Rapid Acquisition Groups Break Mold of Slow Pentagon Procurement System

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

One of the biggest complaints the Pentagon faces is the length of time it takes to field a piece of technology. Over time, numerous studies, papers and speeches have been devoted to solving the problem, but some say programs still remain stifled by bureaucratic red tape.

However, some Defense Department organizations have made notable advancements over the years. The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force and the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, both established during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were created in order to meet urgent operational needs rapidly.

At the REF, which is based in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, the command has been able to quickly equip soldiers with critical technologies, said director Col. Steven Sliwa.

The organization was given special acquisition authorities that allow its director to generate and approve requirements for forward-deployed forces facing unique challenges, Sliwa said.

“To make sure we do it quickly, we already have a funding stream that is fairly flexible,” he said.

Commercial, off-the-shelf items are critical for the group, he said.

“We’re going to go after the small, immediate, quick wins, focusing on what’s commercially off the shelf or a GOTS [government off-the-shelf product],” he said. “It’s really about the current battlefield as opposed to the future.”

Since its inception, thousands of items have been put on the battlefield, Sliwa said. One example is the tactical aerostat system, a tethered balloon and sensor that can provide soldiers with elevated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information. ISR platforms comprised 12 percent of the REF’s 2014 requirements.

It’s tempting to compare the way the REF acquires technology to traditional Pentagon programs. However, the Rapid Equipping Force plans for immediate needs rather than ones decades into the future, Sliwa said.

“When you compare them [traditional programs] against the REF, it’s not really a fair fight because I’ll never work on an M1 tank here,” he said.

As the war in Afghanistan winds down, the REF has reduced its size. It recently took a one-third cut to its civilian workforce but can build it up again, if necessary, Sliwa said.

“While the Army was getting smaller, the REF got smaller as well. But I have a plan to get larger when we have to and to be able to put items into the hands of warfighters quickly,” Sliwa said. “You can’t do that … from a cold start.”

As part of its restructuring, the group is currently transitioning to the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. None of its authorities will change with the move, he noted.

Sliwa is clear that the REF equips warfighters with products, noting that it doesn’t apply the word “field” to its acquisition strategy. That distinction is important, he said.

A traditionally fielded weapon acquired by the Army will have to go through numerous steps before making its way to troops. From formal requirements, to rigorous testing and milestones, to careful planning about how to sustain it, a soldier in the end gets a “highly finished product,” Sliwa said. An item from the REF may get to the battlefield faster, but that depth may not be there.

“I see the goodness that comes out of … [that] very deliberate process. Everybody wants things to go faster, clearly. But there are very specific milestones that are built into that path,” he said.

JIEDDO is another organization that was created to meet urgent needs. It was formally established in 2006 to respond to rampant IED attacks that killed or maimed soldiers. The organization has so far worked on 395 programs that have been deployed to warfighters at a cost of $12.8 billion, a spokeswoman told National Defense.

These products perform comparably to items developed under the Defense Department’s own acquisition processes, she noted.

Prior to the formation of JIEDDO, the average time to deploy a counter-IED system was 32 months. Since then, the organization has shaved off 14 months, bringing it to an average of 18 months, the spokeswoman said.

Technology the group fielded includes the Husky Mounted Detection System to find buried explosives and multiple handheld IED detectors.

Before groups such as the REF or JIEDDO existed, one of the biggest inhibitors to rapid acquisition in the Pentagon was simply that it was not thought to be possible, said Andrew Hunter, a senior fellow and director of the defense-industrial initiatives group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

“For the larger enterprise, I think we just reached a point where people had said, ‘Well, you know, that’s not the way our process works. We don’t do things on those time scales. It just takes longer in our system,’” said Hunter, who previously served as the director of the Pentagon’s joint rapid acquisition cell. “There was a lot of inertia in the system that said, ‘It just can’t be done.’”

The last eight to 10 years of war showed that rapid acquisition was, in fact, possible in the Pentagon.

“We’ve really proven that, ‘Yes, this can be done.’ Things can be acquired inside a period of weeks and months, not in terms of years and decades,” Hunter said.

For some time, officials believed that Congress, the Federal Acquisition Regulation system or the office of the secretary of defense wouldn’t allow the rapid fielding of technology.

Now “we’ve proven that Congress will support it. We’ve proven that the FAR has enough flexibility in it that you can move quickly within the rules, and likewise we’ve proven that we can get the requirements and the budgeting folks lined up behind it,” he said.

During his time at the joint rapid acquisition cell, Hunter said he worked to formalize the improvements made in rapid acquisition and collect lessons learned. One of his biggest projects was updating the DoD 5000, the Defense Department’s acquisition rulebook.

“A big piece of the effort was institutionalizing all the goodness that had been done over the last eight to 10 years” in a policy known as “enclosure 13,” he said. An interim version is currently published with a final version pending, he noted.

One example of the Pentagon meeting an urgent demand revolves around Syrian chemical weapons, Hunter said.

Last year, following international outcry over the alleged use of chemical weapons on rebels by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army, he agreed to hand over the country’s stockpile to international teams.

Before formal requirements were known, the Defense Department and the Army realized that there was likely going to be an upcoming need for destroying the weapons, Hunter said.
The department set out to find a solution and eventually came up with the field deployable hydrolysis system, which had previously been land-based, and put it on the MV Cape Ray, a roll-on/roll-off container ship.

“Everything was done right. The need was truly anticipated before it became a formal requirement. The technology was relatively mature but needed to be adapted, and we adapted it successfully,” he said.

Rapid acquisition works well when time is of the essence and a technology gap is hurting forces, but those techniques still may not be the best option when considering buying a piece of equipment that will be in use 30 or 40 years later, Hunter noted.

“The rapid process isn’t optimized to address those kinds of needs. That’s really the key. If I really am trying to buy something for the here and now, and I’m not necessarily planning to sustain it for 30 years, then the kinds of expediting tactics and methods that the rapid process uses become really helpful and compelling. But there’s always going to be that tension,” he said.

“I wouldn’t argue that the rapid process is going to be the ideal way to acquire that kind of stuff. Not to say we can’t do better in that realm,” he noted.

Hunter, who worked closely with Congress while at the Pentagon, said he sees “a real window of opportunity” to make the acquisition process faster.

“There is a near consensus on doing more to streamline the regular process so it doesn’t kind of die of its own weight,” he said.

Hunter doesn’t believe that the midterm elections, which saw the Republicans take the Senate, will change the momentum. Acquisition reform is one of the few issues where the Obama administration and Congress are likely to agree, he noted.

While Pentagon acquisition can be at times odious, significant work would have to be done to change the process, said Cynthia Cook, director of the acquisition and technology policy center at the RAND National Defense Research Institute.

However, there are good reasons for each of the steps, she noted.

“You could say, ‘Well, get rid of the careful requirements analysis.’ But you don’t want to do that because you want to make sure that if an investment is made that it’s the right investment,” she said.

“I think if there was an easy solution it would have been done,” she said.

Larger programs, for equipment such as aircraft, ships and helicopters, will always take longer than something purchased commercially off-the-shelf, she noted.

“You can’t say that [using COTS products] … is a solution to acquisition delays because a lot of times the department needs and relies on hard, innovative technologies, and those are naturally the ones that take a long time.”

A top-down approach to this type of rapid acquisition could help, she noted. “I think it is important for the department’s senior leadership to continue shining a light on this,” she said.
Cook said she does see the Pentagon making a concerted effort at attempting to speed the process up.

“Things do take a long time, and we do want to get technologies more rapidly to the warfighter,” she said. “It takes a lot of effort.”

Topics: Defense Department, Procurement, Defense Department

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