Pentagon Must Tread Carefully On ‘Joint’ Weapon Acquisitions

By Alex Haber and Jeff Jeffress
With downward budgetary pressures on U.S. defense spending, it will be worth watching how the Pentagon moves forward with joint-service acquisitions. The cost savings, interoperability advantages and efficiency gains that joint programs can offer will only grow more enticing.

The multi-service approach, though a potential game-changer, should be employed cautiously and only after thoroughly analyzing several key parameters.

Even if two or more services are both hungry for the same capability or are driven by closely related missions, different design needs cause potential savings to fade quickly. Michael O’Hanlon, military analyst at the Brookings Institution, claims a decision-maker’s rule of thumb for a program to be joint should be roughly 90 percent commonality, if not more. In the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile, the Navy and Air Force brought highly aligned requirements to Raytheon, and, consequently, development and deployment was relatively smooth.

Due in part to less commonality, the F-35 joint strike fighter became the poster child for troubled joint programs. As JSF critics have noted, coordinating different weights, software systems and other service-unique requirements can be a significant lift, eroding potential savings and resulting in compromised final designs.

Going forward, those requirements that have the greatest potential to derail development should get the closest looks. Andrew Hunter, director of defense industry initiatives at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that, without needing to develop a short takeoff and vertical landing capability for the Marine Corps, the program could have had a far cleaner and swifter development process.

Beyond requirements, if similar systems in the past have fallen flat in the joint environment, then industry and government decision-makers would do well to steer a new program away from this path. 

The Defense Department’s Better Buying Power 3.0 references the U.S. defense enterprise as a “joint force,” but joint solutions could cause more harm than good. 

For ground systems, on the other hand, the joint narrative has been more uplifting. The joint lightweight tactical vehicle (JLTV) has been lauded as a leader in implementing Better Buying practices, going on to win the 2013 David Packard Award in Acquisition Excellence.

Not everyone across the defense enterprise buys this “past precedent” argument. In the world of rotorcraft, the discouraging stories of other joint aircraft programs have not scared off the Army and Navy from jointly developing a future vertical lift helicopter program, which is set to replace current aircraft. Though the program office allegedly has an ongoing open dialogue with the joint strike fighter team to discuss lessons learned, its product director has been quick to note, “You can’t look at the issues associated with fixed wing and ascribe them to vertical lift and rotorcraft.” We will have to see if future vertical lift can start a new chapter in the joint aircraft playbook.

JLTV is likely to continue on to production as a success story for the multi-service approach and future vertical lift may revitalize a push for jointness. Nevertheless, industry and defense officials should not rush headlong toward this strategy for new big-ticket systems. There is often a lesser appetite to compromise service-specific needs on these flagship programs, which are often high-visibility, complex, and mission-critical. The JLTV experience has not been the norm and the lift program’s success is far from guaranteed.

The writing on the wall is more consistently encouraging for a joint approach for networking and communications programs. These have enjoyed a more favorable history. A focus on interoperability should strengthen this outlook.

Paul Mehney at Army program executive office command control communications-tactical notes that the services have been developing joint requirements in satellite communications, mission command applications, tactical radio systems and adjacent domains for at least 10 to 15 years.

Hunter agrees that such ventures should be “useful,” but he cites the joint tactical radio system effort to demonstrate that, like in other arenas, joint development in communications can still go awry. It took 15 years and $15 billion for the Defense Department to give up on it as a joint program, reduce its scope and make it a service-unique Army initiative.      
Both industry and government should also size up the business challenges in multi-service acquisition before pursuing a joint development track. Though building a single-service funding strategy is difficult in its own right, the task grows even more challenging on joint programs. With two or more services in the mix, decision-makers must line up financial commitments between multiple funding streams and colors of money across participating service components that have uneven demand for the capability. 

Highlighting this coordination problem, Hunter notes that organizing multi-service funding has plagued many joint programs. And budget uncertainty hits joint programs even harder.

Oversight considerations should also not be taken lightly for joint programs, as such efforts typically have more dollars invested and more stakeholders involved. Industry might think to ignore the consequent bureaucratic headache and just focus on the extra cash on the table. Though this impulse is understandable, more eyes on each action can mean a more convoluted supply chain and a delayed development process. 

Speaking to this pattern of delays, the Defense Acquisition University’s joint program management handbook warns that every event in a joint acquisition takes longer by at least one-third. 

Adding more complications is that the military services often do not speak the same language. In this vein, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Katrina McFarland told Air Force Magazine that the services have different tactics, techniques and procedures for “how they field, how they maneuver [and] how they carry.”  Even with industry and government committing serious resources towards translating across service lines, stubborn operational challenges can and do erode potential joint program savings.

And, though Pentagon brass might see joint acquisition as part of the recipe for preserving U.S. technological superiority, the risks can be significant. As a colleague in Army acquisitions aptly remarks, “wrestling a program out of the services” into a joint model might not be prudent if a single service customer owns the necessary human capital and expertise. 

Commitment, while less tangible than technical knowledge, is also important to gauge before either suppliers or customers get too excited about the prospect of a joint program. A colleague in the JLTV program office asserts that, without solid engagement from participating components, there can be some serious pain in defining requirements for joint programs.

Along these lines, invested parties can get an early read on expected buy-in through the willingness of potential customers to convene joint working groups. Though outside observers might reasonably assume that these types of groups come together early and often, this is unfortunately not the case.

Attempting to explain this counterintuitive pattern, an official who has supported a variety of Air Force and Navy programs notes that service managers are reluctant to report up or sideways — even on joint developments — out of fear that they will look bad in doing so. Reluctance towards collaboration should curb the appetite of industry and defense leaders to commit a program to a joint development approach.

Policy guidance like BBP 3.0 and legislation like the House Armed Services Committee’s defense acquisition bill are discreetly asking and incentivizing the defense sector to lean joint. And as Congress and Pentagon leadership sculpt the defense acquisition system in this way, it will only become more and more difficult for the Defense Department to avoid the siren song of joint acquisition and for industry to resist singing it. 

Before diving in on a joint approach, industry and government should ensure that requirements are near-identical, past experience in the joint terrain for similar systems has been favorable, innate business challenges can be managed and the right human resources are ready and able to lead the charge.

Fighting wholesale against the joint current is overkill, but getting swept up by it without doing some serious thinking first is dangerous and could bring about unwelcome results.   

Alex Haber is a business analyst in the national security practice at Censeo Consulting Group. Jeff Jeffress is a managing director and head of the national security practice at Censeo Consulting Group.

Topics: Business Trends, Mergers and Acquisitions, Defense Department

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.