By: Kurtis A. Paul
Approximate Read Time: 17 minutes
Author’s Note: Names of some senior military and industry officials are deliberately excluded from this article in accordance with the principles of academic freedom for statements made to educate and inform in a university forum. Their opinions, as recorded in person by the author, add critical substance to the article’s arguments.
Abstract: The US’s near-peer competitors are closing capabilities gaps by rapidly acquiring new technologies deliberately designed to challenge the US Air Force’s air superiority. One main reason for this “capabilities closure” is the slow and risk-averse nature of the Department of Defense’s acquisitions process. But even within the limitations of the DoD’s system, tThe USAF can increase the effectiveness of its acquisitions by prioritizing speed of delivery, accepting and managing the increased risk of failure, and incorporating innovative ideas as core acquisitions priorities. Aggressively adopting these three focus areas may help the USAF to retain – or even expand – its comparative military advantage against near-peer competitors.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) directed the Department of Defense’s (DoD) service branches to refocus on global competition with some of the world’s most aggressive revisionist powers. These states, including China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, have made major advances in technology and military systems in recent years. Their centralized governments and authoritarian regimes have allowed them to rapidly field new, novel, complex, and interconnected systems deliberately designed to challenge US military power and deny access to future battlespaces. By increasing their capabilities, these states seek to overturn the US military’s competitive technological and military advantages. As Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten explained, “When you look at our competitors, large and small, one of the things you find they have in common is they’re moving very, very fast. And we are not.”
These states will continue to accelerate aircraft, missile, computer, and space development by proliferating cheap and highly accessible technologies, practicing industrial espionage, and promoting dual-use civilian and military infrastructures. Addressing these issues requires a global, whole-of-government approach from the US, with many of the “soft power levers” falling outside of the DoD’s jurisdiction. But within the US military’s scope of responsibilities, one of the biggest impediments to maintaining the US’s comparative military advantage is self-induced: our own military acquisitions process. “US bureaucracy is built to remove risk,” said General Hyten, “not to move fast.”
Many active duty military members working within the DoD’s 5000-series acquisitions process have undoubtedly been frustrated by the lack of speed, risk tolerance, and innovation allowed by the rigid and bureaucratic system. Many of these same people, however, will also likely acknowledge that the DoD system is so large, programs are so entrenched, and budgets are so massive, that trying to rebuild from scratch could lead to budgetary disaster.
Instead of recommending a complete overhaul of the DoD’s behemoth acquisitions system, this article will prescribe three focus areas the USAF can adopt to more effectively maneuver within it. This article draws on speeches and interviews with senior USAF leaders, industry partners, and research organizations, as well as historical examples, to codify the three focus areas and highlight their potential effectiveness. The three focus areas are: 1) prioritizing speed of delivery; 2) accepting and managing an increased risk of failure; and 3) incorporating innovative ideas into core acquisitions priorities.
FOCUS AREA #1: Prioritize speed of delivery
As explained by General Hyten, the DoD’s current acquisitions processes are designed to minimize risk. Achieving this requires long and complex timelines, with a focus on fielding mature, near-perfect solutions. New weapon and aircraft programs must complete years-long milestones and earn approval from many different authorities before the first systems are ever fielded. This system has benefited the DoD during critical interwar periods, e.g., the Cold War, when the US’s investments had to last for decades to effectively counter looming global threats, like the USSR. But in today’s fast-paced, globalized, and technologically enabled world, the DoD’s risk-averse system often transforms fiscal security measures into bureaucratic roadblocks for new capabilities.
During critical periods of history, the DoD has proven its ability to rapidly field new and effective systems in quantities capable of shifting the tides of war. Today, however, private businesses are more likely to field advanced technologies at breakneck speed because they are unhampered by slow-moving acquisitions restrictions. One reason private industry has outpaced military development in many sectors is its willingness to field imperfect solutions, so long as they move quickly.
With profits at stake, many companies understand that there is not enough time or market share available to develop perfect products. Instead, they focus on delivering products that are “good enough,” while also creating plans for continued improvements and updates. During periods of peacetime, it can be difficult for the DoD and its service branches to feel the same market-force pressures that drive private companies to deliver quickly or be left behind.
For example, a senior USAF official explained to ACSC students in 2020 that it takes five or six years for the US to acquire an existing space asset. Developing and fielding a new space capability can take twelve years or more. By comparison, a company like Elon Musk’s SpaceX moves at a much faster pace. SpaceX’s stated goal is to launch over 4,000 satellites in the Starlink constellation providing global internet service, recalled the senior official. While visiting SpaceX, the official observed that “they went from a mockup of the production line to over sixty satellites in orbit within months. We [the DoD] have to figure out how to deliver faster.”
The idea that the USAF can field systems at speed and quantity is not without historical precedent. For example, during the famed Century Series period from 1950-1960, the USAF designed and fielded six fighter variants that thrust American warfighting aviation into the supersonic age. While these aircraft were not perfect, their cumulative effect on the USAF’s lethality in combat revolutionized the way the US delivered air power to this day.
In another example, Dik Daso describes General Henry “Hap” Arnold’s focus on the speed of relevance in his book Hap Arnold and the Evolution of American Airpower. Between WWI and WWII, General Arnold and his colleagues from industry and academia had already transformed American aviation through long-term research and development efforts. In 1939, however, General Arnold completely shifted the Army Air Corps’ acquisitions priorities to the most likely field-ready efforts, including the B-17, the B-29, fighter aircraft, glide bombs, and airborne radar systems.
In a quote perhaps as relevant today as it was in 1939, Arnold demanded that the Army Air Corps “sacrifice some quality to get sufficient quantity to supply all fighting units. [We must] never follow the mirage, looking for the perfect airplane, to a point where fighting squadrons are deficient in numbers of fighting planes.” While the USAF’s scope has grown beyond “fighting planes” to include advanced computing, space, command and control, and other systems, the spirit of his intent remains the same: when the free world’s security is at stake, a whole lot of “good enough” may be more effective against our adversaries than “perfection” delivered late…or never.
Can today’s Air Force return to its WWII or Century Series roots and rapidly field capable systems at speed and quantity? According to Director and Program Executive Officer for the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) Mr. Randall Walden, the answer is – yes. “Operational Test and Evaluation thinkers typically want to hold out for the 100% solution,” said Mr. Walden in an interview for this article. “But oftentimes, the last 20% takes more time than the first 80%. The RCO wants to immediately field those 80% solutions, with solid follow-on plans.”
The Air Force’s RCO subscribes to a three-step acquisitions philosophy. First, make a decision to acquire a new capability as soon as possible. Second, get potential platforms and weapons on contract immediately. And third, start building the weapon or aircraft. Mr. Walden summarized this philosophy in three words: “Deliver, deliver, deliver!”
It is not to say that imperfection is the RCO’s ultimate goal. Instead, the office wants to increase delivery of weapons and aircraft to warfighters by spending less time on spreadsheets and update briefs. By closely collaborating with warfighters, the RCO strives to field capabilities with the biggest potential impacts on the battlefield, instead of waiting for the “perfect” solution. By allowing the warfighting customer to agree that a solution is “good enough,” the RCO seeks to avoid the inertia and red tape of traditional DoD processes. Mr. Walden advises his organization that, “If your product is ‘process,’ all you’ll ever deliver is ‘process’.” The traditional DoD acquisitions process is lengthy, cumbersome, and sets near-perfection as its goal. Speed is usually sacrificed to reduce risk, while new systems often have unforeseen flaws upon initial fielding. Speed not only puts new capabilities in warfighters’ hands sooner, it includes warfighters in the discovery learning process while simultaneously providing operational effects. Speed allowed General Arnold to rapidly grow the Army Air Corps from a fledgling military organization into the world’s most powerful Air Force. Speed is also what allows private businesses to create and field technologies that seemed impossible at the turn of the century. Organizations within today’s Air Force, such as the RCO, embrace delivery speed as a measure of success. The Air Force should make speed, not perfection, its top acquisitions priority as it seeks to counter the growing threat from countries such as China and Russia. As General Hyten surmises, speed itself is a type of efficiency; it builds capabilities sooner while also introducing savings in the long run.
FOCUS AREA #2: Accept and manage an increased risk of failure
In a speech to ACSC students in 2020, a senior USAF official referred to the USAF as “the original garage startup.” This was due to the experimentation and risk-taking by the Wright brothers and other fledgling aviation developers at the turn of the 20th century. Today’s Air Force, however, is bound by an acquisitions process determined to mitigate risks at every turn. This creates two major cultural problems for those working in or alongside the acquisitions community. On one hand, it discourages the allocation of DoD money on high-risk, high-reward ventures. On the other, it disincentivizes individuals from providing honest feedback, as anything other than glowing reviews or bureaucratic jargon could cause an organization to lose years-worth of future funding.
First, the current military acquisitions environment forces acquisitions professionals to prioritize budget security and political messaging over the actual delivery of new and novel capabilities. Executive Program Reviews, POM cycle meetings, and Armed Service Committee inquiries can often feel as tense and high-stakes as battleplan meetings in the warzone. Within this “budget battlefield,” participants may refer to budget drills as “flaying skin.” Mantras such as “money in motion is money at risk” create real inertia for otherwise common-sense reallocation decisions. This risk-averse environment reinforces the desire to wait for “near-perfect” solutions rather than pursuing higher-risk initiatives with potentially greater payoffs. It can also prevent decision-makers from moving funding from one team’s failing effort to a more promising venture, even within the same organization.
Second, this environment also creates a culture that stifles calculated risk-taking and honest evaluation. In his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Tim Hartford explains how a complete intolerance for failure creates two kinds of bureaucrats. One over-promises capability performance to secure budgets and advance his or her own career. The other under-promises expected results in hopes that by “lowering expectations,” the actual platform performance will surprise and please senior decision makers. Neither of these bureaucrats is incentivized to focus on the unvarnished truth. Only when truth data is properly communicated can Program Managers (PMs) identify the true risks involved in a new weapon or aircraft and the measures that can be taken to either accept or mitigate those risks.
Finally, and perhaps worst of all, is that today’s Air Force tends to massively overcorrect when failures do occur because the DoD’s system values “process” over honest assessment and delivery. A senior USAF official explained to ACSC students in 2020 that, “If we take risks on building a large, exquisite satellite and it fails, it will be five or six years before we try again. On the commercial side, they’re launching so many satellites that they can afford to experiment and try new ideas.”
In the new reality portrayed in the 2018 NDS, where revisionist states tolerate failure and quickly move forward, these work stoppages are a major factor eroding the US’s comparative military advantage. General Hyten echoed this sentiment, stating that the US lost a ten-year jump in hypersonic development over its competitors. Two failed missile efforts lead to multi-year investigations and the cancellation of one of the main hypersonic programs. Every time we fail, he lamented, the DoD stops development for years.
How can a risk-averse system and culture once again learn to take chances and survive failures? In Adapt, Hartford draws on the philosophy of Russian engineer and government analyst Peter Palchinsky. Sadly, Palchinsky was “disappeared” from Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Russia in the late 1920s for speaking too much “truth to power.” But he left behind three principles for properly accepting risk and fostering innovative ideas: “First, seek out new ideas and try new things; second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable; and third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.”
The Air Force is already taking steps to build acquisitions infrastructures within the broader DoD system that can survive setbacks and failures. In Mr. Ben Fitzgerald’s June 2018 interview, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition, Technology and Logistics) Dr. Will Roper shed light on how the Air Force may already be applying “Palchinsky’s Principles.” By increasing the use of Middle Tier of Acquisitions (MTA) authorities (also known as 804 authorities), the Air Force is optimistic about its ability to incorporate calculated risks. “We’re really happy to have the [MTA] authority,” Dr. Roper pronounced, “because it lets us go back to what acquisition is always supposed to do…tailor the process to the specific needs of the program.”
In the interview, Dr. Roper describes how 804 authorities, which were recently delegated from the Secretary of Defense to the individual services, make risk management better. PMs can dedicate time and resources “on the things that matter.” The Air Force is using 804 authorities to separate prototyping and large-scale fielding, allowing for a more “Palchisky-like” approach during the prototyping phase. This model contracts several competitors to develop a new or upgraded system, requires them to build prototypes, and then competes them against each other. According to Dr. Roper, this model “starts to sound like a commercial airliner, not the US Air Force.” It allows PMs to tailor timelines, risk, and costs targets throughout the prototyping process, instead of blindly adhering to the predicable and years-long milestones of 5000-series acquisitions.
When asked how the Air Force could “fail with purpose,” Dr. Roper reiterated that pursuing parallel efforts would allow some to fail, while successful ones would move on to large-scale fielding. For larger programs where multiple prototypes are unrealistic, such as the Air Force’s new bomber or tanker aircraft, long-lead items could still be pursued with four or five competitors in case the primary contractor failed. Not only does the 804 authority/prototyping model include calculated failure as part of its process, it also distributes risk between the USAF and industry. It requires private companies to put “skin in the game” by way of building and competing operational prototypes.
While the Air Force should expand efforts and infrastructures to incorporate failure into its discovery-learning process, the culture surrounding acquisitions must also change. In an interview for this article, an aerospace executive provided insight from the industry’s perspective. “Industry will move as fast as government will allow. If the DoD won’t accept risk, neither will industry,” said the executive. “We need to fail fast, learn, and move forward.” Dr. Roper reinforced this idea, saying that both industry and the Air Force must embrace a new culture. Dr. Roper made clear that until the culture changes, both industry and acquisitions bureaucrats will continue to present data in long-lead and risk-averse language: the exact way they’ve been told to for decades. Only a deliberate and sustained effort to create a new culture that values constructive criticism and flexibility will challenge this entrenched culture.
Mr. Walden of the RCO also hopes that both PMs and senior Air Force leaders can work together to break through inertia and learn to embrace purposeful failures. “PMs and PEOs [Program Executive Officers] usually have good strategies, and they’re success-oriented,” said Mr. Walden. But senior leaders cannot simply state in public forums that they want to fail faster and learn better. “Senior leaders also have to follow through with the ‘if you fail, we support you’ aspect of culture building.”
While the Air Force has taken steps towards embracing risk and allowing for constructive failure as part of the prototyping process, . Changing the broader environment and culture surrounding acquisitions, both by demanding honest risk assessment from bureaucrats as well as challenging adherence to decades-old policies, requires significant work. Failure is difficult, and yet risking failure is necessary at times to discover truly ground-breaking technologies. Learning how to fail in a purposeful and survivable way will unlock the Air Force’s potential and help the US recapture its comparative military advantage. “You have to be able to accept failure,” General Hyten pointed out, “…if the dictator of North Korea has learned how to accept failure, why can’t the United States learn how to accept failure?”
FOCUS AREA #3: Incorporate innovative ideas into core acquisitions priorities
Students from ACSC 2020 asked a senior technology company executive, “Does the US have any remaining technological advantages over China?” The executive did acknowledge China’s ability to copy US and European technology on a grand scale. But he also proposed that the US still had five or more years of comparative advantage remaining, due to the US’s ability to innovate. “The US has strong management and independent subordinates. China copies our technologies, but its subordinates are hesitant to challenge authority or take risks,” explained the executive. “The US is still more innovative and will be for several more years.”
Innovation has long been the hallmark of the Air Force. From the Wright brothers’ flying machine to the F-22, from artillery-spotting balloons to Remotely Piloted Aircraft, the USAF’s ability to field revolutionary aircraft and weapons changed the nature of warfare in an incredibly short period of time. But today, innovation in the USAF is often stymied by traditional acquisitions processes.
Discovery and risk-taking, from the rapid fighter and bomber innovations during WWII, to the boundary-pushing experiments of the 1950s, to the technology-enabled “third offset,” are often only capable when looking beyond the “safe bets.” Dr. Roper best summed up the impact of acquisitions on innovation and discovery, saying, “I’ve always felt traditional acquisitions forced you to pretend you knew more, ahead of having data to prove it.”
The traditional acquisitions roadmap does not allow for continual innovation and risk-taking. Instead, it values meeting a long list of requirements developed at project initiation, and is rarely subject to change without putting the entire program at budgetary risk. Discovering new requirements after program initiation can cause massive budget overruns and delay project timelines by years. Discovery, therefore, negatively impacts projects already underway, rather than offering new opportunities to incorporate game-changing technologies.
But the right innovation, at the right time, has the power to turn the tides of war. WWII provides several excellent examples. For instance, in his article Case Studies in the Achievement of Air Superiority, Robin Higham highlighted how the United Kingdom’s rudimentary Chain Home radio-frequency radar network allowed the vastly inferior Royal Air Force to defeat the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Similarly, in Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries, Safi Bachall argues that pulsed-radio navigation and microwave radar integrated into US aircraft and ships finally allowed the Allies to effectively target Germany’s U-boat fleet. This ended the U-boat “wolfpack” reign of terror within months, securing Allied shipping lanes and winning the Battle of the Atlantic.
Aerospace innovation continued to follow this keep-it-simple model for many decades after WWII. During a visit to a major aerospace company, a senior aerospace executive explained that they purposefully limit themselves to just “one miracle per platform.” Effective innovation often focuses on one narrow and difficult problem, then opens the aperture to as many unique, creative, unconventional, or downright bizarre ideas as it takes to solve it. Trying to incorporate too many innovations at once can dilute the purpose and drive an entire program off track. Mr. Walden agreed with this philosophy, saying that for the RCO, “Defining the exact problem we’re trying to solve is the biggest factor. If we have a ‘muddied’ or ‘fuzzied’ problem set, we’re more likely to get bogged down.” Dr. Roper also supported this idea, stating that programs should “only have one ‘X-factor’ per prototype.”
Recent major acquisitions programs have reinforced this idea, albeit by perhaps drifting too far away from the “single X-factor” model. Recent multi-role or multi-purpose platforms have constantly run over budget and over timeline, as developers and acquisitions bureaucrats attempt to juggle too many capabilities on a single platform. The DoD’s acquisitions processes have incentivized the Air Force to pursue a small number of high-cost, high-tech, and long-lead platforms attempting to achieve a vast array of effects using the same tool.
In acquisitions environment, the USAF may be free to pursue a large diversity of “single X-factor” platform families. While platforms may only be designed for certain mission sets, once freed from competing “jack-of-all-trades” requirements, unique innovations could emerge that allow platforms to execute their assigned missions exceedingly well. The USAF’s A-10 serves as an excellent example; while probably unlikely to win any air-to-air fights against enemy 5th-generation fighters, it has been defended by ground forces for decades as one of the best Close Air Support aircraft ever built. Additionally, it remains one of the least expensive aircraft to fly and maintain in the USAF inventory. While the “single X-factor” approach could create a larger quantity of platforms for the USAF to operate and maintain, it would allow for more novel and effective capabilities at lower costs. It could also create more complex tactical and strategic problem sets for potential adversaries
Can the Air Force recapture the spirit of game-changing innovation? By strengthening relationships between research laboratories like the Air Force Research Labs, think tanks like AFWERX, rapid acquisitions offices like the RCO, and the US’s massive private industry sector, it is possible. The RCO’s Mr. Walden believes that strong cooperation between PMs and industry is the key to driving innovation. The Air Force and industry must be in constant communication, and the Air Force’s desired objectives for new capabilities must be clearly articulated. The Air Force and industry must strike a balance, according to Mr. Walden. “If we listen to industry too much, they may deliver something we can’t use,” he explained. “But if we don’t listen enough, we will force industry to build exactly what we asked for, and not the latest and best technology possible.”
Two factors will foster increased cooperation and innovation between the Air Force and private industry. First, industry must augment the USAF’s willingness to invest in innovative programs by spending their own Internal Research and Development (IRAD) dollars on cutting-edge and high-risk, high-reward ventures. “IRAD is a prime vehicle for driving collective solutions alongside private industry,” said Mr. Walden. Second, PMs must be allowed greater control over their efforts. “In my Defense Acquisitions University graduation talk,” said Mr. Walden, “I tell the newly graduated PMs – ‘you own the process: Take it!’”
Dr. Roper reinforced this position, saying that he already sees PMs using 804 authorities to increase risk and potential reward during prototyping. He advised PMs “…that you’ve got to learn through doing.” Already seeing results, several PMs have come to Dr. Roper to say “Will, here’s what I need to do to hit the performance or cost target for this program…here’s what I don’t know, [and] here’s my prototyping plan to go learn…so I make a choice based on real data and not on ‘hoped for results.’”
By incorporating the first two focus areas (speed of delivery and managing failure), the Air Force could open a proverbial floodgate of innovation. By challenging PMs and industry to imagine creative and cutting-edge, “single-miracle platforms,” rapidly moving through failures and prototyping, and transitioning to large-scale fielding of “good enough” solutions, the Air Force can field a large variety of highly capable aircraft and weapons systems. Innovation, as pointed out by the tech company executive, is still the best avenue for growing the US’s comparative military advantage. This will require the Air Force to significantly shift away from its current “one platform fits all” strategy. But a few key innovations, at the right time, could just be enough to turn the tide of a future war.
The DoD’s acquisitions system is simply too large and entrenched for a complete overhaul. The USAF can make changes within the boundaries of the 5000-series system, however, to increase delivery speed, fail with purpose, and attempt bold innovations. By embracing these three acquisitions focus areas, the US may once again find room for acquisitions “maneuver,” while still operating within the confines of the DoD’s acquisitions process. Repeated USAF acquisitions successes would not only set the bar for other services, it would also once again widen the gap between USAF warfighting capabilities and the inability of would-be adversaries to match it.
Maj Kurtis Paul is a Remotely Piloted Aircraft pilot in Air Force Special Operations Command. He has served as an ISR and RPA advisor in Joint Special Operations Command, where he generated warfighter requirements for multiple Program Offices. Maj Paul has worked directly with industry partners, acquisitions organizations, and multiple Air Force staffs on RPA acquisitions efforts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: 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.