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Slow-Down at the Pentagon: What Would Baldwin Say Today?

By Gregory F. Treverton and J. David Patterson

The title is that of a 1965 article by a distinguish defense journalist, Hanson Baldwin. Partly—but not entirely—for an interesting comparison, we seek to bring it up to date!

He lamented that the Armed Force Procurement Regulations, the “bible” for military contractors, less than 125 pages in 1947, but 1,200 pages and growing daily by 1965. He would be both surprised and pleased to find that today’s bible, Defense Department (DoD) Instruction 5000.2 is a fraction of the 1965 1,200 pages, clocking in at a reasonable 172 pages. On the other hand, in the late 1950s, a major contractor assessed, looking carefully at its record, that it took four to five months to execute a contract from the time the Pentagon received an acceptable price to when the contractor received the final document. By 1965, the same contractor estimate that the average had jumped to nine to twelve months; some were completed in a month but other took as much as 23 months. Now that number is in excess of 24 months just for the source selection process, before any capability is fielded.

Though Baldwin made his case by citing numerous programs that have taken an inordinately long time and, in some cases canceled before being fielded, the main target of his criticism was the McNamara acquisition system and the disruptive, time-consuming interference of what he painted with a very broad brush as,

The sprawling bureaucracy of Big Government; the control of major military or para-military projects by agencies over which the Defense Department has no direct authority, including the Atomic Energy Commission, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Bureau of the Budget; Congressional legislation and executive regulation—social, political and economic; the tremendous size and complexity of the armed forces; over-centralization and over-regulation in the Pentagon; too much service rivalry and not enough service competition—all these and other factors have become built-in roadblocks in defense development and contracting.

Setting aside the lengthy sentence that would have made Edward Bulwer-Lytton proud, Baldwin has captured the essence of what makes achieving greater speed in acquisition programs difficult. There are too many equities involved; too many agencies and interests to be served.

Recently, Ellen Lord, the new Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment used language that Baldwin would have shared in making it clear that acquisition programs take too long to field and that speed in getting programs to the field is a top priority. At last October’s Association of the US Army conference, Lord expects to “see a 50 percent cut in the time it takes to get a program started, the time it takes the Pentagon to turn a requirement into a Request for Information (RFI) or for Proposal (RFP).” Regarding the length of time it takes, Lord said, “I know it’s way too long.” Lord reiterated that point before the Senate Armed Services Committee when Senator Rounds asked her if there was a goal for cutting back acquisition times. She responded that her goal was to achieve a reduction from the current 2.5-year average for just the source selection competition process to 12 months.

In 1965, the rule of thumb was that it took about seven years for a system to move from a gleam in the eye of the designer to an operational finished product. Contrast that with the F-35 aircraft, the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history, which by 2014 was seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. So, too, Baldwin was critical of the pace of innovation, noting that in 1965, almost all the major weapons systems in operation or development (Polaris, Minuteman, B-70, TFX or F-111, AR-15 rifle, and more) were being produced, developed or designed in the 1950s.

Until recently, it is doubtful that Baldwin would have noticed appreciable improvement. Research com­pleted last August (2017) by SMA, Inc., using GovWin IQ data looked at 18 significant acquisition pro­grams, selected because there were sufficient source selection and award schedule data. Of the programs for which data was available, 14 programs were Army, two Air Force and two Navy. The average value of all the programs studied was $1.4 billion. The purpose of the study was to determine if significant acquisition programs could reasonably have the source selection and award schedules accelerated. What the research found was that program management missed 93 percent of the anticipated source selection schedule dates—more than nine out of ten. For all 18 acquisition programs the average number of days the schedule source selection dates were missed was 238 days.

Baldwin also lamented the emphasis on requirements, which tends to reduce innovation. He quotes a well-known defense scientist: “If we had required a clear-cut mission, we would probably have devel­oped no airplanes, no spacecraft, or, in fact, no wheel.” One wonders what he would have made of today’s state of affairs. At least, he would have to acknowledge that the requirements process makes a stab at identifying requirements that have an appropriate capability assigned. The Joint Capabilities Integration Development System, despite the process’ mind numbing, labyrinthine set of activities and reports, purports to do what Baldwin laments as lacking. The “Analysis of Alternatives” is designed to identify when a suitable capability already exists or more important, when innovative development is required. Adopting the “Third Offset Strategy” leveraging innovation to engage near-peer and lesser adversaries speaks directly to Baldwin’s concerns.

Every administration comes into office determined to reform the acquisition process, and virtually all have been frustrated. Congress cheerleads for efficiency but too often acts to undermine it. It is no acci­dent that part of the ills plaguing the F-35 program is that building its components had to be scattered across the country’s congressional districts. Indeed, it may set the record by using parts coming from 46 states! It is the “stroke and poke” typical of legislative side of the “iron triangle”—Congress, the Penta­gon, and defense contractors. This is not likely to change.

Today, there seems a sea state change in the Pentagon, and so the question will be whether this admin­istration can avoid the fate of its predecessors. Now, there is also a concerted and energized effort make all the management processes inside the Pentagon leaner and more effective. Secretary Mattis is leading the charge to create a more lethal and responsive military and has such stalwart advocates as retired Army Major General Bob Scales leading the charge. Scales is the chairman of the Pentagon’s “Close Com­bat Lethality Task Force” and has lost no time in defining the challenge, “industry and government leaders to put a leap-ahead rifle in his boss’ hands in less than two years—or else.” Accelerating the fielding of all weapons systems is management emphasis theme in the Pentagon these days.

Congress is on board with legislation mandating a more streamlined management process. The National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2017 directed the Defense Department to reorganize the office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics into the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Research and Engineering, and the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment. Congress believe that research should have a more prominent place in the DoD organiza­tion. Additionally, Congress believed that greater emphasis on research and engineering would lead to more rapid development of weapons systems.

From the President down to the Service Secretaries there is a common voice resolutely calling for a more efficient, less costly approach to acquisition. The President’s interest in cutting the cost of the F-35 and Presidential aircraft were very public. And whether those savings were planned previously or not, major emphasis on getting them into these programs cannot be denied.

Both Undersecretaries, for Research and Engineering and for Acquisition and Sustainment, have been very vocal in their intention to reduce the time it takes to field weapons systems and equipment and to reduce the costs involved. The Deputy Secretary of Defense is on record echoing the same dedication to creating a more streamlined, cost-efficient, and business-like Department of Defense. It would seem for the first time the entire Defense Department leadership is of one mind and a single voice dedicated to being better stewards of the tax payers’ dollars while ensuring the warfighters have the most capability, fielded in time to make a difference on the battlefield.

The newest addition to the Pentagon acquisition system leadership, Michael Griffin, Under Secretary for Research and Engineering, is also strongly critical of the inordinate time it takes for the Defense Depart­ment to field weapon systems and equipment. Reported in the U.S. Department of Defense 6 March Press Release, the ninth Defense Programs Conference sponsored by McAleese and Associates and Credit Suisse, Griffin lamented the fact that it takes, “about 16.5 years to go from a statement of need to initial operating capability.” Griffin went on to explain that the U.S. used to field weapons in the same two to three-year timeframe that China does now. To make his point even stronger, Griffin said, “The Chinese love our acquisition system, they are the biggest fans of our acquisition system that there could possibly be; they certainly don’t want us to change it.” When you consider the latest National Defense Strategy identifies China as one of the U.S. national security near-peer competitors and threats, Griffin’s statement is not comforting, but indicative of the new emphasis placed on meeting near peer threats with an accelerated acquisition system.

But it’s not just the time it takes to field weapons systems that is receiving serious attention from Penta­gon leadership. The entire management process from top to bottom is getting a scrub with the intention to greatly improve efficiency and effectiveness of all aspects of what the Defense Department does. De­spite what is clearly a daunting challenge, effective cost-savings measures are being implemented now, led by the Department of Defense Chief Management Officer with a congressionally-mandated expanded role and portfolio of responsibilities. It’s not just some of the “E-Ring” in the Pentagon interested in pur­suing innovative ways to put speed into the weapons-buying process.

The services and service components resurrecting a process known as Other Transaction Authority, or OTA, to field weapons and equipment expeditiously. OTA has been around for some time, but because OTA uses a process that “works around” the normal acquisition process, eliminating some aspects of full and open competition, Congress has not always looked kindly on the OTA approach. Since OTA expedites the process, as Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel, Air Force Director of Information Technology explains, “This mechanism is just so much faster and so much more attuned to getting something quickly that we want today and not have to spend a couple years going through a protest, going through this huge process to get something we wanted two years ago.” Under Secretary Lord, also sees OTA as a means of getting capability to the warfighter more quickly as she is eager to use OTA as a tool for the Defense Department to cut contracting time by fifty percent.

If Baldwin were to take a look at the initiatives taking place today inside the Defense Department, he would recognize familiar problems, and he might not be totally satisfied that getting speed into the acquisition system had been fixed. But even the harshest critic would have to admit the Military Departments, DoD management and leadership are of one mind and the direction is positive.

Published on June 28, 2018 by

Dick Eassom, CF APMP Fellow