a way that continuity is built in.
Lawrence A. Skantze
Retired U.S. Air Force general,
Former commander, Air Force Systems Command
In the November 2009 President’s Perspective, “Defense Industrial Base: Active Management Needed,” suggestions are offered to maintain competition among defense-related manufacturers. These include dual-sourcing platforms such as the new Air Force tanker and a second engine for the F-35 aircraft.
The additional training and logistics burdens are not worth the dollar savings. Do we really want two tanker squadrons stationed at the same airfield unable to swap scarce aircraft parts and personnel as needed to accomplish the mission because their aircraft are different? A better solution would be for the Pentagon to buy the rights to more drawings of both current and future weapon systems. After initial production and perhaps a transition period, the government could compete the production of those parts. The logistics operations are actually enhanced because of additional manufacturing sources, while no additional parts are being stocked.
James Trent CorbettRenewable Energy
Regarding your December story, “In the Race to Be Green, Navy Moves to the Front of the Pack,” perhaps there is an opportunity to work on two problems at once. The military needs improved (cheaper and safer) fuel sources for their efforts to help the Afghans become a stable state. The Afghan farmers need a steady source of income other than growing opium.
Perhaps as part of civil affairs/COIN initiatives, we could encourage them to grow camelina, develop algae sources, or pursue other biofuel initiatives. This fuel could be sold to NATO forces. Also, Afghanistan is literally next door to two potentially huge customers for biofuels — China and India — with well-established trade routes to both.
As part of this effort, NATO forces could help rebuild some of the infrastructure destroyed by the Mongols and Russians (while we don’t think much in such historical terms, the Afghans do), to give the local people a reason not to support the Taliban.
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