The Laird-Packard Way: Unpacking Defense Acquisition Policy

By Brian Fredrickson

Exploring David Packard’s leadership in defense acquisitions may help guide the path for present day acquisition reform.

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

Editor’s Note: The following article is an abstract of research conducted in 2018 at Air Command and Staff College. For a copy of the research paper in its entirety, please send a request to

Within liberal democracies, the weapons soldiers carry into battle determines the fate of nations, but the resources needed to build specific weapons must be allocated by elected representatives of the people years or even decades before a war or conflict begins. Therefore, in order to increase the odds of victory in future war, it is the responsibility of senior military leaders to learn how to fight two different types of battles, both on the battlefield (the art of waging war itself) and the battle that occurs within the realm of defense acquisition (the battle before the battle). The intent of this research is to focus on the latter form of battle — the battles that occur within the realm of defense acquisition.

This paper contends that the study of David Packard, the co-founder of electronics firm giant Hewlett-Packard and one of the founding fathers of Silicon Valley, is essential for those who seek to better understand the realm of defense acquisition (the battles before the battle).

David Packard served as deputy secretary of defense between January 1969 and December 1971, significantly influencing modern defense acquisition policy and playing a critical role in the birth of fourth generation airpower. This research focuses on the lessons learned from a number of developmental programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the impact of those programs on acquisition policy. Specific programs visited include the C-5, F-111, F-14, B-1, the A-X Competition, the Lightweight Fighter (LWF) Competition (YF-16, YF-17), and the Advanced Medium STOL Transport (AMST) Competition (YC-14, YC-15). Packard’s three prototyping competitions, the A-X, AMST, and LWF, resulted in the rise of the A-10, F-16, F/A-18, and C-17. Within the realm of defense acquisition, lessons learned from these developmental programs are analogous to lessons learned from battles and operational campaigns, while the evolution of acquisition policy is analogous to the evolution of warfighting doctrine. Packard’s approach to acquisition, not the platforms themselves, are at the heart of this study.

Packard’s reforms opened a temporary window of opportunity that Air Force senior leaders effectively leveraged to launch arguably the most successful and comprehensive force modernization campaign since World War II. Much of Packard’s time in the Pentagon was spent aligning the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the military services to more effectively and collectively combat what he believed were the “big three” problems with defense acquisition programs: trying to buy weapon systems with designs that were too complex and ambitious, allowing for too much concurrency (the deliberate overlap between the development and production), and employing poor management practices (due to overly frequent and poorly timed turnover of DoD program managers as well as the lack of authority provided to DoD program managers to make meaningful cost-schedule-performance trade-offs). Packard combatted these problems with varying degrees of success.

However, while Packard opened a window of opportunity that launched a new generation of platforms, very few of his reforms proved durable. The DoD’s approach to procuring weapon systems in recent decades has been characterized by the exact problems that Packard warned against. In the conclusion, the author hypothesizes why Packard’s three problems (concurrency, complexity, and poor management) are systemic, representing the natural state of programs within the defense acquisition system. Overall, this paper will explore how Packard became an agent for positive change and present evidence to make the following claims:

Acquisition reform does not have to be permanent to be meaningful. Much like warfighting doctrine, acquisition policy is a living, evolving document. This claim is in direct contrast to the assertion of renowned Harvard Professor, J. Ronald Fox, that effective acquisition reform is an Elusive Goal, a riddle waiting to be solved. Rather, this paper asserts that reform initiatives are inherently unsustainable. Such an interpretation refocuses reform initiatives toward the pursuit of specific aims rather than pursuing a durable solution that satiates all players within the system in the long-run. The battlefield of defense acquisition is constantly strewn with winners and losers; a durable solution that satisfies all players within the defense acquisition system does not exist. At the same time, Packard’s legacy indicates that it is possible to open a window of opportunity to achieve the goal of cost-effectively modernizing the force.

Defense acquisition system needs to move slower in the short-run in order to move fast in the long-run. Packard’s sequential, “fly-before-you-buy” approach to acquisition initially appeared to slow efforts to modernize the force; however, by delaying the production decision, increasing the amount of competition in the system, and breaking larger developmental programs into smaller programs (via prototyping competitions), Packard’s approach actually increased options available to senior policy makers in the long run. As this paper will demonstrate, Packard’s approach mattered: the rise of fourth generation airpower was not inevitable, particularly given the austere defense budgets of the 1970s.

Military leaders should remain wary of calls for quick fixes and “rapid” approaches to acquisition, particularly those which prematurely commit the DoD to production contracts. Similar to war, defense acquisition can never be made quick and easy. Initiatives to accelerate the fielding of weapon systems via concurrency (even during wartime), including the F-111, C-5, and F-14 programs, were disastrous. In combat, military leaders are looked upon to make quick and decisive decisions based on incomplete information. In acquisition, Packard’s legacy indicates that it is the ability of military leaders to demonstrate patience in the face of pressure and make the correct decision, not the quickest decision, which matters most.

Effective force modernization requires long-term, strategic clarity. This paper will illustrate how Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird chartered Packard to look well into the future, beyond the Vietnam War and refocus acquisition efforts to develop capabilities to counter the rise of great powers, such as China and Russia, from the moment he stepped into the Pentagon.

The Laird-Packard Way remains relevant today. The technologies and weapons that the DoD procures have changed since the late 1960s, but the incentives which drive the behavior of various actors within the defense acquisition system remain the same. Packard’s approach to acquisition, not the weapon systems developed, is at the heart of “the LP Way.”

The DoD can afford competition within the defense industrial base. Packard achieved it under more fiscally constrained conditions than currently exist.

Most stakeholders, particularly the services, will resist change. Therefore, a force external to the services (such as OSD) often must initiate change.

If the DoD and OSD are dissatisfied with the state of the acquisition system, the problem of defense acquisition must be framed; clear intent must be disseminated. Throughout his tenure, Packard spoke often and consistently of the “three problems” of defense acquisition programs, whether during his public appearances, interviews with the media, or official correspondence within the DoD. Laird and Packard cared a great deal about the implementation of policy, much more so than the issuance of policy itself.

Given recent calls for innovation and modernization, this research is timely and relevant. At its core, Packard’s legacy offers a blue-print for addressing two of the U.S. Air Force’s current top priorities. On July 31, 2017, Air Force senior leaders unveiled a list of five priorities: Restore Readiness, Cost-Effectively Modernize, Drive Innovation, Develop Exceptional Leaders, and Strengthen our Alliances. This paper represents an initial iteration of the author’s ongoing study of David Packard’s legacy as deputy secretary. Although it falls short of a decisive history of Packard’s impact on the DoD, it is the most extensive account currently available and at a point where results should be added to the ongoing discussion on acquisition reform. Packard’s legacy offers particular utility to staff officers and acquisition professionals who are looking to arm their senior leaders with hard-hitting, relevant information on how to “fix” defense acquisition. The author will continue his study of defense acquisition history, focusing not on the barriers that exist within the system or the policy and weapon systems themselves, but rather on military and OSD leaders who demonstrated exceptional ability to maneuver and achieve their aims within this realm. In addition, the author suggests a notional framework (The Five Dimensions of Defense Acquisition) to frame the general discussion on acquisition reform.

Brian Fredrickson is an acquisitions officer in the United States Air Force. He is recent graduate of the 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.


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