Defense Acquisition: The System Is Our Battlefield

Estimated time to read: 5 minutes

The acquisition process is built for peacetime and is hindering US ability to rapidly develop and deliver technologies to the warfighter.

By Jeffrey Geraghty

As nuclear tensions rise between the United States and North Korea, America’s commanding general for strategic deterrence gives the edge to North Korea. Gen John Hyten, head of US Strategic Command, says “we’ve lost the ability to go fast.” He follows up with “Look at Kim Jong Un. He’s learned how to go fast.”

Hyten is not the first person to notice the slow speed of the giant hairball that used to be the Department of War. For example, “acquisition problems have been with us for several decades, and are becoming more intractable with the growing adversarial relationship between government and the defense industry,” reported the Packard Commission on acquisition reform…more than thirty years ago.

After decades of calls for acquisition reform, the time is right to quit tilting against windmills and acknowledge that the system does exactly what we want it to do—in a peacetime environment. Recognizing that we have now been at war for more than 15 years, that peacetime-focused system is the battlefield for our acquisition troops. They navigate a panoply of laws and policies designed to slow down and make careful the delivery of capability to the warfighter.

Multi Domain Operations, OTH, Over the Horizon

Those laws and policies were each put in place for a good reason. We taxpayers want an acquisition system to be fair, low risk, low cost, secure, and efficient. That is exactly what our system is designed to do. First, it is fair to every company who might want to sell something to the government. It is fair, at least to companies large enough to interface with the massive government bureaucracy. Our system minimizes risk: the risk that one of those large companies might protest a government decision. Our system is optimized to achieve the lowest cost. We spend billions of dollars on the salaries of people who make sure we buy the lowest price components and systems. It carries a low risk of failure. We spend years testing systems and subsystems to mitigate the risk that they might not work on the future battlefield. It is secure in that we design, redesign, and assess the design of systems to make sure adversaries cannot exploit them. It is efficient in that it takes the time to amalgamate as much buying power as possible to gain economies of scale. It does all of the above in the minimum amount of time possible. That amount of time is not short, but as long as we are living in a secure, peacetime environment, it is worth the wait!

Our perspective shifts, on the other hand, if we perceive security to be an unmet need. If we were to design an acquisition system for a wartime environment, we would still want it to be fair, low risk, low cost, secure, and efficient. However, we’d want the 80% solution today, not the 100% solution years down the road. We would design a system that is fair to American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines by equipping them with appropriate technology to defeat enemies today. We would design a system that reduces operational risk, rather than the risk of domestic litigation. It would be low cost in terms of lives lost on the battlefield.  It would be secure from enemy infiltration because it would be fielded before our adversaries knew we had it. It would be efficient with respect to time. This system would deliver capability quickly.

Ideally, we wouldn’t need a quick system. Instead, we would all live in a perpetually secure environment that did not demand rapid acquisition. We would anticipate the war looming 20-30 years in the future, develop exquisite technology for that war, test it thoroughly, buy it cheaply, and thus create tens of thousands of jobs and at the same time prevent our adversaries from even contesting our power on the battlefield.

The trouble is warfare looks different today than it did in the 20th century. Attacks manifest themselves unseen in our computer networks, rather than armies massed at the border and fleets of aircraft visible in the sky. The things that threaten our security today—the manipulation of voting behavior through social networks, for example—do not evoke the feeling of a security threat. Therefore, we take the precious time to acquire technologies that will defeat those things that feel like a future threat: fleets of enemy aircraft, for example.

However, history teaches that we periodically find ourselves in conflicts we did not anticipate 30 years prior. Thus, we often have to equip ourselves quickly. In those circumstances, “whenever the military really needs something it bypasses the traditional acquisition process and uses a more streamlined approach,” noted former professional Senate Armed Services Committee staffer Bill Greenwalt, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. As a result, the military has built and preserved a number of “rapid acquisition” organizations and authorities over decades of experience equipping the force for the present environment.

Let’s be honest. The system is not going to change any more in the next 40 years than it has in the past 40 years. If we want to deliver security against threats that emanate quickly, we must think of ourselves not just as taxpayers living free and secure, but as citizens under attack by savvy foreign governments. Defense acquisition professionals must not mindlessly follow processes that were deliberately designed to slow us down enough to prevent costly mistakes. We must use sound judgment to find the shortest path to capability, and accept sensible risks by cutting out process. Program managers, not process owners, must have the authority to determine which processes add enough value to retain for their specific program. Senior leaders, legislators, and policymakers must protect and multiply—rather than vilify—those rapid acquisition organizations that continue to use unique and flexible authorities in our national defense.

In that sense, the acquisition system itself is our battlefield. We will fight through it, maximize freedom of action, and deliver capability despite obstacles placed deliberately in our path by an adversary called ourselves. Once we fight past ourselves, we will go as fast as Kim Jong Un.

Dr. Jeffrey Geraghty spent 20 years as a USAF fighter pilot and program manager, and is the author of Postmodern Warfare: Beyond the Horizon. You can follow a sporadic trail of with eclectic thoughts on twitter @jtg142.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US government.

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