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Technical Skills Needed in DoD

In reference to the April 2013 Defense Watch editorial, “Pentagon, Contractors Clash Over Profits,” a critical component of the acquisition process that is often overlooked is the expertise of the defense laboratories and warfare centers. It is their job to be subject matter experts and to maintain a technical capability in the core competencies needed to develop, field and sustain the weapon systems required.

Many game-changing advancements evolved from the in-house work at warfare centers. The personnel at these institutions are educated and experienced in the technology and challenges required for defense and weapon systems.

With respect to the issues stated in the editorial, warfare centers provide the program management offices with a rigorous review of cost and schedule to evaluate industry proposals. A fundamental requirement for “should cost” is a clear understanding of the technical challenges and requirements, which the warfare centers provide.

Unfortunately, when defense budgets are reduced, warfare center program support is often the first to be cut. This degrades not only their current capability, but the ability to protect and sustain a technology base for future needs. In this, there is a parallel to the needs of industry to maintain a trained workforce.

Similar to the adversarial relationships between program managers and contractors cited in the editorial, warfare centers have also experienced an increase in adversarial relationships with the program offices that they exist to support. This reduced trust degrades the warfare center’s ability to do its job.

Government civilians at the warfare centers are professionals who can advise program managers on the tradeoffs between technical risk and program funding. The program manager may not accept the higher-cost, lower-risk approach, but warfare centers help them make informed decisions.

Some of the most successful programs have benefited from a strong partnering relationship between the warfare center and program manager. Warfare centers can reduce technical risk by conducting in-house research, development and test and evaluation to refine the requirements prior to major contract actions. They can act as the direct technical authority for the program manager, providing day-to-day oversight and contract management. Or they can act as technical advisors in the development and execution of a program plan.

All of these roles, and more, are focused on helping the program managers and their industry partners succeed in meeting war fighter requirements.

In the battle over declining defense budgets, please don’t forget about the critical role of warfare centers in maintaining the technical capabilities required for national defense.

Alan Canfield, P.E.
Sent by email

Simplify Defense Acquisition

The Defense Department’s acquisition process exists only to provide technologically advanced tools to the war fighter. An honest analysis over the last 20 years can only conclude that successful acquisition programs are rare.

The April 2012 Defense Business Board study, “Linking and Streamlining the Defense Requirements, Acquisition and Budget Processes,” highlights the problems in the balkanized acquisition structure. To quote from the study: “The Department of Defense’s acquisition system continues to take longer, cost more and deliver fewer quantities and capabilities than originally planned.” 

We are living with an acquisition process designed in the 1970s and 1980s, with every reform from the Packard Commission, Goldwater-Nichols act, Defense Secretary Perry’s initiatives, and yes, Better Buying Power 2.0 simply piled on top of an increasingly dysfunctional system.    
Each service, with its own acquisition bureaucracy, has multiple duplicating functions both internally and across services. The net result: Infighting, lack of accountability and a waste of resources. I challenge anyone to sit down and write the organization chart for the services’ acquisition functions. If it doesn’t end up looking like a plate of spaghetti, you haven’t done it right. Organizational spaghetti isn’t conducive to providing cutting-edge products on time and within budget.

It is a paradox that as our weapon systems get more complex, the organizations and processes to manage those systems must get simpler. 

The defense acquisition process and organizational structure must not be reformed, but completely disbanded and re-established from a clean start. This is what the acquisition process should be: Seven technical reviews and three decision points. That’s it, three decision points. At each decision point, a single paper, less than 100 pages, is required. Not the 40-odd documents required now. A single decision coordinating paper to answer three questions: How will it help the mission? Is it technically feasible? Is it worth what it will cost?

The answer to those three questions is all the information the milestone decision authority needs. If the decision coordinating paper answers those three questions satisfactorily, the program moves on.

I know what you are thinking. What about regulatory and statutory requirements? They can be changed. We have congressional liaison people on the payroll. Put them to work. This is a fight we can win.

Next up, disband the disparate service specific acquisition organizations and reorganize them under a single organization. Our war fighters deserve an acquisition organization backing them up. The net result: Better interoperability, less duplication and lower costs.

Jeff Windham
Rock Island, IL
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