Maximize Innovation with the 'Bridge of Life'

By John Kovach and Artie Mabbett

Photo: Defense Dept.

In August, the office of the secretary of defense delivered its report to Congress on “Restructuring the Department of Defense Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Organization and Chief Management Officer Organization.”

Adversaries catching up in advanced technologies and the ever increasing cost of major weapon systems were cited as a catalyst for the change. The ensuing reorganization looks to embrace “a culture of innovation” and “willingness to take risk” in the newly created office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, while reducing timelines and cost via the undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment.

As the National Defense Authorization Act conference report stated, “the technology and acquisition missions and cultures are distinct.” This could easily be exacerbated by the organizational separation of Research and Engineering and Acquisition and Sustainment. The roles and objectives of the two organizations are clearly stated, but the report does not specify how they will work together to achieve the ultimate objective of effectively and efficiently providing capability to the warfighter.

There are certainly benefits in separating the cultures to enable each to align management to different phases of the product development lifecycle. The research-and-engineering community can organize to steer investment in the right directions using cross-functional teams and learning-based metrics to navigate the extreme uncertainty of innovation and advanced technologies.

Meanwhile, the acquisition-and-sustainment community can implement structures to maximize the capability return on product investments by managing design, employment and acquisition trades. However, there is inherent risk that the differences in focus and objectives across the two organizations could pose significant challenges to “accelerating delivery of superior technologies across the entire acquisition spectrum.”

This natural divide has been referred to as the “valley of death” for science and technology efforts. Rather than exacerbating this issue with the division of AT&L, the department should implement an organizational construct that provides a bridge over the valley between the development and acquisition organizations.

This organization or management structure should be designed to steer viable products of the visionary research-and-engineering community into the product development phase managed by acquisition and sustainment, resulting in an accelerated delivery of capability. Injecting driving concepts of the development stage into the learning stage and co-mingling these ideas into the build stage will truly harness accelerated practices in the fielding of innovative ideas.

Recently, the Navy flew its first Long Range Anti-ship Missile test flight off the B-1 bomber, a mere three years after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency technology demonstration.

Historically, a program of that magnitude and complexity would take 10 to 12 years to field. Using a construct that aligns in principle to that described above, the program is on track to deliver a game-changing innovation ahead of schedule.

A significant reason behind this was the willingness of senior leadership to empower its personnel and embrace the benefits of both the technology and acquisition cultures and bridging the division with a new organization — the Long Range Anti-ship Missile Deployment Office — chartered to bridge the gap and pilot an accelerated acquisition model to deliver capability.

A similar organization aligning a similar model can be established at the office of the secretary of defense level looking across the services to “cherry pick” strategically important cross-service programs.

The office should be co-staffed by both research-and-engineering and acquisition-and-sustainment personnel that lead programs based on the phase of the effort. Early on when still in the development phase, research and engineering will lead, supported by an acquisition and sustainment deputy; as the program matures closer to an engineering, manufacturing and development-like phase, the roles will flip.

To ensure the organization remains lean and efficient, it is recommended that only a few programs are selected per year — less than three — and are vetted and selected by a senior advisory board similar to the Rapid Capabilities Office board of directors.

Similarly each program should be supported by an executive steering committee comprising the office leadership — perhaps a director and deputy director — for advanced capability, acquisition and the lead service component acquisition authority.

This committee’s prime objective will be to evaluate program progress, determine if and when a program transitions or is terminated due to unforeseen challenges — and perhaps most importantly — ensure roadblocks are appropriately treated in a risk tolerant environment.

An organization co-staffed by research-and-engineering and acquisition-and-sustainment cultures, best practices and authorities to accelerate strategic efforts will not only deliver unmatched capabilities, but help maximize department investments.

Establishing this “bridge of life” is vital to maintaining our military superiority for years to come. 

Artie Mabbett is director of advanced high speed weapons at Raytheon Missile Systems.

John Kovach is a consultant with 2 Circle Inc. and has provided program management and policy support to several major defense acquisition programs. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not represent the business judgments of either Raytheon or 2 Circle Inc.

Topics: Acquisition, Defense Department, Defense Innovation

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