The quest for defense acquisition reform has been pursued for decades, always with more regulatory changes, new buzzwords, borrowed practices from successful businesses, and ever-increasing layers of oversight—but not much success. Too often, major system developments continue to overrun their budgets and schedules. In fact, it sometimes seems that the more we’ve reformed, the worse the results have been. Conventional wisdom holds that the acquisition “system” is broken and requires major repair. Two legislative initiatives—Public Law 111-23: “The Weapons System Reform Act of 2009,” co-sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levin (D-MI), and House Bill HR 5013, “The IMPROVE Acquisition Act,” sponsored by Representative Ike Skelton (D-MO)—are some of the more recent attempts to fix the perceived breakage with prescriptions for yet more oversight, better metrics, and even participation by private accounting firms. Ironically, the general obsession with fixing acquisition ills was never shared by one of the most successful program managers in history, Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer, who passed away in September 2009. Known as the “Father of Aegis,” Admiral Meyer was for 13 years the project manager for the versatile and highly adaptable Aegis Weapon System and then the founding project manager of the Aegis Shipbuilding Project, which commissioned its first ship, the USS Ticonderoga (CG-47), on time and under budget—an elusive achievement for any major procurement today.
What he started has become the longest-running shipbuilding program in the nation’s history, going on 40 years now. This success earned him great credibility on how to run a major system acquisition program, and he became a trusted adviser on such matters to Department of Defense and Navy leaders for the 25 years following his retirement. While much has been written about his career, not much has been written about his ideas.
We worked closely with Admiral Meyer for many years and regularly benefited from his vast experience and wisdom. He frequently shared his views on the principles of successful program leadership, many of which now seem forgotten or perhaps were never learned in the first place.
Defense leaders should consider these principles if their attempts at “acquisition reform” are to be successful. The following six—which are summaries rather than exact quotes—attempt to set out some of Admiral Meyer’s core beliefs. They are by no means a complete set, nor can their full sophistication be fleshed out in this article. But they do provide a starting point for understanding Meyer’s success.
Sound Engineering Is the Key to Success
Acquisition programs do not fail because of a lack of best business practices; they fail because of a lack of engineering leadership, engineering expertise, and engineering practices. The principal challenge facing all major weapon development programs is technical. Changing a program’s technical approach is often the only degree of freedom a program manager has to contain cost and schedule.
Yet today’s managers are taught how to “manage acquisition,” not how to make technology work. Meyer used to say “the world is awash in technology,” but what is significant is its use and application in solving warfighting problems. Engineering holds the key to that challenge. Cost accounting and schedules are merely indicators of how well we’re doing the engineering, and one cannot understand the cost and schedule impacts with little engineering knowledge.
For some years, we have de-emphasized the need for military engineering expertise from our program leaders and have attempted to make them better businessmen. Unfortunately, this focus will not suffice for acquisition professionals. When a program gets in trouble, a technically unsophisticated program manager is most vulnerable. Meyer would have agreed with Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard, who wrote, “Some say good managers can manage anything; they can manage well without really knowing what they are trying to manage. It’s the management skills that count. I don’t argue that the job can’t be done that way, but I do argue strongly that the best job can be done when the manager has a genuine and thorough understanding of the work.”1
Experienced Officers Must Run Military Programs
When Meyer met or was asked for his opinion of a prospective program manager, he would call for the candidate’s biography and look at his operational experience. He found many wanting and would dismiss them as “civilians in military clothes.” For him, one tour of sea duty was not enough. In his day, he and his fellow officers had many tours at sea interspersed with tours ashore in the material bureaus, system commands, and field stations. They understood that the delineation between operational requirements and engineering requirements is never clear. Where one ended and the other began was not packageable in a set of documents. Episodic program reviews or periodic meetings between operators and engineers were also not adequate to do the translations needed. The connection between engineer and operator had to be much more intimate and frequent if complex warfare problems were to be solved.
Meyer got help here from his sponsor, Vice Admiral James H. Doyle Jr., head of Surface Warfare under the Chief of Naval Operations. Not only did Doyle champion the Aegis project and its programs in the Pentagon and Congress, he also double-hatted his naval officers as members of the Aegis Project Office (code PMS-400) and took them with him to Moorestown, New Jersey, to participate in the design of the cruiser combat information center. Doyle’s officers had full-run of the program and participated in every program review at the contractors’ and field activities and all the key engineering or operational events.
Doyle’s championship stemmed in part from the vision of then-CNO Admiral James L. Holloway III, who demanded that Aegis cruisers and destroyers function as integral players in his battle group concept. Thus, understanding of the complete requirements for the program involved a flow down from the operational vision of the CNO, shepherding and shaping by the program sponsor, and the leadership and technical knowledge of the project manager.
Ultimately, the roles of operator and engineer had to be combined in the project manager himself—a position only a military officer could fill. He had to thoroughly understand both aspects of the warfighting problem to be solved. Meyer never limited his job to “acquiring” a more capable radar, missile, or ship. His task, and that of the organization he led, was to defeat the antiship cruise missile threat.
‘Build a Little, Test a Little . . .’
There really is no choice if the problem is an engineering one. “You can only engineer what you know how to do,” he often said. He compared a flawed engineering approach to trying to take a 6-year-old from learning addition one day to solving differential equations the next. It can’t be done. Thus, engineering can never skip a generation—a goal of many post-Cold War reformers. In this vein, his belief that no program could succeed with more than two or three unknowns (or inventions) makes sense—too much to learn and not enough patience from the nation to learn it. Thus, any program that incorporates more than three major unproven technologies is likely to fail.
Meyer believed all engineering is evolutionary, and getting from discovery or invention to a useful product is very hard. To him, he said, “engineering is tick, tick, tick.” Sometimes it takes decades and significant resources to succeed, because engineers are often trying to solve problems never encountered by humans before. Success will depend on sound engineering practices more than best business practices, and those sound practices sometimes must be discovered as you go.
One of his most famous sayings, “Build a Little, Test a Little, Learn a Lot,” is actually a statement of a sound engineering practice for moving forward only when you’ve learned where you are (which may not always be obvious). It was a reaction to “shooting your way out of trouble,” a practice in early missile engineering that was found wanting. Since failure was not an option in his mind, maintaining “fallback on fallback on fallback” (or sometimes stated “backup on backup on backup”) was yet another sound engineering practice if the pace forward was to be sustained. Once a practice worked, it became inviolable to Meyer.
Not only did he believe he had to “start from where we are at” for engineering reasons, he also believed the principle applied to maintaining the total force. For the Navy, that means the Fleet, and the Fleet cannot be changed overnight. Engineering has to recognize that. At least three significant programs came out of Aegis engineering efforts focused on upgrading the “Fleet in Being” (the Tartar and Terrier missile fleet) while the Navy waited on the promise of the yet-to-arrive Aegis cruisers and destroyers. Such an evolutionary approach does not necessarily mean slow. It means sure. Through these upgrades to in-service ships, Meyer’s Aegis project revealed what worked and what did not. Any program designed to leap ahead of this natural learning process will be problematic.
The Challenge Is a Continuum
Meyer did not believe in “acquisition.” As practiced today, this is merely the phase that covers development and production. In actuality, it is the management oversight process for that phase conducted at the higher levels of DOD and the military services. It requires programs to navigate through gates and gatekeepers to reach a production decision. Meyer never saw his challenge in such narrow terms. He was from Missouri, and he would often regale his listeners with stories of the Corps of Engineers and their attempts to control the flood waters of the Missouri River near his birthplace. They started with dikes and dredging where the flooding began, then found that these did not work. So they moved farther upstream and then farther downstream, as unexpected problems resulted from the fixes. Meanwhile, the river itself kept changing on them. Ultimately, they found they had to deal with the entire river all the time.
Thus, Meyer would talk about “things material,” not acquisition. He saw the approach of breaking things material into separate phases, with responsibility assigned to different organizations and officials, as a formula for disaster. This approach always creates the need for transitions that cannot be overcome easily. The resulting compartmentalization also leads to the current diagnosis that a key reason for acquisition cost increases is that the military or the government (or whoever) from an earlier phase did not get the requirements right, or worse, kept changing those requirements.
Today we think that to make acquisition work, we must enlist legions of people and tons of analyses to get the requirements right and then outlaw any changes. But Meyer knew he was trying to solve a warfighting problem that was not well understood and constantly evolving. The engineering had to deal with the entire problem, from the headwaters to the delta, at the same time and all the time. Requirements had to be discovered, and change was part of the equation. It could not be outlawed.
While Aegis was being designed, the Soviets were trying to come up with counters to its capabilities. Change was inevitable, could not be ignored, and had to be dealt with in real time. Eventually, all these became aspects of the “system thinking” pioneered by Meyer and his Aegis team. They had to deal in all of its aspects, from weapon system to combat system to ship to Fleet, and from discovery to in-service support. He used to say, “if it sounds like Aegis, looks like Aegis, or smells like Aegis, it must be Aegis, and we are in charge of working on it.” Today’s concept of rigid “swim lanes” was unknown. Officers and civilians were encouraged to exercise their intellectual curiosity and to feel responsible for everything.
No Universal Solutions
Meyer was not a believer in magic formulas like “Total Quality Management,” or all-DOD directives such as full-service contracting and commercial-off-the-shelf technology, or engineering panaceas like open architecture. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution” and “no universal coffee grinder.” Commonality had its limits; standardization was a better approach. He was skeptical of the current fascination with metrics, saying, “We now believe we can quantify anything.” Like Admiral Hyman Rickover, he believed, “Numbers, like facts, are good servants but bad masters.”2
Over the years, he constantly denigrated most acquisition-reform initiatives as examples of “if a little bit is okay, a whole lot must be a lot better!” Instead, Meyer believed in professionalism. Professionals do not emerge fully formed out of the Defense Acquisition University or any other school. Schooling is necessary but not sufficient. It is merely an entry point. Graduates, as with rookies in professional sports, are just talented amateurs to be tried and tested. Becoming professional is much tougher. Meyer’s profession, naval engineering, was a calling that required not only a good education but experience at many levels, listening to mentors and learning from the school of hard knocks. Meyer’s mentors became legends themselves as he constantly referred to them in his soliloquies—Vice Admiral Eli T. Reich, Rear Admiral Roger Elmore Spreen, radar expert Bob Hill, system engineer Dr. A. K. Kossiakoff, and many others both at sea and ashore. He credited many of them again in the Fall 2009 special publication, “The Story of Aegis.”3
It was a lifetime of continuous learning, not attendance at a DOD school, that achieved professionalism. The sound professional judgment of the leader and his team—not some technology readiness level or any other metric—were the key to deciding whether a system was to proceed from one phase to another. The task was not as simple as approving a loan (where a metrics-only approach has also been found sometimes wanting). Nor was it as simple as taking a vote. It was a job for the best and most proven professionals in the nation, not rookies or amateurs backed up by academically derived business practices. His Navy had understood at one time how to create such professionals. In fact, it had created him. In his later years, he was concerned that his service had forgotten how to do so.
It’s About People
The challenge all major programs face is the harnessing of thousands of people toward a common goal. And most of the talented people in our country do not wear blue suits. Meyer often lectured his fellow naval officers that the Navy needs civilians, but civilians do not need the Navy. Talented people can always find a place to apply themselves. Thus, finding, attracting, and enlisting talent is a continuing challenge for any Navy program. Meyer would also say, “no one has a lock on talent, you have to take it where it lays.” No one company, laboratory, contractor, or educational institution has all the best people; and if the program must have them to solve the problem, the program manager must build the bridges to each of them.
Hence, he did not believe in adversarial or arms-length relationships with his contractors. Nor did he believe in holding their feet to the fire. He believed in building partnerships. The challenge of Aegis was not merely his, it was also that of other leaders: Bill Goodwin at RCA; Len Erb at Litton/Ingalls; Ralph Hawes at General Dynamics; Jim Colvard at Dahlgren; Pete Cahn at Computer Sciences Corporation; George Luke at the Applied Physics Lab; Bill Haggett at Bath Iron Works; Harvey Scherr at Port Hueneme; Tony Abate at Raytheon; and numerous others across the years. Also meeting the challenge were Aegis Area Commanders, members of the Aegis Council of Vice-Presidents, Aegis Element Managers, and a legion of dedicated individuals. Meyer formed personal relationships with them all, from corporate president to receptionist. And they all knew the partnerships were not just between their individual organizations and the Aegis Project Office, but between “Wayne” and them.
Meyer was also skeptical about the value of competition, especially the constant procurement competition frequently advocated by reformers as a means of achieving innovation and lowering costs. Instead, he looked on such methods as destructive and believed in teamwork. Once the team members had been selected (and all the private-sector members of the Aegis team were selected competitively), he went about forming trusting relationships with them and creating connections between them and other activities to form an Aegis movement for the long haul. In so doing, the business relationships and business practices had to reflect the engineering risks of the undertaking and the needs of all parties. The pioneering use of Cost Plus Award Fee contracts by the project office is an example of one such business practice. It was the perfect multiple-incentive vehicle for all concerned.
The Best Can’t Be Broken
Ultimately, Meyer did not believe that acquisition is broken. He believed that our nation and our Navy had the best material establishment in the world. It had out-produced and out-armed all the participants in World War II put together. It had won the Cold War by driving the Soviets into bankruptcy. If it is the best in the world, how can it be broken? Can it be improved? Certainly. But not likely by lawyers, accountants, businessmen, and misguided legislators. The problems are fundamentally technical and military in nature and can only be solved by engineers and military professionals who have learned the lessons of their trade. It is very hard work, demanding our country’s best to master. The competition will be an enemy’s material establishment, not some corporation. And Meyer knew that, by taking our eye off the real problems, we can surrender our lead. He knew the price of failure.
On 10 October 2009, the destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG-108), the 85th Aegis ship, was placed in commission. Originally scheduled to conclude with DDG-112, the longest-running shipbuilding project in our history has been restarted. Following Meyer’s plan, those cruisers and destroyers have evolved considerably since his first ships. The recent cancellation of ballistic-missile-defense sites in central Europe was justified on the grounds that modern, ballistic-missile-defense-equipped Aegis ships could protect continental Europe from Iranian missiles. The Aegis ballistic-missile-defense program continues many of the principles and practices advocated by Meyer (they are far more numerous than we have discussed here). It also used him as a key adviser until his final days. It is no coincidence that Aegis’ record in ballistic-missile-defense testing is unmatched.
Clearly, the Aegis project and the leadership of Meyer are learning sources for any acquisition reform movement. We should be looking first for lessons from the successes in our own projects and professions rather than from Wall Street or some consumer-goods manufacturer. The temptation lies in believing that because business has produced the world’s best phone, pad, or pod while maximizing return on investment, those principles and practices should guide defense program managers. Admiral Meyer would not have believed it.
1. David Packard, The HP Way (New York: HarperCollins, first paperback edition, 1996), p. 154.
2. Letter from H. G. Rickover to The Honorable L. Mendel Rivers, U.S. House of Representatives, 4 August 1970, p. 17.
3. “The Story of Aegis,” Special Edition of Naval Engineers Journal, 2009, Vol. 121, No. 3.
Mr. Kimmel worked with Admiral Meyer on almost a daily basis for 14 years and was the editor of “The Story of Aegis,” a special edition of the Naval Engineers Journal published in 2009 by the American Society of Naval Engineers.
Captain Tangredi directly experienced the changes in the Fleet from Aegis as they unfolded throughout his 30-year career and served in positions where he could understand their importance in a larger strategic context.