US Military Tries, Again, to Improve Its Acquisition
“When it comes to procurement, for the better part of five decades, the trend has gone toward lower numbers as technology gains have made each system more capable. In recent years, these platforms have grown ever more baroque, have become ever more costly, are taking longer to build, and are being fielded in ever-dwindling quantities. Given that resources are not unlimited, the dynamic of exchanging numbers for capability is perhaps reaching a point of diminishing returns.” (US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates)
Weapon projects are inherently difficult. Many are custom systems that use a wide array of new technologies, and have production runs that are incredibly small by civilian standards. Even commercial aerospace efforts tend to stumble under these pressures; as demonstrated by Airbus’ A380 super-jumbo and Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, a pair of top-priority “bet the company” planes. Both will finish about 2 years late, and well over budget. Faced with a continuous stream of similar experiences, military and political observers have tried various flavors of military acquisition reform over the past several decades, in the USA and abroad. Britain recently began moving forward on its Smart Procurement reform plan and its Defence Industrial Strategy. On the other side of the globe, Australia’s Kinnaird Review [PDF] has led to major reforms – though results have not always followed suit. The 2008 Mortimer Review aims to take the next step down under.
At the same time, the dynamics described by SecDef Gates have created a crisis in American defense procurement that has grown big enough to jeopardize its military status. DID has covered the defense procurement spiral and tendency of the US Defense Department to begin more programs than its budget can afford, as well as growing bi-partisan legislative concern at rising weapons costs. There are strong indications that both the Air Force and Navy’s long-term procurement plans are seriously flawed, the Future Combat Systems linchpin of the Army’s long-term modernization plan is under growing budgetary attack and criticized as conceptually wrong, the Marines have run into serious performance and affordability issues with their keystone MV-22 and EFV programs, and the Coast Guard’s future Deepwater acquisition strategy has been forced into a complete reorganization. Amidst these challenges, “political engineering,” less-than-credible initial program estimates, and Congressional interfere create a continuous churn of reallocation and cancellation that raises the cost of surviving programs.
The past few years have seen efforts at organizational defense transformation in the USA – including attempts to give combatant commanders more say in the acquisition process. On the eve of a new Presidential administration, the US military is launching another acquisition reform effort, with new guidelines for weapon procurement. The Secretary of Defense, who will be staying on under a Democrat administration, added himself to the mix with an article in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine…
- Changing the Process: John Young
- Reprogramming the Pentagon: Robert Gates
Changing the Process: John Young
On Dec 2/08, US undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics John Young approved the new policy. DID is working with the OSD to clarify a number of aspects, and this article will be updated as that picture becomes clearer. What we can say with assurance is that these efforts are aimed at 3 long-standing problems.
The 1st set of changes mirror conclusions and practices adopted in Australia and Britain: more up-front investment and prototype development before programs reach key initial milestones. This will also help to address to address the “knowledge gap” that the Congressional GAO has often decried, where key technologies required to fulfill a weapon’s promise are not sufficiently mature to allow for accurate cost prediction, or even performance prediction.
New layers of process, competitive prototyping, and more testing at all stages are all among the changes proposed. So, too, is increased use of industry “prize money” competitions like DARPA’s Grand Challenge and the private $10 million “Ansari X-Prize” won by Scaled Composites’ SpaceshipOne/ White Knight hybrid craft.
The 2nd problem these policy changes aim to address is the problem of changing requirements. These changes can be especially pernicious, as they’re often are added after initial cost estimates have been approved by senior Pentagon officials and Congress. New requirements generally add new costs and challenges, resulting in delays and “sticker shock” later on.
At the same time, the length and difficulty of the current weapon procurement process means that 5 years is a very short development cycle, and 10-15 years is more common. A lot can change over that time, and weapons systems must cope with those changes in order to remain relevant. It’s a classic example of the process’ own red tape and slowness becoming part of a vicious cycle, as an additional factor that raises costs and uncertainty. Which may in turn spawn additional oversight requirements in an attempt to compensate, slowing development even further.
This is a delicate balancing act, but Young appears to be addressing both ends of the conundrum. Department releases discuss ways in which DoD will be revamping a number of Milestone B stage gates and processes. At the same time, he is launching a Lean 6-Sigma/ Continuous Process Improvement effort to reduce paperwork overhead, while complying with all statutory requirements for reporting.
The 3rd problem Young aims at is the continuation of basic technology development right into the final stages of system development, when a program should really be preparing for low-rate manufacturing as it approaches Milestone C. The new approach begins with a reversion to “Engineering and Manufacturing Development” for the final phase of systems development, backed by independent technology and manufacturing readiness assessments.
Reprogramming the Pentagon: Robert Gates
Some of that effort toward improvement is likely to be reflected in different choices, as well as different ways of making those choices. Young’s announcement is bracketed by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ article in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, which is affiliated with the “realist” foreign policy school to which Gates belongs. “A Balanced Strategy Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age” lays out his broad themes going forward: forced choices among services and missions; much more emphasis on both counterinsurgency “knife fights” and long-range capabilities, at the expense of mid-range capabilities; and a broad repudiation of the previous “transformation/ network-centric warfare” ethic.
RE: the need for choices
“The United States cannot expect to eliminate national security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything. The Department of Defense must set priorities and consider inescapable tradeoffs and opportunity costs…”
That statement was reinforced at a recent press conference, where Aviation Week quoted him as saying that:
“While in operational terms, the services have become very joint, I think when it comes to budgets and programs, they are still very service-oriented,” Gates says. “Are you willing – and here is what could get really hard – do you offset risk by investing more in a future-oriented program of one service and less of that in another service?”
RE: shifting toward counterinsurgency:
“The kinds of capabilities needed to deal with [insurgencies and failed states] cannot be considered exotic distractions or temporary diversions. The United States does not have the luxury of opting out because these scenarios do not conform to preferred notions of the American way of war.”
…”Yet even with a better-funded State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, future military commanders will not be able to rid themselves of the tasks of maintaining security and stability. To truly achieve victory as Clausewitz defined it — to attain a political objective — the United States needs a military whose ability to kick down the door is matched by its ability to clean up the mess and even rebuild the house afterward.”
…”When thinking about the range of threats, it is common to divide the “high end” from the “low end,” the conventional from the irregular, armored divisions on one side, guerrillas toting AK-47s on the other. In reality, as the political scientist Colin Gray has noted, the categories of warfare are blurring and no longer fit into neat, tidy boxes. One can expect to see more tools and tactics of destruction — from the sophisticated to the simple — being employed simultaneously in hybrid and more complex forms of warfare.”
…”The Department of Defense’s conventional modernization programs seek a 99 percent solution over a period of years. Stability and counterinsurgency missions require 75 percent solutions over a period of months. The challenge is whether these two different paradigms can be made to coexist in the U.S. military’s mindset and bureaucracy.”
…”In Iraq, an army that was basically a smaller version of the United States’ Cold War force over time became an effective instrument of counterinsurgency. But that transition came at a frightful human, financial, and political cost. For every heroic and resourceful innovation by troops and commanders on the battlefield, there was some institutional shortcoming at the Pentagon they had to overcome. There have to be institutional changes so that the next set of colonels, captains, and sergeants will not have to be quite so heroic or quite so resourceful.”
…”Apart from the Special Forces community and some dissident colonels, however, for decades there has been no strong, deeply rooted constituency inside the Pentagon or elsewhere for institutionalizing the capabilities necessary to wage asymmetric or irregular conflict — and to quickly meet the ever-changing needs of forces engaged in these conflicts.”
RE: conventional peer threats:
…”As someone who used to prepare estimates of Soviet military strength for several presidents, I can say that Russia’s conventional military, although vastly improved since its nadir in the late 1990s, remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor. And adverse demographic trends in Russia will likely keep those conventional forces in check.”
…”In the case of China, Beijing’s investments in cyberwarfare, antisatellite warfare, antiaircraft and antiship weaponry, submarines, and ballistic missiles could threaten the United States’ primary means to project its power and help its allies in the Pacific: bases, air and sea assets, and the networks that support them. This will put a premium on the United States’ ability to strike from over the horizon and employ missile defenses and will require shifts from short-range to longer-range systems, such as the next-generation bomber.”
RE: Transformation and Net-Centric Warfare:
…”We should be modest about what military force can accomplish and what technology can accomplish. The advances in precision, sensor, information, and satellite technologies have led to extraordinary gains in what the U.S. military can do. The Taliban were dispatched within three months; Saddam’s regime was toppled in three weeks. A button can be pushed in Nevada, and seconds later a pickup truck will explode in Mosul. A bomb dropped from the sky can destroy a targeted house while leaving the one next to it intact.
But no one should ever neglect the psychological, cultural, political, and human dimensions of warfare. War is inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain, and it is important to be skeptical of systems analyses, computer models, game theories, or doctrines that suggest otherwise. We should look askance at idealistic, triumphalist, or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to transcend the immutable principles and ugly realities of war, that imagine it is possible to cow, shock, or awe an enemy into submission, instead of tracking enemies down hilltop by hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block. As General William Tecumseh Sherman said, “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”
- NDIA’s National Defense (January 2010) – Acquisition Reform Act: The Backlash Has Begun. Relates to the McCain-Levin Weapon Acquisition System Reform Act of 2009: “…military acquisition officials and contractors are privately moaning about the “unintended consequences” of WSARA. These critics say the law may inadvertently exacerbate some of the problems it was intended to fix. The complaints most often heard are that WSARA duplicates existing regulations, adds fresh layers of bureaucracy and piles of new reporting mandates that could have paralyzing effects on a system that already is sluggish and unresponsive.”
- Forecast International (Nov 19/08) – Daunting Challenges Ahead for Pentagon Acquisitions