Rethinking Defense Acquisition


2016-12-22 By Robert Newton

The election has delivered an accomplished businessman, untainted by the favors and funding of classic politics, who is soon to enter office with a mandate for change.

His declared commitment is to make “America Great Again” and, while our country has many dimensions, the US military is foundational to the Nation’s security and world stability.

The need for a dominant US military is not lost on President-elect Trump.

Throughout the campaign he has made clear, bold statements on rebuilding and recapitalizing the US military.

Soon, as the Commander-in-Chief, he will be uniquely responsible for leading and doing just that.

The question is, how?

The typical solution would be to throw more money at the defense beast and wait till the lumber bureaucracy pushes out greatness?

However, the country sits under $20 trillion dollars of debt that alone is a threat to National security and time has a value all to itself when considering world threats.

The challenge is huge!

The mission to rebuild and reinvigorate a dominant US military may appear daunting, take decades to accomplish, and cost trillions.

It won’t.

Rather, it takes faith in US (individually and as a Nation) and once common sense.

Our potential for greatness has been with us all along, beginning with the unbounded creativity of freedom-loving people.

In virtually all other aspects of our lives, we have leveraged choice and competition to get the highest value and best products and services.

There are acquisition and management principles that should be revisited and swiftly imposed upon the Pentagon.

Beginning with new leadership the excuse that defense is a unique market not bound by true capitalism principles must be squashed in favor of the basic American business principles and the dynamics of the “deals.”

Both current and future deals require: talented people at the helm, a bold drive to product excellence with tolerance for failure, and sustained competitive leverage.

The deals must also have a cycle time that is shorter than current/potential enemies and complementary to the personnel’s attention span and rotational cycle.

For example a 20-year development cycle is not only a nominal career length; it exceeds the attention span of the developer, the customer, the investor, the administration, and the technology.

Without a cycle phased to the participants there is little learning, development, or true success.

The keys steps to success encompass bold strong new leadership, clarification of the customer relationship across the department, reorientation for simplicity and accountability, swift execution of the new Commander-In-Chief’s vision, and continued critical assessments of programs.

Most important is momentum of action.

Acquisition programs demand proportional judgment to the value and importance of the programs.

Over decades, the burdensome processes, politics, and stability factors have driven programs into ever-larger scales. Even simple products readily available in the commercial market devolve into mega status, like the Army’s new Modular Handgun program for up to a half-million units.

These programs invite micro-management and in fact depend on it as a justification for their bloated existence.

While ideal for cronyism, these mega programs violate common sense.

Inside the Pentagon effective change and results require new leadership direct actions to include:

  • Aggressively reduce program sizes and scope. For existing programs, investigate ways to break apart or breakout vertical and/or overly-broad programs. For new programs, structure them into the smallest feasible modules or component systems/services.
  • Adjust the programs into milestones with timely cycles of 2-years or less that provide clear, tangible and measurable progress or products. Today’s approach would plan the Apollo program to go straight to the moon. Fact is, the incremental steps starting with Gemini, Apollo 1’s mishap, and the Apollo 8 moon orbital, was fundamental to its success, and put men on the moon in 8-years. Their incremental progress also kept us all mesmerized and part of the journey. On the other hand, the F-22 took 20-years to field and the Air Force lost Congress along the way.
  • Define program leverage on suppliers and options for continuous improvement, while subjectively assessing excellence. Classic cost-schedule-performance metrics are good, but mask the human elements of judgment, creativity, and swift results. All too often the Pentagon program manager’s leverage is only more money/time and less performance. This paradigm must change.
  • Actively mentor and grow program leaders knowledgeable in the mission, then empower them to deliver and hold them accountable. Emphasize leadership and not just management to a plan. Reward early, under-budget, and better performance (people from outside the Pentagon would think this is common sense, unfortunately it is not).
  • Accept organized chaos and imperfection, but demand excellence first from the government as the buyer and also from the contractors/suppliers. The world is chaotic so while programs require structure, they must also be agile. The role of the government and defense market should be reassessed and, if necessary, changed to aggressively eliminate cronyism and mercantile dynamics.
  • Reinvigorate competition across the board: within a program, across programs, and inter-service. Smaller programs have a natural advantage of not putting companies and markets at risk over a single decision. Companies can live to fight for the next competition, government program personnel can learn from more than a single program, COCOMs have options, and personnel are reinvigorated by the action.
  • Ensure value/cost is always a factor. Yes, value is a judgment, but it is routine in civil markets and resides in Americans’ everyday lives, why not with defense programs and among their customers? For Defense Acquisition COCOMs and the war fighters will certainly have opinions at all levels.

Large lumbering bureaucracies and mature institutions by definition resist change.

To be great, Defense must instead be agile.

Fortunately, Defense is the most direct market affected by the Executive branch. Defense has also been a leader for the nation’s markets so what better way to break away from crony capitalism and get the US back to being a vibrant, creative, and great global powerhouse.

The bottom lines bring us back to the prefaced question of how to rebuild US Defense Greatness.

The answer comes down to the art of the deal.

The preceding lists and story all return to leadership who demands bold results and winning deals: Deals to get the best out of industry, Deals that motivate and reward excellence, Win-Win Deals that aren’t permanent or trap us into a monopoly supplier, Deals that are consumable or as small as possible, Deals that provide timely results for learning and nimbleness… and in the end, Deals that dominate!

Colonel (USAF ret) Robert Newton is a former Pentagon acquisition officer and fighter pilot.