Learning Lessons from MRAP, Operation Warp Speed

By Tom Driggers and Lauren Muhs

Defense Dept. photo

When it comes to procuring defense weapon systems, there seems to be the same discussion: the defense acquisition process, even with all its reform efforts, is filled with inefficiencies.

Due to its protracted timelines, bureaucracy and other barriers, the process is frequently criticized for its inability to deliver critical technologies to the warfighter in a timely manner. The current process is hindering the Defense Department’s ability to keep pace with technological advancements and outpace near-peer competitors.

Yet, when faced with a crisis, it seems to get all the resources aligned in support of delivering emergent capabilities more rapidly. The National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute set out to identify what attributes and barriers lead to these inefficiencies and determine what lessons learned can be adopted from crisis-time efforts that might be replicable in peacetime.

To do so, ETI is examining efforts like Operation Warp Speed, the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, vehicle program and other key acquisition success stories to identify any repeatable attributes and provide recommendations to create a sustainable framework for consistent, swift and successful adoption of new technologies.

Acquisition reform is not new to the department, with repeated attempts made over the decades. The multitude of episodic reform efforts have pointed out the potential value of continual and flexible reform, rather than broad overhauls. These initiatives have often produced ineffective solutions to address the longstanding inability to develop key technologies and capabilities and rapidly deliver them to the warfighter.

While several of these reform initiatives have successfully reduced program costs and shortened program schedules, they failed in their main goal: developing repeatable processes allowing for programs to acquire and deliver capabilities with speed.

Both Operation Warp Speed and the MRAP program proved extremely successful across all phases of the acquisition process from development to deployment, but can their models be applied across other non-crisis acquisition efforts, especially when trying to deliver new, emerging capabilities to the warfighter?

Operation Warp Speed was a joint effort between the Department of Health and Human Services and the Defense Department — along with several other partners — which supported the safe development and delivery of 300 million vaccines in less than a year. A vital component of its success was a well-developed acquisition strategy, highly experienced and supportive leadership, a highly experienced workforce, and its ability to leverage existing networks both internal and external to defense. Due to these factors, the operation applied the right funding and resources to expedite its clinical trials, the manufacturing processes and distribution plans in support of its rapid delivery goal.

The Mine Resistant Ambush Protected program aimed to rapidly develop and deploy heavily armored vehicles to protect military personnel from the threat of roadside bombs and ambushes in conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The program’s success in rapid capability delivery has led to calls for it to be used as a model for delivering emergent capabilities quickly and efficiently. Much like Operation Warp Speed, emergency conditions made it easier for MRAP to form and execute critical public-private partnerships that contributed to rapid development and delivery schedules.

When theses two case studies are considered, even with the urgent nature of these programs, there are repeatable attributes within both that can be applied to further streamline the acquisition process. ETI found that it was necessary to revise the role of governance in the acquisition process, including the establishment of a common understanding of exactly what governance means and how involved Congress and other oversight organizations need to be in the acquisition process.

ETI also identified that effective program leadership leads to streamlined governance, which allows the bureaucratic process to be navigated more rapidly. If leaders are willing to act, take risks and support their programs, then the culture of inefficient acquisition will begin to change. There will therefore be less oversight focus on the details of project execution and more on agreed metrics of success.

While the acquisition process faces challenges, it is important to learn from the programs that have overcome these challenges and delivered critical technologies on an agile timeline. In addition to policy recommendations, ETI’s final report will identify several candidate areas in which accelerated acquisition could be effectively employed, especially leveraging existing or emerging commercial capabilities and investments that align with current priorities.

In conjunction with these proposed efforts, ETI will be proposing a new pathway be added to the Adaptive Acquisition Framework to prioritize an agile approach for the rapid adoption of critical capabilities. ND

Tom Driggers is a participant in the Public-Private Partnership Talent Exchange Program working as a research fellow with the Emerging Technologies Institute. Lauren Muhs is a research intern at ETI. This work is executed in partnership with Schmidt Futures.

Topics: Defense Department, Procurement

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