DOD needs a change in acquisition culture

A.J. Clark of Thermopylae

A.J. Clark is the President of Thermopylae Sciences and Technology.

The basic military rifle, the M16, and its derivatives — including the M4 carbine that today’s infantry troops use — date back to 1963 and the jungles of Vietnam. Development began in 1949.

USS Nimitz, the Navy’s first-of-its-class carrier, was commissioned in 1975. The next carrier, the Gerald R. Ford, will join the fleet in 2016 after construction began in 2005. The F-15E, the Air Force’s workhorse in Iraq and Afghanistan, goes back to 1984. The development contract for the F-35 was signed in 1996, and the first scheduled deployment will be in 2018.

My point is this: An acquisition process designed for large and unique weapon systems is becoming harder and harder to apply to technologies in the Information Age. The challenges that the Pentagon and Congress face with defense IT acquisition will continue to grow if the system for buying airplanes, ships and rifles is applied.

There is a need for a cultural shift in government procurement and in the defense industry that can allow an informed series of vendors to anticipate needs and shorten the acquisition cycle so the Defense Department doesn’t buy mobile and Web applications the way it builds ships and airplanes.

The current acquisition process — see a problem, craft what the required solution looks like, compete the solution, buy the solution, build the solution — is so cumbersome that it has reversed development from government stimulation to business fomentation. Where once DOD’s need drove IT development, which then spun off to commercial use, now we in the software industry build our products as commercial technology.

It’s the reason research and development money from Amazon, Samsung, Google and others in the IT world dwarfs that of U.S. defense, and it’s the reason commercial capability drives solutions for government need. Is it any wonder that, when the CIA went shopping for cloud computing capability for the intelligence community, it turned to Amazon with a $600 million, 10-year contract?

An acquisition process designed for large and unique weapon systems is becoming harder and harder to apply to technologies in the Information Age.

We in industry want to align ourselves with a new, modern, agile acquisition process to build things at our own expense so that when government sees technology it can use, it can buy that technology quickly and get it to the field, where it can save lives.

That approach allows smaller companies with specialized IT capabilities to solve DOD problems now. Warfighters see capabilities that are available commercially and wonder why those capabilities are not adapted to military use in the field, where they can bridge existing capability gaps.

The need for a culture change in defense acquisition was addressed at length in the National Defense Industrial Association’s “Pathway to Transformation” report. “NDIA does not believe there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach that will uniformly deliver the best acquisition outcomes,” the report states. “Different kinds of acquisition programs require different kinds of tools, authorities and oversight to ensure integrity in the process.”

The report also said: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”

That’s only one of the reasons to applaud the confirmation of Ashton Carter as secretary of Defense. Carter led a march toward acquisition reform as undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics in 2010, and his successor in that post, Frank Kendall, has continued that march with his legislative proposals to streamline the complex acquisition process.

It’s a blueprint for a culture change, one that both DOD and the defense industry can get behind to reward vision, accountability and reason.

About the Author

A.J. Clark s the president with Thermopylae Sciences and Technology, a provider of web-enabled geospatial, mobile, and cloud solutions for the federal government.

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Reader comments

Tue, May 26, 2015 Army Patriot

The acquisition process is actually pretty good when it is followed. What is dysfunctional is the acquisition leadership, all the levels of bureaucratic review and the risk-adverse contracting process. You want to fix acquisition?
1. Empower PMs and hold them accountable. Get out of their way!
2. Remove duplicative layers of review and anything that even has a whiff of bureaucracy
3. Certification is not enough. Acquisition leaders should only be selected after they demonstrate competence at a lower level. Too many Acquisition leaders at PEO and Assistant Secretary level give bad guidance and can’t lead subordinates because they never performed at the lower level.
4. Eliminate the bottom 10% of the acquisition workforce annually.
5. Create special firing rules for acquisition professionals. Remove toxic leaders. Leaders should lead based on inspiration, competence and dedication. Those who are self-serving, worried more about their pay than the mission, or those who resort to fear, harassment and intimidation should be shown the door.
6. Allow all federal contracting offices to be open for business to any agency. Those contracting offices with best track record will grow. Those paralyzed with bureaucracy and inefficiencies will wither away.
7. Require contracting offices to create processes that award contracts in 60 days from solicitation close date. If contracting office can’t do it, shut it down.
8. Eliminate any process that pushes PMs or contracting offices into a LPTA or LPTA-like contract.
9. Hire more IGs to look into allegations of acquisition leader and contract corruption. Take swift action.
10. Let PMs do PM work.

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