A Prescription for the Army's Ailing Acquisition System
By Nathaniel H. Sledge Jr.
Army Secretary John McHugh last month ordered a comprehensive review of Army weapons acquisition practices, management and oversight.
McHugh assigned a competent team to lead the effort, but it is hard to see how it will engender novel thinking for a recalcitrant problem such as Army acquisition. The Army does not need elder statesmen. It needs agents of change. Trotting out perspectives from 15 and 30 years ago is not going to help.
There are times for steady hands and times for the young Turks. Now, we need fresh, expeditionary mindsets, not warmed-over ideas that may provide political cover but not the change the Army needs.
Much of what must be done to improve Army acquisition is already known and has been articulated in dozens of studies. The Army understands that its traditional acquisition process has to better mesh with rapid acquisition to meet urgent war-fighter needs.
To its credit, the Army established the Rapid Acquisition Force (REF) to address pressing needs, and the Army Requirements and Resources Board (AR2B) to help resolve equipping issues for deployed and deploying forces. The REF proved inexpensive, innovative, and effective, while the AR2B became a solid clearing house for all manner of Army resourcing issues.
The Army has also made some headway in better managing the proliferation of non-standard equipment in the theaters of war. With the mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle, the Army has demonstrated its ability to tweak the otherwise stodgy, stifling and deliberate acquisition system to procure exceptional capabilities rapidly.
But these advances are not enough.
Programs that are not properly transitioned from rapid to deliberate management are, in general, poorly sustained. The delays in putting in place a sustainment plan for MRAP is a metaphor for the gaping hole in the spectrum of acquisition responsiveness for unofficially sanctioned acquisition programs. The Army needs to better link the innovative and responsive activities of the REF and like agencies with the financial, requirements, acquisition and sustainment systems.
There are several initiatives the Army must undertake if it is to span the gap between rapid and deliberate acquisition.
First, it must fix human capital and infrastructure issues. This means stop promoting and appointing to high positions people who have insufficient experience in acquisition. Bring in and empower new blood and fresh thinking, but do not hire neophytes to run the whole show. This imperative seeks balance in the choice of the acquisition corps’ leaders, both civilian and military. From the secretary of the Army level on down through the lieutenant colonel-level project managers, appointed staff should have demonstrated understanding of research, development and acquisition, but not have hidebound tendencies.
Below these positions, the manning levels and quality must be improved. Having only two officers at the office of the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology (ASAALT) to coordinate rapid acquisition as additional duties doesn’t cut it.
Second, the acquisition corps cannot afford its bloated infrastructure. Today, there are too many organizations kept on the books just to maintain levels of employment in various communities. This is admirable policy in a climate of “buy American” and at a time of economic strife, but it is driven by politics and business, not national security. The undertone is that existing offices are to be kept open regardless of their utility and effectiveness. Institutions in search of missions and relevancy tend to waste time and resources doing so. To better employ human capital, the Army should eliminate or shrink redundant and ineffective commands. The Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command would be one place to start the evaluation. Is this organization really set up to speed capabilities to our troops?
Third, repair the ad hoc nature of the program transition process. This effort requires a real commitment to streamlining but also to following up on requirements generation and the so-called T3 process: terminate, transfer (to provisional wartime capability), and transition (to potential acquisition programs).
Care must be taken not to destroy the innovative and creative juices of those who are trying to meet urgent needs. “Institutionalizing” the rapid acquisition processes must hit the sweet spot.
The Army’s Training and Doctrine Command was right to launch a capabilities development for rapid transition initiative several years ago, but it didn’t coordinate well its activities with the field, Army headquarters, or the office of the secretary of defense. Tepid responses to big problems don’t count. Also required are improvements in strategic communications inside and outside the Army to eliminate or reduce asynchronous efforts and reviews.
Fourth, the Army must obtain legislative, regulatory and policy assistance to enable rapid equipping in support of expeditionary operations. At a minimum, this means demanding flexible and sufficient funding from Congress and the Defense Department. If the Army wants to be responsive to war fighters, combatant commanders and market conditions, as well as innovate quickly, it needs unconstrained funding that is dedicated not only to rapid acquisition, but for transition and sustainment of rapid acquisition projects. The current funding laws do not support rapid acquisition or transition.
Fifth, the Army’s entrenched and bureaucratic culture must be reformed. This is a critical issue, and yet I do not expect much movement here. Effective change is possible, especially under a new secretary of the Army. Shakespeare said it well in Julius Caesar: “We must take the current when it serves.” There is no better time than the beginning of a new tenure to eschew old thinking by Pentagon operatives and to embrace creative destruction. This may sound radical, but progress can be achieved through modest but effective measures.
The first step in changing the culture is to devolve power to lower levels and change the incentives for innovation and effectiveness. Overly centralized authority and micromanagement are like exorbitant tax increases; they work for a short time, irritate and annoy, promote cynicism and low morale, lead to noncompliance, and result in poorer economic performance. A better way is to accept only clean requirements or demonstrated capabilities, give managers sufficient authority and stable resources, and protect them from non-value added red tape, second-guessing and funding raids.
Managers must be held accountable via a consistent regime of reviews, not through “gotcha” management by fiat. The trick is to have well-understood and firm evaluation criteria for program success. The zero-defects mentality should be abandoned because it inculcates risk aversion among program managers. A new incentive regimen requires assessing and rewarding performance in a way that is tailored to the acquisition life cycle phases. An example is better compensating people in high priority offices without the traditional and strangling effects of civil service tenure rules. In these offices, managers should have leeway in personnel management, including relocation, pay increases and cuts, and hiring and firing. I would predict that the ambitious and most capable would migrate to these offices.
The second step the Army should take in reforming its acquisition culture is to resolve the perennial disconnect among the ASAALT, Army Materiel Command, and the program executive officers. Some progress has been made with the establishment and modification of the life cycle command structure, but the best culture and processes are not emerging from these shotgun marriages. Politics and bureaucracy, not innovation and efficiency, have the edge. Policymakers must embrace and emphasize that sustainment is part of the acquisition life cycle, not the other way around.
None of this change will come easy. Providing legitimacy to rapid acquisition without hobbling it should help with the cultural dysfunction. Still, the Army’s senior leaders must look hard into their mirrors and ask the right questions if they want to make headway against the larger challenge of improving Army acquisition. Wholesale, chemotherapy-like treatments won’t work because they will harm what is good. Rather, a nuanced and surgical excising of “dead tissue” and revitalization and reinforcement of good practices is in order.
Nathaniel H. Sledge Jr., PhD, is a retired U.S. Army colonel. In 2008, he conducted a study focused on transitioning rapid acquisition programs into the Army acquisition process.