Study tackles DOD acquisition riddle

Shutterstock image: weapons tech design

Use all funding options to get new technologies to soldiers faster. That is one of the key recommendations to emerge from an 18-month study of innovation at the Defense Department done by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Standing in the way of more rapid technology deployment is a lumbering DOD acquisition process that lawmakers and defense officials are trying to speed up. Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, has made the issue an integral part of his latest bid to reform the acquisition system.

The question is how it gets done. The CSIS report recommends expanding mechanisms such as the Rapid Innovation Fund and Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstrations, and learning from wartime experiences in which the Pentagon has accepted more risk for the sake of deploying urgent operational capabilities. 

There are still “many barriers to entry” into the acquisition process for non-traditional firms, Andrew Hunter, a CSIS senior fellow, said at a June 26 event rolling out the report (go here for an abridged version). Hunter should know: he worked closely with Kendall on acquisition reform as director of the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell until last fall.

In an interview after the event, Hunter expressed optimism that the latest acquisition guidance – known as Better Buying Power 3.0 – will help shore up the Pentagon’s technological edge, which officials say is eroding.

One reason for his optimism, he said, is BBP 3.0’s promotion of open systems architecture. “However much we can change our mindset and become more comfortable with throw-away technologies … it’s never all going to be throw-away,” Hunter told FCW. “So this ability to constantly update, modify, incorporate new technologies fairly quickly – that’s the key, that’s fundamental.”

The report also recommends making greater use of demonstration projects to prove the worth of outside innovation because, as Hunter put it, “seeing is believing, particularly, in many cases, for DOD.”

The study comes as Pentagon officials from Secretary Ashton Carter on down have looked beyond traditional Beltway contractors for innovative ideas.

Arun Seraphin, a Senate Armed Services Committee staff member, said at the CSIS event that while there was much speculation about how Silicon Valley would receive Carter’s speech there, he worried “whether anyone paid attention in the government.” Creating awareness across the bureaucracy of innovation that is happening at the Pentagon itself is a challenge, Hunter agreed.

Congress has a central role in trying to make the acquisition system more flexible, Seraphin said, while noting that lawmakers may now be unusually poised to accept the risk that comes with innovating. “I do detect, after this many years of working on the Hill, that there is some willingness to take a little bit of risk,” he said.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.


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