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Accepting increased product and process risk is necessary to facilitate the faster acquisitions timelines the future operating environment demands.
By Caitlin Thorn
The 2018 National Security Strategy (NSS) acknowledges that American’s military dominance has eroded, that the capabilities that once enabled US dominance across the domains are now contested by state and non-state actors. The decline in the US competitive advantage is due in part to the exponential rate at which technology is advancing and the inability of the US to keep up. This has allowed for the re-emergence of state actors China and Russia to contest the US across all domains and non-state actors a low barrier of entry to threaten US national security. As the rate of technological advancement contributes to a global environment that is more unpredictable and dynamic than ever before, the greatest threat to our national security is not that the US lacks the ability to innovate and develop new technologies, but that it cannot provide a timely delivery of these technologies to the warfighter.
On Monday we presented an article in which the author contends that our defense acquisition system is actually our “battlefield” here at home in what we mistakenly perceive as a peacetime environment. He contends the hoops and hurdles that our legislators and bureaucrats set up intentionally demand a low-risk, 100% capability solution that delivers many jobs to districts and to bureaucratic empires. In the 1980s and 90s the US may have been able to get away with the long-drawn out acquisition process required to procure the 100% capable, low-risk solution. Today, this is no longer the case. The speed of technological change has contributed to a dynamic operational environment that demands a rapid response. This results in time now becoming a critical factor in the acquisition process.
This is not a new revelation—a report to Congress in response to the 2017 NDAA report states that the current pace at which we develop advanced warfighting capabilities is being eclipsed by those nations that pose the greatest threat to our national security. In response, National Defense Strategy objectives include delivering performance with affordability and speed, and the 2018 National Security Strategy lists a faster and more efficient acquisition process as a priority effort. To satisfy this pressing need, the Department of Defense is restructuring the Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Organization in the hopes of improved organization and operation within the department. Additionally, alternate pathways to the traditional acquisition process have been proposed as a “middle tier” system between that of the traditional MDAP and the one for Urgent/Emerging Operational Needs. Although this system may be somewhat successful in initially decreasing acquisition timelines, implementation time is years down the road, and past reform efforts indicate that the process may eventually succumb to the inevitable bureaucratic process “creep” which brought about calls for reform in the first place.
In order to have an immediate and lasting effect on acquisition reform, we must address the root cause of the problem, which lies not necessarily in the process itself. A risk averse system and culture is commonly identified as a primary factor contributing to the interminable amount of time it takes to acquire a system. However, simply identifying the factor(s) that contribute to lengthening the acquisition process is not enough. The question we should be addressing is not what we need to change to rapidly deliver technologies to the warfighter to keep pace with peer adversaries, but how can we change.
The <100% solution
There is no question that a faster defense acquisition system will come at some price. In other words, it is inevitable that the product or process must be shortchanged to some degree in exchange for a shorter timeline. However, it is important to understand that this exchange need not be a one-for-one. A negligible increase in risk—product risk or process risk—may result in significant schedule gains in the acquisition process.
Overdesigning products for maximum reliability and longevity is rampant. Obviously designing a product for close to 100% reliability and 3x the predicted lifespan of the product yields the least amount of risk. This does, however, result in unnecessary testing which can significantly impact acquisition timelines. Designing for slightly reduced reliability, say 95%, and the actual lifespan of a product may drastically reduce timelines at just a small fraction of increased risk. This is a rather simple design criteria to implement. However, more risk must be accepted in exchange for a faster product to the warfighter.
This train of thought is not the norm for defense acquisitions. For decades, the focus has been on acquiring the 100% solution at the expense of time. To keep pace with peer adversaries, the narrative must change—we must be willing to accept a less than optimal solution that adequately fulfills warfighter needs in order to significantly decrease acquisition timelines. To successfully change this narrative, the focus must shift from maximizing product performance to minimizing product delivery time. The question we must be asking is: what product can we acquire in a given amount of time that fulfills an acceptable portion of the requirements? We need to quit asking: how long will it take to deliver a product that meets all the requirements?
As long acquisition timelines are primarily a result of a risk averse culture in DoD acquisitions, changing this culture is necessary for success, but easier said than done. Currently, Program Managers (PMs) have some authority to make decisions to expedite program schedules in exchange for accepting some product risk, such as additional testing, unnecessary requirements, etc. However, there is very little incentive to accept more program risk at the expense of an expedited schedule. Generally, there are few ramifications to schedule slips, which have come to be accepted as the norm in acquisition programs. For this reason, PMs are reticent to take any degree of risk in exchange for faster timelines.
The solution? Just as defense contractors earn incentive fees for meeting schedule requirements, PMs and acquisition teams must also be monetarily incentivized to facilitate a faster product delivery. Taking risk will inevitably result in an increased rate of failure, and as the current culture views failure as a career blemish rather than a learning tool, acquisition professionals must be incentivized to take the risk of delivering the 95% solution in 12 months versus the 100%+ solution in 36. We give this reward to defense contractors, why not our own personnel?
Schedule gains can also be realized from flexibility within the acquisition process. Although a reformed process may provide some relief to the acquisition timeline, a single process will never result in a one-size-fits-all solution. There must be flexibility implemented within the process to enable program managers to make smart decisions regarding their specific program. For example, a technology demonstration often precedes a program of record (POR) for a new technology. A contract for a tech demo is competed in a similar manner to that of a POR, but is not subject to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) as a POR is. If a tech demo is deemed successful, a POR will be established and the contract award re-competed. Re-competing an already successful technology contract is a redundant effort that takes an incredible amount of time. Rather than re-compete the contract, the PM should have the flexibility and authority to simply put the contractor responsible for the tech demo on contract for the POR. This will expedite the acquisition process considerably with minimal increase in risk to the final product. This small change in flexibility to the contracting process may result in considerable gains in acquisitions timelines with negligible increase in risk. There are countless other examples where flexibility within the acquisition process resulting in decentralized decisions by the PM may result in considerable schedule savings, and as the program subject matter expert, the PM should have increased authority (and incentive) to make this decision and assume some risk on behalf of the DoD.
To truly make real and immediate gains for faster defense acquisition, the DoD needs to accept more product and process risk in exchange for accelerated acquisition timelines. Designing products for intended use and actual lifespan and reliability is an unavoidable tradeoff the DoD must commit to in order to decrease acquisition timelines. Monetarily incentivizing PMs to take prudent risk in exchange for faster products and flexing the current one-size-fits-all acquisition process to allow for decentralized decision making must be adopted practices to facilitate an acquisition process that meets the needs of the future operating environment. Although it is acknowledged that implementing these changes introduces more risk to individual acquisition programs, not implementing these changes will result in a collective increase in risk to US national security—a risk the US cannot afford to take. The US can no longer afford the peacetime acquisition solution that requires decades to procure systems. The US must recognize that the environment is actually an “area of continuous competition” that demands rapid response times. In 2017, the CSAF posed the question, “How can the Air Force exploit the dimension of time to prevail in 2040?” As technological advances have accelerated the tempo of operations, exploiting time in order to elicit an acquisition “offset” may become one of the most critical factors to maintaining a competitive advantage. Defense acquisitions must be willing to accept increased product risk, adopt a more decentralized acquisition system and facilitate a non-risk averse workforce in order to successfully exploit the time dimension within the acquisition process.
Caitlin Thorn is an engineer in the United States Air Force. She is currently a student at Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama.
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.