DoD acquisition not broken, just slow

The head of the Pentagon's secretive Strategic Capabilities Office, which specializes in near-term innovation to gain advantages with unconventional uses of existing systems, has harsh words for those overly critical of the department's seemingly ineffective acquisition process.

"You can't say the acquisition process is broken in one breath and then in the next breath say we have the greatest military on Earth … A lot of people will just say it's broken – that's not actually I think what they mean. They mean it's too slow," William Roper, director of the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on July 13. "The acquisition process … it does work."

Roper, however, did concede that the current acquisition process is a bit outdated. "We live in a world where we can't wait 10 years to get a program right ultimately because outside technology, commercial technology is driving this," he said.

One of his biggest fears is that DoD is no longer driving technological origination, the commercial sector is. Many technologies that effect national security will be developed by and for commercial markets, "which means any military will be able to use them," he said.  DoD will have to be fast adapters to avoid being left behind, he added.

The acquisitional challenges were one of the reasons Roper’s office was stood up in the first place. The office was created in 2012 by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Around that time "I found that too often when we had a desperate battlefield need, something to protect our forces or make them more effective, the answer that would reflexively come back was ‘well we have a program to do that; it’ll take ten years or it’s on a path to ten or 15 years,’ " Carter described at a March Politico breakfast. During the Cold War-era, Carter explained, this type of acquisition cycle was acceptable because "things lumbered along slowly" and "the Soviet Union was slow, methodical, inexorable, but you could see what was coming and it made sense to have programs that were over a decade long."

Today, however, technology cycles much quicker and it is available for all to use. Many have described a cultural shift that must take place in order to adjust to the rapidly changing pace of technology and corresponding threats. "I would describe what happens in the commercial sector and innovation as sort of like a grass fire. If somebody doesn't stamp it out it's always burning. And it's going to consume an awful lot of territory but it happens slowly and then it jumps," Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Defense Programs conference in March. "I would describe innovation in the Defense Department as a forest fire.  'Holy shit we're on fire let's put it out.'"

Selva noted that one leader might come into DoD and express important innovation priorities while their successor might come in and say, "'Stop! What you're doing scares me. I don't understand it. I don't like it. It doesn't comport with my view of how a military organizations are lead,' and they put out the forest fire."

Part of the change involves the requirements approach to acquisition and fielding new programs. The beauty and freedom afforded to Roper and his staff is that they have he has no requirements, he said. Roper noted in his first year at the helm, he was asked around 500 times where his requirement was. "Isn’t our requirement naval power?" he retorted. "Projection of power is a requirement."

Roper said without requirements, "everything's tradeable," meaning if one component of a solution doesn't fit exactly with the end solution or mission, he can trade something in the rest of the system without worrying about blowing up costs or fielding schedules. "The only thing I owe the secretary at the end of the day," he said, "is here's an idea, here's what it costs and here's how fast it'll go and here's what it gets you."

Eliminating the requirements-based approach is shared among many in the community.  Some have expressed that a needs-driven approach is the way to go. The process "is absolutely broken.  What we need to do is number one, we’ve got to move away from purely requirements driven to needs driven," David Mihelcic, chief technology officer and principal director of the Global Information Grid Enterprise Services Engineering, at the Defense Information Systems Agency, said in a June AFCEA-hosted event.  Mihelcic said he’d like to move to a system in which technologies can be purchased and then put toward some unfulfilled need regardless of documented requirements or not.

The Navy is also looking to simplify rules and strip requirements down to the bare essentials, Elliott Branch, deputy assist secretary/acquisitions and procurement within the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, said in June at the Acquire Show in Washington, adding that the service must think of product innovation and not process innovation. He explained that what has been done in the name of innovation or process is the creation of too many rules, which add a level of complexity that often lead gets workforces to the wrong answer.  Branch likened jazz music to how he believes acquisition should work. Jazz musicians, he said, are outstanding musical theorists that have an understanding of how one puts together the 12 notes that make up any scale. They understand what the rules are and when to break them, as well as the effect breaking these rules will have.

Roper said that for his office, "The key is to not put [the services] in a position where they have to accept risk that's beyond what a traditional program of record wants to accept.  So we become the partner that says 'whatever it is you're worried about, we'll fund it until you're not worried about it.' "  He added that his office measures success based upon programs of record created.  "So if we're not fielding it, it doesn't count on our scorecard."

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