Podcast Highlights: Unpacking Defense Acquisition Policy the Laird-Packard Way
Editor’s Note: OTH sat down with Brian Fredrickson to discuss how lessons learned from the study of David Packard, Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1969 to 1971, may significantly influence present day acquisition policy and help to shape acquisition reform for the 21st century. The conversation was published as a Podcast on Thursday, 5 July 2018. Below is an abridged transcript of the discussion. Highlighted in bold are the panelist’s main points.
Estimated Reading Time: 6 Mins
Can you tell me a little about your research on David Packard and what was your inspiration for studying his contributions to DOD acquisitions?
Brian Fredrickson: Well when most people think of David Packard, they think of him as the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard with his legacy being the founder of HP printers and laptops and so forth, so there is a little bit of confusion as to why I chose him to study as far as contributing to DOD acquisition reform. However, when reading multiple books and reports about acquisitions, you see his name pop up quite a bit. And you see his name pop up in two eras: once in the late 60s/early 70s when he was the Deputy Secretary of Defense and again in the 80s when he chaired the Packard Commission for President Reagan. In both of those chapters in Packard’s life, he heavily influenced the way the DOD procures weapons systems. However, there has not been any extensive literature written on his contributions in this arena. So I decided to delve into his contributions to DOD acquisitions myself. I confined my research to his contributions as the Deputy Secretary of Defense [not as the chair of the Packard Commission]. I tried to focus on his approach to weapon system acquisition and draw some correlations to acquisition reform present day.
How would you apply to what you learned about David Packard and his contributions to DOD acquisitions as the Deputy Secretary of Defense to present day acquisition reform?
Brian Fredrickson: There are some fundamental lessons we can pull from Packard’s legacy. First and foremost, Packard was a strong advocate for “fly before buy” systems. What that means is that he demanded to see the performance of the system before he would commit to production. This seems like common sense, but in the defense industry today, it’s not really the way that we procure weapons systems. There is a practice in defense acquisitions known as concurrency and concurrency is the deliberate overlap of the development of a system and the production of a system. And the system is designed specifically to be a concurrent system. So what happens is we have weapon systems being produced that are still being tested at the test site. Packard’s stance on concurrency was that it was something we cannot tolerate if we are going to modernize the force. Another problem identified by Packard was the practice of procuring systems that are overly complicated and ambitious. And the final problem identified by Packard was too much turnover and poorly timed turnover in key government positions in the acquisitions arena. Concurrency, complexity, and poor management were the three charters that he had to address.
It seems as if these three problems that Packard identified are still problems today. So after Packard identified these problems, how did he go about addressing them to change for the better?
Brian Fredrickson: He did effectively counter these problems while he was in the Pentagon. However, when he went back to Silicon Valley in 1971 the changes he made held some momentum for a few years after his departure. He countered these problems through organizational changes in OSD, he empowered the military services more to manage their own programs, and the third step was he did a very aggressive program by program approach to reform. He inherited the F-111 program and the C-5 Galaxy, both programs were characterized by all three problems I named earlier. What he did with these two programs was cut back procurement and launched a series of advanced prototype initiative programs at the same time to bring in more competition. These prototyping competitions actually resulted in the rise of the A-10, F-18, F-16, and C-17. I also found that when I studied Packard’s legacy, the policy actually followed all of the changes he made and not the other way around.
So do you believe that if we implement some of Packard’s core tenets today, that we can reduce acquisition timelines?
Brian Fredrickson: Packard’s legacy comes down to competition. You need to keep competition in place for as long as possible. It also comes down to maintaining leverage as a service in the political arena by slicing and dicing contracts to be smaller. What the DOD is looking for is a more responsive system, and for consumers that comes down to do I have other choices available. When the DOD as a buyer has no other choices available, then the system becomes non-responsive.
You mentioned in your research that we need to slow things down to speed things up. Is this what you are referring to when you say we need more competition in DOD acquisitions?
Brian Fredrickson: Yes, absolutely. One of the thoughts I had towards the end of my research was that as military leaders we are trained to make very rapid decisions in the fog and friction of an operation or battle. And in the acquisition world, I think what Packard showed is that in order to make a good decision, you actually need to exert strategic patience and ensure the technology you are investing in is mature. I know America in the past has benefitted greatly from being ambitious, and there is merit to that, but I think it needs to be a selective ambition.
Are you advocating for some longer programs with more ambitious technologies and some more rapid programs that are not as ambitious?
Brian Fredrickson: Yes, so Packard came in and was charged with not only modernizing the force, but taking the force from 3rd generation to 4th generation aircraft. He implemented many prototyping programs without making a decision on production. To slow things down mean we need to think strategic and long-term. The system will be more responsive when there are more options for decision makers, but that doesn’t happen overnight.
How has Packard’s influence on you fundamentally changed how you will go into your next acquisition job in the Air Force?
Brian Fredrickson: Well one of Packard’s hobbies was gardening. So I took up gardening as a hobby while doing this research. And what I learned was that just as in acquisitions, you have to have the patience and give the garden the attention and care and feeding it needs to grow and blossom into something usable. In acquisitions you can’t really shortcut some of these industrial age systems—the hardware piece. You have to treat it like a garden and be patient and nurture it.
It seems as though the DOD has gotten more risk averse. What is your view on David Packard’s risk tolerance as compared to today’s environment?
Brian Fredrickson: Packard has a huge risk tolerance, but it was hedged against a diverse ecosystem. He developed a system where he could take risks because he didn’t rely on any one product—the prototyping and delayed production enabled him to do this.
Brian Fredrickson is an acquisitions officer in the United States Air Force. He 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.