Express Lanes Needed to Accelerate Acquisition

By Artie Mabbett and John Kovach

Photo: Getty

The traffic in the Washington, D.C., region is consistently among the nation’s most gridlocked. The I-95 corridor and the metropolitan loop known as the Beltway is typically fraught with congestion and roadblocks, making it challenging, if not impossible, for travelers to get to their destination on time.

 A knowledgeable traveler can plan conservatively, increasing the time budget, but this is not always possible. The recent addition of alternative “express lanes” offers a more predictable path along the same routes. These lanes require a special type of car — a high occupancy vehicle for example — or an access pass, but offer a road free of congestion, giving the traveler the freedom to control how and when he or she arrives at the destination. Not everyone uses these lanes because there is a cost, but when time is critical, this option can be invaluable.

The metro area is home to another type of congestion that causes delays and budget pressures. Delivering new or upgraded capability to the military services almost always includes a bout with heavy traffic as a program makes its way around the acquisition “beltway.”

A major defense acquisition program (MDAP) must travel the routes mapped out by the DoD 5000.02, a process designed to address statutory, safety and operational risk. These processes that are determined by budget can vary by program size, but are not distinguished by operational priority. There is no express lane for a program that requires a predictable delivery date. The operational community’s requirements process can identify “urgent needs.” Unfortunately, these efforts typically end up on the same congested highway as other programs.

Just like the vehicles with special access, the acquisition “express lanes” should have equally well-established criteria for what is considered “special.” First and foremost, the program should be one addressing an urgent and compelling need such that the governing organization has the fortitude to allow the program the latitude to accept a higher level of “managed risk.” Establishing plans and processes to prioritize delivery will enable execution at the pace of the technology. A clearly delineated set of minimum requirements, including measures of cost and schedule, will help ensure alignment with the stakeholders’ objectives.

10 U.S. Code § 2430 defines a major defense acquisition program by its budget, which is research and development and/or procurement and production. The DoD 5000.02 delineates its regulatory and statutory requirements. While the rule provides a great deal of flexibility, the application of these policies tends to focus on “programs of record,” which provides an enduring solution with a high level of quality where safety, cost and operational risk are minimized as much as possible.

Using these same processes for the “special” programs is the cause of the “congestion.” The objectives of the policies are relevant to these efforts, but the balance of risk acceptance requires different concentration or “lane.” Congestion can result from failure to understand the intent of a specific regulation and defaulting to an established process. An urgent, high priority acquisition effort can be streamlined by defining a new class of programs within DoD 5000 that clearly articulates special handling for addressing statutory requirements.

Regulations can be adjusted to enable the programs to travel faster on the same acquisition highway, but with the advantage of defined express lanes. Identifying urgent operational needs efforts with limited scope in accordance with the expansion of rapid acquisition authority provided in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, section 803 of the Public Law 114- 92, as “operational prototypes.” This will enable a different mindset of policies and processes that could streamline programs, resulting in a faster delivery of the required capability.  

Fiscal statutory and regulatory changes designed to accelerate a designated program can provide a basis for definition as well as management of an operational prototype. The standard Pentagon planning, programming, budgeting and execution process is used to manage a program though the future years defense program, which details funding for the current and next five budget years.

In accordance with the Misappropriation Act and Bona Fide Need Rule (Title 31, U.S. Code), a program budget is managed on a per-year basis and updated annually based on execution and other budget related issues. This process is designed for programs of record, which typically span more than eight years. An accelerated program will most likely be a higher risk effort structured with more concurrency of development efforts, necessitating increased flexibility to address opportunities and issues on a more rapid cycle. Additionally, innovative technologies encounter risks and opportunities more frequently, causing perturbations in the program that require immediate budget adjustments and reallocations to mitigate issues and improve program efficiency.  

Modifying the Misappropriation Act (Title 31, U.S. Code Section 1301) to allow for procurement funds to be combined with research, development, test and evaluation funding would give the operational prototype program a pseudo “checkbook” that could cover the total program cost estimate, empowering the program manager to more effectively balance the timing and contracting strategy for development and procurement activities.

Managing the total budget with two-year, incrementally funded resources will help the program manager efficiently allocate funding and provide a structured mechanism for oversight and adjustments.

Another reform to consider is an adjustment to the limitations within the Bona Fide Need Rule (Title 31, U.S. Code, Sec 1502.) This statute restricts funding allocation to only those activities or services needed in the current appropriation’s obligation availability period. Updates to this code would also enable the program to better manage the concurrency of development, test and procurement activities, enabling the program manager to take calculated risks or act on opportunities that could have significant total cost or schedule impacts.

Applying these reforms to a designated operational prototype will support the rapid acquisition effort and maintain Congress’ power of the purse.

The Defense Department and Congress will also need to modify the oversight process for the operational prototypes using the defined “express lanes.” Close monitoring of program execution metrics, centered on the careful balance of program risk and operational value, should be used to support key program decisions as well as the effectivity of the enabling reforms.

The program should report execution to plan at regularly scheduled reviews with senior leadership to include key Congressional members or staff. Also, because the program metrics will not align to the standard benchmarks established for programs of record, it may be beneficial to utilize a distinct subset of Defense Department and Congressional staff familiar with the program objectives and reform initiatives.  

Once the operational prototype program meets its intended goals it will naturally exit the “express lanes.” At this intersection, leadership will need to decide to have the program merge into the traditional lanes for procurement and sustainment activities, which could require a more robust development effort. Alternatively, the program may stay in a limited capability role, sustained only through its period of viability — i.e. a capability that is no longer required or replaced in total — and gracefully exit the highway altogether. These decisions should be led at the office of the secretary of defense level working across the R&D and acquisition communities to ensure alignment with warfighter needs and priorities.

The traditional acquisition lanes have been designed to deliver capability through very risk-averse processes and “congestion.” While this method is effective for arbitrating operational risk for enduring capabilities, the proposed ideas for defined “express lanes” seek to provide similar direction, but varied guidelines on how to arrive at the terminus.  

To operate in these alternative lanes, the program managers need to be carefully selected and well trained, but possess a willingness to accept calculated risk and the knowledge of when to challenge the system. The onus will be on the Defense Department to carefully select its leadership and work closely with Congress to implement a strategy that could very well influence our global position and our adversaries’ calculus.

Dr. Arthur (Artie) A. Mabbett is currently a director of advanced technology for Raytheon’s Integrated Defense 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 Company or 2 Circle Inc.

Topics: Acquistion Reform, Viewpoint, Procurement

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