Navy Acquisition Can Easily Be Fixed

Driven by peer naval competition from Russia and China, the U.S. Navy has embarked on a transformational Fleet Design vision to enhance U.S. naval warfare. Along with new weapon and sensor technologies, this vision is critically dependent upon out-pacing peer competitors with artificial intelligence and cyberspace control.

Like previous transformation visions, this vision has a high probability of failure under the weight of costly, long drawn-out acquisition timelines, driven by the acquisition “build culture” of Department of Defense (DoD) and Navy.  The rapid pace of commercial IT innovation now demands a “buy before build culture,” as Congress has mandated in law. Because commercial IT is globally available for peer competitors to adopt, the hard reality is that the U.S. can no longer remain ahead while fielding and sustaining 3, 4, or even 5 generation old information technology. Given these real-world challenges, it is imperative that Navy rapidly transform the acquisition system to support Fleet Design.  Four, easy to adopt, acquisition changes would help to deliver the Fleet Design vision in time to make a difference.

1. Speed to Capability – In the world of commercial IT procurement or development projects, acquisition timelines average 70%-80% less than similar DoD program timelines. Tax dollar stewardship is the given justification for these long timelines, but in reality long acquisition timelines needlessly increase taxpayer costs and delay needed warfighter capability.

Long acquisition programs also insure that nobody in the acquisition system is personally responsible for failure because a Program Manager’s (PM) 3-4-year leadership tour only covers a portion of the full requirement-to-IOC (Initial Operational Capability) timeline. To turn this around “speed to capability” should be the primary program metric, with cost, performance, and schedule as secondary metrics . Because time is easy to measure, every person in the acquisition system can be graded on speed to capability. Such a system would not diminish the importance and responsibility of a Title X PM’s acquisition authority, but it would enable the rest of the “acquisition team” (oversight, contracts, legal, budgeting) to be responsible for a measured element of a program’s success or failure.

In the fast moving world of IT intensive systems DoD’s “build culture” is exactly wrong for achieving speed to capability. Even in the *Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), the holy book for acquisition contracting, it states that all agencies are obligated to fit requirements into available Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) products before contracting to build a capability. Congress has also called for greater use of COTS products prior to resorting to building, and backed up that law by making non-FAR Other Transaction Authority (OTA) available, for prototyping COTS and non-development capabilities, for all Military PM’s.

2. Passive Oversight – Currently acquisition oversight is effectuated through PM’s, and their staff’s, satisfying hundreds of staff oversight checkers, responsible for various elements of the acquisition process, including requirements, budgets, contracts, and of course legal. None of these checkers (most of whom have never worked in a program office) can say yes to a program decision, but all of them can say no by challenging, kibitzing, and forcing re-briefs. This translates into hundreds of view graph presentations, papers, and scheduled briefings, given to everyone in the chop-chain above the PM, for every decision.

The Milestone Decision Authority (MDA) approval for each major program milestone is the culmination of these hundreds of briefs, put together by program staff support contractors, and reviewed by chop-chain support contractors. It is a lucrative business for support staff contractors and, through no fault of the support contractors, doubles or triples the cost and time for every program. By taking advantage of publishable program status, program decision briefings and most of the acquisition documentation could be replaced with “Passive Oversight” of program planning and tracking information.

Every program utilizes some form of program management automation and tracking activity such as Microsoft Project. Each software tracking system offers the ability to publish project status, to a website interface, with easy to read graphic dash boards that show project green, yellow, or red status (as well as drill down details). This project status is created by the PM’s staff and/or development contractor entries in the planning and tracking application.

Passive oversight would be accomplished by MDA oversight reviewers continuously monitoring each program’s published status to track program health. Programs would continuously publish status, for all authorized reviewers to access passively through web accessible dashboards. If a project is showing green or yellow, no oversight action would be taken or allowed. If a project is showing red, an appropriate level of oversight action would start, beginning with a phone meeting to better understand the situation.

For green and yellow status programs, “letter” MDA approvals could be processed to eliminate the lengthy MDA decision cycle. ACAT MDA authority would continue as it currently exits and could be delegated downward based on successful passive oversight results. The freed up oversight staff time, and fewer meetings, could be used to reduce the size of oversight staffs and support contractors at all levels, thereby saving resources. PEOs and PMs would be fully accountable for any purposely misrepresented program status and punished accordingly.

3. OTA Prototype to Production – The most useful Congressional change to contracting law over my career is the current extension of OTA prototyping authorization to all DoD programs. Not only does the proper use of OTA prototyping help a program quickly discover COTS and non-traditional defense contractor products, it also helps quickly eliminate ineffective solutions, thereby, using less program time and resources.

Commercial companies use proof of concept prototypes (POC) to validate COTS products, new system ideas, and technology maturity, before full adoption into a product line. Using a series of prototypes to validate POC capabilities enables the technical crawl, walk, run needed to support speed to capability.

Low cost OTA prototypes can be used during the material solution analysis period to help inform Milestone A, followed by more extensive prototypes that inform Milestone B. Following Milestone B, OTAs can produce early limited production proof of concept prototypes to inform Milestone C and full rate FAR contracting. OTA Prototyping to Production” helps inform strong technical understanding early in the life of a program or modernization activity, while also helping to inform program planning and reporting to support passive oversight.

DoD OTA consortia, now processing billions of dollars in OTA transactions each year, are helping to unburden FAR contract staffs, while shortening contracting time for early program phases. Time is money and long drawn out and overly protested contract activity is a large expense in the lifecycle of a program.

4. Strong Technical Leadership – Excessive acquisition oversight and bureaucratic processes have driven many strong technical people away from a Navy acquisition career path. Couple that with the DoD culture that believes any Defense Acquisition University (DAU) qualified person can manage any program, and the Navy has a perfect storm in the face of peer-competitor National Security challenges. Simultaneously, systems have become so complex and integrated that writing a FAR build specification contract and delivering a successful cost, schedule, performance program is highly risky.

To know that acquisition is on the wrong path, one must only ask how the Navy invented and delivered highly technical nuclear submarines, submarine launched ballistic missiles, AEGIS ships, and Tomahawk missiles, all within cost, performance, and short timeline schedules; something that isn’t repeated today despite the extra DAU training, information productivity tools, automated design, and automated tracking systems.

Since those early Navy acquisition successes, the workforce has migrated away from deep technical understanding of the systems being built. At the same time, most PMs use their technical directors as trouble shooters and technical commenters, rather than direct program line authority. Because deep technical understanding is not a requirement for assignment as PM or Assistant PM, programs are often managed with little understanding of technical issues that sidetrack effective program delivery.

Independent of the program requirements, budgeting, and contracting activities, it is almost always technical challenges and solutions that define acquisition program success or failure. By putting a “strong technical manager” directly underneath a PM, to manage all things technical, the PM is freed up to focus on the constant challenges of budgeting, contracting, and oversight, while also making final decisions on technical issues.

A review of the history of the AEGIS weapon and shipbuilding program, or the Strategic Systems Program, shows that both organizations used a strong technical manager directly in line under the PM. These were the people often promoted to the PM position, following that senior technical position, thereby insuring that the PM also had deep technical knowledge of the program, and likewise had usually been with a single program for a large portion of their career.

By implementing “Strong Technical Leadership,” in conjunction with the recommended changes for program “Speed to Capability,” the workforce will migrate toward stronger technical understanding by rewarding program technical experience and expertise. This also facilitates trading support contractor briefings and acquisition documents for engineering planning, tracking, and automated documentation tools, while incentivizing a workforce that leverages these automation aids.

Improving the DoD acquisition processes has been a constant theme for the past twenty years. To date, all of the well intentioned policy changes have not solved the problem of long expensive acquisition programs that fail to deliver as planned. If anything it has gotten worse. These four ideas:

  1. Speed to Capability
  2. Passive Oversight
  3. OTA Prototype to Production
  4. Strong Technical Leadership

… require no significant DoD 5000 acquisition policy changes and no Congressional law changes. By implementing these changes Navy would begin to adopt a buy before build culture and remain closer to the leading edge of commercial IT capability. Adopting these relatively easy changes would give the Fleet Design vision a fighting chance.


* FAR Subpart 12.101 Policy.

“Agencies shall—

(a) Conduct market research to determine whether commercial items or non-developmental items are available that could meet the agency’s requirements;

(b) Acquire commercial items or non-developmental items when they are available to meet the needs of the agency; and

(c) Require prime contractors and subcontractors at all tiers to incorporate, to the maximum extent practicable, commercial items or non-developmental items as components of items supplied to the agency.”

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