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Acquisition Reform… Déjà vu … Again

In 1971, as an Air Force colonel managing the SRAM (Short Range Attack Missile) program, I was directed to initiate a “should cost” estimate.

We immediately went about finding the right kinds of experienced system engineers, software engineers, budget analysts and contract negotiators. It increased the timeline but we ended up with a good product, comparing the program office estimate to the should-cost estimate, and the prime’s (Boeing) estimate. We were fairly close.

The focus on “should cost” has returned at the Defense Department, so we need to be careful and take the time to build a competent, experienced independent team.

Over the past decades there has been a plethora of acquisition reform studies. One of the impressive ones has been a December 2009 Institute for Defense Analyses report that reviewed cost growth in 11 major programs. Although each of the programs was under the oversight of senior acquisition executives and program managers, all 11 programs experienced schedule slips and cost growth because of development difficulties or production increases. While the study noted current plans to increase the defense work force by several thousand acquisition people, it pointed out that acquiring and training these people, and then assigning them to acquisition programs to develop knowledge and experience, would take several years.

Looking back on my 40 years in Air Force acquisition, I have been impressed by the way in which software system engineering has come to dominate major acquisitions. While I am not privy to the details of the program, the F-35, reportedly with 23 million lines of code, is a significant challenge. The initial requirement is to define and lay out the fundamental software architecture leading to the development of the many modules that constitute the myriad of functions that the F-35 must perform. Then, once each module is completed and debugged, it must perform against a detailed milestone schedule. Then the modules have to be selectively integrated to provide a set of time sequenced events, and integrated in a total performing series of tests to provide a complex fully integrated F-35 combat system.

When I served on several Defense Science Board studies in the early 1990s, the recommendations were not always acted upon. Interestingly enough, when the present DSB Chairman Paul Kaminski was deputy defense secretary, he instituted a process to write and sign a contract with program managers, outlining their roles and responsibilities. It was an excellent idea but did not survive after Kaminski’s departure.

Recently the Defense Business Board criticized a system that puts majors and lieutenant commanders with little or no business background in charge of an estimated $400 billion in annual contracts. The Pentagon should either professionalize the uniformed acquisition corps or civilianize the program management. Make it a job, not a tour, or a career destination, said Fred Cook, who led the review.

When Dave Packard was deputy secretary he argued for all these features, but in truth, got stiffed by the system. Maj. Gen. Frank Anderson, USAF (Ret.), as president of the Defense Acquisition University, expanded acquisition offerings but, unfortunately, he did not control the student input or their subsequent assignments.

A more important commentary on defense acquisition is contained in a National Defense May 2011 article by retired Army Col. Nathaniel Sledge Jr. (Defense Acquisition in an Unaccountable World)

He raises the issue of accountability, which is nonexistent in the acquisition process. Program managers, even the best, have no real control over their programs. Since we have two-year Congresses, four-year administrations, and 10- to 20-year programs, there will be turnover. A case in point is new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Will he be accountable for Secretary Gates’ program decisions?

When I retired from the Air Force and became an industry consultant, I happened to go through three different corporate reviews in which the corporations wanted to fit themselves into a more competitive posture. In each case, an outside efficiency consultant came on board, formed joint teams internally and looked at the organization, the structure and the functions. We reduced the least performing units, beefed up the promising business approaches and reduced the numbers of people. The task and the results came from a competitive survival instinct. You cannot do that in the Pentagon. It has and will survive any attempt to restructure it. No one is accountable. If they were, a significant number would have been let go in the last few years.

The entrenched structure will resist and survive any defense secretary. We have had a number of great ones, but their ability to handle the time consuming day-to-day struggles, and yet field and manage a functional system review is severely limited.

The only real solution, indicated by the Defense Business Board, is to create a Defense Department acquisition corps, independent of the Pentagon bureaucracy, with adequate resources, facilities and people, and no linkage to the Pentagon except in reporting to the secretary of defense. The head of the acquisition corps will be accountable.

Gen. Lawrence A. Skantze, USAF (Ret.)
McLean, VA

Topics: Defense Department, Civilian Workforce

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