Igniting a Cultural Insurgency in the Acquisition Community: Part I

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

Editor’s note: The following article is the first of a two-part series discussing the state of the current Air Force and Department of Defense acquisition culture, and how to change this culture in order to more efficiently and effectively deliver capability to the warfighter. Part I focuses on the history of the current acquisition culture while Part II provides recommendations for improvement. These articles are an excerpt from research conducted at Air Command and Staff College in 2018. To request a complete transcript of the research paper, please send an email to gabriel.almodovar@us.af.mil. 

We must intentionally instill agility and innovation through collaboration in our Airmen and organizations to ensure our Air Force is capable of rapidly recognizing and adapting to the changing environment – USAF Human Capital Annex 

Policies and processes are of little use without acquisition professionals who are experienced, trained, and empowered to apply them effectively. At the end of the day, qualified people are essential to successful outcomes and professionalism, particularly in acquisition leaders, drives results more than any policy change – Honorable Frank Kendall, 2013.

Estimated Reading Time: 14 Mins

By Gabriel Almodovar

The United States Air Force (USAF) and the Department of Defense (DOD) must position itself to improve the performance of its acquisition system. Since World War II, the USAF has relied “very heavily on technological supremacy” but now finds itself in a world where today’s potential adversaries are developing, adopting, and integrating new technologies at incredible speeds. To combat this, the USAF must act aggressively to improve its acquisition system in order to operate at the “speed of relevancy.” The USAF’s acquisition system, and the professionals it entails, must pursue a different organizational culture aimed at rapidly increasing the lethality of air, space, and cyber power. To dominate in the 21st Century, the USAF must invest in the development of its acquisition professionals by expanding the use of three experience-based program models. The education with industry (EWI), “Ghost,” and “Challenge” program models expose selected individuals to different perspectives, processes, and most importantly cultures. By expanding the use of these three models, the USAF can change its acquisition system’s organizational culture from one currently dominated by the industrial-age that is risk-adverse, process-focused, and stove-piped to one that values rapid and meaningful innovation, responsible risk-taking, collaboration, and personal initiative. To prove the point, this paper will first give a historical look at the importance and challenge of recruiting, retaining, and developing technical acquisition professionals during the first days of the USAF. Next, the paper provides an overview and analysis of National and USAF guidance to show senior leaders are committed to and demand change in the acquisition system because it is critical to U.S. national security. Then, a review of past studies and reports show a consistent theme that highlights the primary key to any lasting improvement of the acquisition system will require a cultural change. The following section will provide a basic understanding of the acquisition training and certification process to primarily show the areas for improvement. Subsequently, the paper will describe and provide examples of three proven development models that aim at providing experiences in organizations, industry areas, and cultures the USAF could leverage to improve its acquisition system. Finally, the paper will provide a potential funding stream to support expanding the three program models while ensuring the USAF maximizes the potential returns on this investment by formally tracking these experiences. By the end, it will become evident that the USAF and DOD acquisition systems need a cultural change on a large scale and it is on the USAF to aggressively expand the use of these program models. Without attacking the culture problem within the acquisition system, the USAF cannot expect to make significant or lasting changes to its performance. The USAF must aggressively attack this issue using experience-based development programs.

Airpower and Acquisition – Together Since Birth
In 1945, Commanding General of Army Air Forces Henry “Hap” Arnold wrote a historic letter to his successor, General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz outlining concerns, ideas, challenges, and opportunities for Spaatz’s consideration, as he would become the first Chief of Staff of the USAF. Three of the letter’s 13 major themes focused on the USAF’s ability to support innovation and future technological advances to preserve its position as the “most powerful air force in the world.” In one of the themes, General Arnold emphasized the importance of developing a capable “scientific” or acquisition workforce for research and development, budgeting, and program execution in the Army Air Forces, stating “that here after science and research will have the same relative importance as pilot training.” He recognized these early members of the modern acquisition workforce needed “definite procedures to be followed in their education,” like graduate school, indoctrination within USAF organizations, and learning through commercial entities. While seemingly focused on the “scientific and technical” acquisition professional, General Arnold’s letter goes on to discuss challenges within budgeting and program management which have become specific but related career tracks to “scientific and technical” engineer types about which General Arnold specifically wrote. Nonetheless, General Arnold knew the future lethality of the USAF would depend on the service’s ability to acquire advanced capabilities which requires a capable acquisition workforce.

Though General Arnold wrote the letter at the end of World War II, it is just as relevant today. Today’s USAF must focus on changing the acquisition culture by developing competent acquisition professionals, leaders, and organizations while promoting collaboration with organizations across DOD, industry, universities, and civilian organizations to maximize the intellectual capital of America. Airpower history shows its advancement, success, innovation, and lethality is dependent on people, especially Airmen in the acquisition community. To continue improving the acquisition system, the USAF must invest in the development of acquisition professionals.

The Strategic Imperative: Acquisition must Change
The 2018 National Security Strategy (NSS) states, the DOD and the joint force has not kept “pace with emerging threats or technologies” despite decades of acquisition “reform.” With the return of “great power” politics, threats from rogue states and non-state actors alike, the DOD must adapt to ensure it “remains the world’s preeminent fighting force.” America’s security depends on maintaining its lead in science, technology, and innovation while ensuring the military can turn that lead into military capability, lethality, and strength. The NSS emphasizes “peace through strength,” but that strength is highly dependent on America’s technological advantages. American ingenuity and innovation provides the DOD opportunities to strengthen its joint force, but it is incumbent on the DOD to translate America’s entrepreneurial spirit efficiently and effectively into deployable warfighting capabilities.

In a 2017 memo, Secretary of Defense Mattis highlighted the need for “business reform” and for instilling “a culture of rapid and meaningful innovation…responsible risk-taking and personal initiative,” as one of three lines of effort for the Department going forward. By dedicating one of his three lines of efforts to reform, Secretary Mattis is trying to vector the Department, both in resourcing and effort, to a strategic end state where the DOD has a different business or acquisition culture. Additionally, in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), one DOD objective is to position the DOD to “continuously [deliver] performance with affordability and speed.” The NDS’s strategic approach calls for “deliver[ing] performance at the speed of relevance; organize for innovation; streamline rapid, iterative approaches from development to fielding; and harness and protect the National Security Innovation Base” to “reform the Department for greater performance and affordability.”

The need to deliberately develop acquisition leaders is not new. The USAF’s top strategic document, America’s Airforce: A Call to the Future, describes the service’s ability to adapt and respond to rapid change as its greatest challenge over the next 30 years and that it “must commit to changing those things that stand between us and our ability to rapidly adapt.” By modifying how the USAF purposefully and deliberately develops acquisition leaders, it perpetuates a culture that values rapid and meaningful innovation, responsible risk-taking, collaboration, and personal initiative to gradually improve the performance of the Acquisition System in support of National Strategy. General Goldfein, the USAF Chief of Staff, recognized during the 2018 Air Force Association Symposium that the USAF has, “got to…strengthen the way we develop our leaders to fight and win in the global security environment described in the National Defense Strategy,” to include those leaders in acquisition.

Air Force Acquisition Culture since 1945: A Worsening Trend
There have been over 150 major studies and reports on acquisition reform conducted by academia, commissions, committees, and government offices since World War II. Most conclude that trained and experienced people are key to improving the performance of the Defense Acquisition System. The following four examples, which span 46 years, provide a representative cross-section. In 1970, the Blue Ribbon Panel studied acquisition reform and stated, “regardless of how effective the overall system of Department procurement regulations may be judged to be, the key determinants of the ultimate effectiveness and efficiency of the Defense Procurement process are the procurement personnel. The importance of this truism has not been appropriately reflected in the recruitment, career development, training, and management of the procurement workforce.” The Government Accountability Office (GAO) similarly stated in a 1992 report that “making fundamental improvements in acquisitions will require attacking the cultural dimension of the problem.” In a 2014 House of Representatives Committee hearing on Defense Reform, the committee chairman opened by stating a “key theme” has repeatedly emerged from previous hearings on the topic.  “You cannot affect the acquisition system if you don’t affect the people.” In 2016, the National Defense Authorization Act established the Section 809 Panel to address acquisition reform stating that “one of the most important ingredients to achieve acquisition reform is a transformation in the culture of DOD…rules and regulations alone, however, can no more foster the right culture than legislation can force good management.” These are just a few examples from the countless studies that illustrate the importance of cultural change.

The DOD and USAF’s acquisition system over the past few decades has received much criticism for its inability to deliver capabilities to the warfighter within cost, schedule, and performance constraints. The 2017 GAO assessment on DOD acquisition cost and schedule performance for major defense acquisition programs (MDAPs) shows that between 2011 and 2016, USAF MDAPs had a net cost growth of $39.7 billion and, within just the 2015-2016 year, saw the average acquisition cycle time increase from 85 to 88 months. These trends are not unique to the USAF and are part of larger DOD challenges ahead. In 2018, General Gus Perna, Commanding General of Army Materiel Command, described the speed of the acquisition system as “shameful.” As General Hyten, Commander of United States Strategic Command said, “we move slowly in everything that we do. The requirements process, the budget process, the acquisition process…everybody has to figure out how to go fast because that is what our nation needs.” General Hyten goes on to compare the 1960s Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) development program and the current ICBM modernization program as an example. “So how did we get to the point where it used to be we could deliver 800 three-stage solid rocket ICBMs and we could do that in five years for $17 billion; and now the estimates are it’s going to take 12 to 17 years and $84 billion to deliver 400 ICBMs for the future? We’ve got to look at this business in a different way. We have to improve our thinking, improve our speed of thinking, [and] improve our speed of development and acquisition.” In essence, we need to change the organizational culture.

Training through Certifications – Sustaining today’s culture for better or worse
The USAF and DOD primarily measure training and competency through certifications mandated by the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA), initially enacted in 1990. This act requires the DOD to establish training and certification requirements for its military and civilian acquisition workforce across each of the services. These certifications consist of mostly online courses, some in-resident courses, and time working in specifically designated positions.  To achieve the level I certification, a program manager needs one year in a program management (PM) position and to complete four online courses. For level II certification, you must be in a PM position for two years, complete eight online courses, and attend a one-week in-residence course. However, while the DAWIA levied minimum training requirements, “the military services have lead responsibility for leadership training and workforce development.” The military service should not just focus primarily on meeting DAWIA certification requirements but focus on developing the professionals for tomorrow’s acquisition environment. As Under Secretary for Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall said, “the focus on compliance with the act’s certification requirements has led to the illusion that we are managing the workforce.” To create an agile acquisitions enterprise, the USAF must take an active and aggressive role in building upon the certification requirements with purposeful development of the acquisition workforce and its culture.

Currently, the USAF requires military scientist, program managers, engineers, and civilian acquisition managers to attend the USAF “Fundamentals of Acquisition Management 103” (FAM-103) course upon initial entry into the career field. The 3-week course acts as the acquisition officer’s initial skills training designed as an introductory course to familiarize new acquisition personnel with terminology, processes, and policies. To put this into perspective, this is one of the shortest technical schools for USAF officers, with most other officer Air Force Specialty Codes typically ranging from the low-end of 2-months to the high-end of 18-months. After about 2 years, an officer in the operations career field flying in aircraft or jumping out of aircraft are lethal practitioners while an “acquisition officer at this point…is still learning terminology…by osmosis.”

FAM-103 “graduates” go on to acquisition offices and other organizations to continue their development by taking Defense Acquisition University (DAU) online and just a few in-resident courses. The USAF heavily relies on training its acquisition workforce through course work developed and taught by the DAU. Training through DAU consists of a combination of classroom and online instruction to introduce, expand on, and expose terminology, policies, and processes. This method cannot adequately teach the needed cultural change across the acquisition community. In contrast with today’s “process-and-terminology” training focus, the Honorable Frank Kendall said during a congressional committee hearing, “a lot of what we need to do with our [acquisition] workforce is cultural.” Most of today’s DOD and USAF acquisition training is not designed to and simply cannot sufficiently produce the type of culture the USAF needs across the acquisition enterprise. Instead, as Mr. Kendall recognized, the current acquisition certification process “has become a check-the-box thing…and we [need] to move beyond that” because a certified person does not necessarily equate to a qualified person. Certifications, typically developed and granted by professional societies, universities, or private organizations, attempt to provide an impartial or third-party endorsement of an individual’s professional knowledge and/or experience. The USAF should not rely solely on the standard DOD certification process to develop its acquisition professionals and leaders. It should take a more rounded approach and develop programs focused on providing acquisition professionals experience in organizations with desired cultures, mind-sets, and different perspectives. As General Hyten said, “effective change is actually a process…subordinates can no longer be deprived, as they are now, of the training and experience, which will enable them to act on their own.” The USAF and DOD must overcome the acquisition community’s organizational inertia to transform its culture. At the end of World War II, General Hap Arnold warned his successor against such complacency and cultural change. He stated, “The success of the Army Air Forces during the World War II period was due to its aggressiveness…we are losing our aggressiveness.  We are asking permission to do things which formerly we never did…time is passing without getting results.” The USAF does not need permission to train and equip its acquisition professionals, it just needs to do so with the aggressiveness General Arnold had in mind.

Major Gabriel Almodovar is an acquisitions officer in the United States Air Force. He is a 2018 graduate of 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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