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House Panel on Defense Acquisition Reform takes first step toward fiscal discipline April 2, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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by Matt Leatherman and Stephen Abott

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  DDG 1000 Navy destroyers.  Apache helicopters.  Breaches (such as these) to Nunn-McCurdy provisions meant to constrain defense acquisition costs are rolling in with the new fiscal quarter, each strengthening the call for reforming defense acquisition.

The House Armed Services Committee’s bipartisan Panel on Defense Acquisition Reform is the latest, and perhaps most influential, body to join this call for reform.  The panel released its final report last week, and its findings paint an unsettling picture of America’s defense acquisition process.

According to the panel, our entire defense acquisition system suffers from a lack of metrics, unclear goal setting, and deficient flexibility and management. “System,” in fact, is a misnomer.  Related items whose acquisition ought to be organized strategically are procured in isolation by the services, while unrelated items are wedged into a methodology built specifically for weapons purchases.

Applied to the IT world, for instance, misaligned and rigid processes result in technology that, paradoxically, is easier to hack.  The panel noted that:

“The Department’s enterprise IT environment has been described as monoculture… From a management perspective, that makes it easier for the Department to purchase and manage the life-cycle of its systems.  Unfortunately, this monoculture creates an environment that allows potential adversaries to gain a deep understanding of vulnerabilities in the enterprise, making attacks potentially much easier and more far-reaching than would be the case in a more diverse IT ecosystem.” (17)

Counterproductive methods such as this are disconcerting.  Yet results fall short even for weapons purchases – the acquisitions on which the Pentagon’s methodology is built.  Major weapon acquisitions have been plagued for years by programs that run over budget, past deadline, and short of technological requirements.

Creeping requirements paired with long development cycles often drive this outcome.  Already-lengthy development cycles, driven by multi-year defense budgeting horizons, motivate users to add requirements profligately when given the opportunity.  This further extends the development cycle, which further incentivizes requirements creep, and so on until DOD has programs that breach Nunn-McCurdy provisions multiple times en route to being fielded years after planned.

Nunn-McCurdy statute alone clearly is not the solution to this problem.  Nor is the newly established DOD Office of Performance Assessment and Root Cause Analysis (PARCA), whose remit presently is limited to “major defense acquisition programs” that compose a minority of the department’s purchases.  Both, nevertheless, contribute to the solution.

Also required, however, is an ability to prioritize requirements and enforce those priorities throughout the acquisition process.  Both of these characteristics are woefully lacking.  HASC’s Panel on Defense Acquisition Reform was blunt, noting DOD’s “inability to prioritize meaningfully,” “inability to understand costs and trade-offs,” “consistent pattern of requirements creep,” and “inability to monitor requirements creep.” (22)  These up-front shortcomings then are compounded throughout the acquisition process by DOD’s “inability to provide accurate and timely financial information.” (3)

HASC’s Panel on Defense Acquisition Reform offers a number of detailed, valuable improvements to this situation.  Yet at the most general level, the issue is one of discipline.  Exposing these weaknesses undoubtedly helps bring disciple to the process.  At root, however, discipline hinges on Congress’ willingness to match its words in this panel report with meaningful action in the defense budget. After all, DOD doesn’t buy anything that Congress hasn’t funded.

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Comments»

1. Joe Yuna (LCDR/USN) - September 28, 2010

The problem is the current acquisition process is most cumbersome, byzantine and wasteful in spending more money on management and PowerPoint briefings than in product.

The entire process needs streamlining, DAU needs to be in a supportive rather than directional mode, and leadership should sign off and stick to the warfare fighter’s requirements w/o ECPs or scope creep induced at the PMO level.

In short, more federal employees supporting the acquisition process will only further exasperate the problem of civil service types in a managerial role form the top to the bottom levels of any program only, and absolute sea of useless documentation and approval groups one must wade through at every milestone.

The USG work force builds nothing these days as we once did in our industrial sites and labs. This stems from a system that is dedicated to processes, and civil servants with no real world commercial experience, but tons of schools; and a reluctance for firing those who force programs into failure, delays, cost over-runs, or defaults.

Having worked stateside and internationally in military and the commercial world in more than one discipline, the current acquisition process especially the budgeting nightmare of having to rush to spend money in a narrow window when awarded, and the 278 page plus EVMS reports needs to be canned, and replace with the systems one uses in the civil sector of real engineering design and manufacturing. Also, we need more Systems Engineers than MBA-types as they do not build anything, but slides. PMs should be prior Systems Engineers; and the civil service needs to bring back CM, DM and ILS personnel.

2. Joe Yuna - September 29, 2010

Metrics we have by the thousands, but none adequately support the kind of leadership and technical or fiscal management needed in these multi-year, multi-billion dollar programs.

Adding more workers esp. college graduates at a ridiculous apprenticeship and low pay will yield what is needed now.

Hiring former military types who were members of acquisition work force, and have worked in industry is the cure until the newbies are mentored and take the reins in 8-10 years.

Also, bring back the retired “Greybeards” and SES not just retired generals and admirals.


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