Friday, December 10, 2004


Fixing The Military's Failed Acquisition System.

That's the subject of a Wall Street Journal Opinion Journal editorial today ("free" registration required; dummyheads).

The WSJ editorial is of course inspired by the recent reemergence of the armored Humvee issue that I discussed yesterday.

It's only a brief bit, so by necessity it can't cover all the important bases. What's there is largely true, but I'd like to add some pennies from my personal experience. Excerpts are in blockquotes.

[Congressional hearings] might even do some good, or at least hearings might if they examine the military's (which is to say Congress's) failed acquisition system. Specifically, we hope the Pentagon's 200,000 acquisition officers are paying attention. For if Mr. Rumsfeld gets the Army he wants, a good number of them will find themselves turning into MPs, civilian affairs officers, or other specialties the military desperately needs more of. When the Defense Secretary talks about military transformation, and the need for a faster, more agile force, that includes a faster, more agile procurement system.
There is definitely a very solid case to be made for this. Why do we have so many uniformed officers working in the acquisition corps, when they should be out on the front lines? On paper, this is a good, even obvious argument.

However, I caution anyone against taking this argument too far, for a number of reasons.

First, the reason you include military officers, particularly combat officers, in the acquisition corps is in order to get the necessary military perspective. The daily acquisition functions of the Pentagon can easily be handled by civilians and contractors, but neither group has the perspective of actually using those systems in the field.

For example, a veteran F-15 pilot has a far better idea of the environment combat aircraft operate in than most civilians. That experience is invaluable in determining what trades to make in developing programs-- i.e., what's most important in developing the system?

The mantra in the Pentagon acquisition corps is always "remember the warfighter." Unfortunately, it's repeated so often as to become an easily-discarded cliche. Actually having a real "warfighter" in the decision loop is a big step towards adding substance to the mantra.

Second, today's acquisition corps is tomorrow's leaders. If you remove the uniformed presence at the lower, field-grade levels of the acquisition corps-- i.e. the lieutenants, captains, and majors-- that means the colonels and generals of tomorrow will have no first-hand knowledge to help them in making their acquisition decisions. The military can come up with requirements all day long, but teaching a uniformed officer what is actually possible in pursuit of satisfying those requirements requires acquisition experience, either at a product center or at headquarters.

Finally, the desire to simply outsource acquisition operations runs counter to a lot of lessons painfully learned during the past fifteen years of consolidation within the defense industry. A lot of acquisition "reform" efforts in the 1990's involved reducing Pentagon oversight in return for greater storekeeping by defense contractors.

One can easily find many ugly examples of how the lack of oversight has hurt the Pentagon's acquisition efforts. I don't feel there's a need for a return to warehouses full of government-employed engineers doing the schematics and drawings themselves, but there's certainly a need for the Pentagon to exercise greater involvement in the defense industry.

As bad as the bureaucracy is a mindset that says only 100% solutions will do. Suggest an 80% solution that can be implemented immediately and be prepared to be told that only a perfect fix is acceptable no matter how long it takes. This isn't the way to meet rapidly changing battlefield threats.
That's true, and that's long been recognized. Everyone in the building understands that the perfect is the enemy of the good enough.

The trouble is that what we have here is a self-licking ice cream cone:

1. Many warfighter requirements can only be satisfied by high-tech programs.
2. High-tech programs are complex.
3. Complex programs take years to develop.
4. Warfighter requirements change over time.
5. New requirements added to old programs increase complexity.
6. Return back to # 3; pour bushels of cash into blender; puree.

There are a number of problems associated with requirements creep, but delayed, costly acquisition is the greatest one. The biggest surprise for many observers is realizing that most cost overruns and delays are created by the system itself; you don't need to invoke the specter of $400 hammers and Halliburton-style corruption to get to where we are today (although those are yet more concerns to throw into the cash-blender).

The solution to this problem involves enforcing requirements discipline, spiral acquisition, and acceptance of risk.

All three, however, run contrary to the Pentagon's conservative acquisition culture.

Ensuring requirements don't creep means someone has to tell a Marine or a Sailor that they don't get what they want-- or *think* they want-- at least not now.

Same thing with spiral acquisition: you're asking the warfighter to make do with a good-enough first-generation rather than a perfect second-generation.

Finally, you're asking the warfighter-- and national security decisionmakers-- to accept greater operational risk in return for reduced acquisition risk (i.e., dollars) . The systems you deploy may not work as well as you had intended, or may not meet all the possible requirements, but in return you get something to the field earlier.
It's also worth noting that Congress in October passed something called rapid acquisition authority, which if invoked by a combat officer allows the Pentagon to bypass red tape and get vitally needed equipment to the battlefield faster. Amid all the criticism of Mr. Rumsfeld, someone might mention that no field commander has invoked it yet.
That's not entirely accurate. The Pentagon, and the Army especially, has been using rapid acquisition authorities it developed on its own. The recent congressional language seeks to extend those authorities to other acquisition organizations.

For instance, the Army's Rapid Equipping Force is one of the revolutionary rapid acquisition authorities the WSJ editorial endorses. I should know, one of my best friends works for them.

Unfortunately, while organizations like REF are great ad hoc solutions to real-world problems, they represent solutions working around problems that should be solved. I would never shut down an outfit like REF because they circumvent the bureaucracy; however, I would definitely be doing whatever is necessary to get rid of the red tape that straightjackets traditional Army (and Air Force, and Navy, and Marine Corps, and other DoD organizations) acquisition.

Defense acquisition has large problems, with many moving parts. Some challenges are new, while others are as old as weapons procurement itself. Innovative solutions are called for, but it remains to be seen what those solutions are.

sheez you are good. I read that WSJ editorial this AM, nodded my head in agreement. And here you are making even more sense than they do. Damn proud to have found this blog.
Thanks for the compliment. I think the WSJ piece is a good enough, but you can't get into caveats in three paragraphs, and these issues involve a lot of moving parts-- moving parts that tend to get ignored by anyone outside of the defense trade press.

And I'm glad you enjoy the site-- spread the link!
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