Schedule delays and cost overruns have long plagued U.S. Navy acquisition programs. Attempts to deal with these issues have nearly always involved the nature of contracts used to buy things and the acquisition-review process. My involvement in Navy research and development and acquisition for the past 50 years suggests that the real problem has little to do with either the type of contracts used or the review process. Rather, it is the way we develop the people who populate the organizations that oversee the contracts and conduct the reviews.
In looking for solutions to the problem, we must analyze a time when Navy acquisition programs were successfully prosecuted—such as the roughly half century following World War II, the Cold War years. During this period, the introduction of new technology was pronounced and effective. In June 2003, a group of nine retired civil servants, Navy admirals, and an industry executive conducted a seminar at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California, to consider why that period was so successful from an acquisition viewpoint. The experience of the individuals represented in the group covered the spectrum from R&D to program policy and oversight.
The seminar’s major conclusions were that successful weapons development and subsequent acquisition depend on several critical things, especially technical competence at all levels in the acquisition process, continuity of leadership, high-level cover for program managers who take risks, and an integrated military/civilian/industry team. Four examples of programs that were highly successful and had all of these are the nuclear submarine, the fleet ballistic missile, the Aegis combat system, and the F/A-18. (A transcript of the seminar can be found in a 23 July 2005 NPS Report 97-05-002 by Phil DePoy.)
The most important conclusion reached by seminar participants was the need for technical competence at all levels. Unfortunately, we have substituted process competence for product knowledge. For example, the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA) requirements are all about levels of process understanding, not about technical experience. The Defense Acquisition University teaches future acquisition leaders how to legally do technically unsound things; their curriculum includes no technical competence subjects.
The way the Navy develops its acquisition leaders is the key to solving its acquisition problems, not the inherent nature of the contracts or review processes. In the era of successful acquisition, military officers who became program managers (PMs) had at least one significant tour in a technical-execution organization such as a Navy laboratory or center. With the passage of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, which requires joint military tours to qualify for flag rank, tours in technical-execution organizations were displaced.
Naval officers currently coming into program-management positions have had operational experience and satisfied their DAWIA requirements, but are unfamiliar with the technical institutions available to support them in their program-management roles.
Civilian staffs of program offices, in the days of successful acquisition, were selected from those who had extensive experience in technical-execution organizations. Today, with the shift of Senior Executive Service positions from Navy labs and centers and other technical-execution organizations from the field into headquarters, the most promising engineers and scientists quickly gravitate to program-management staffs in headquarters before they have completed their technical development.
The Navy should modify its development process for both civilian and military PMs and program executive officers (PEOs) to ensure that they serve at least a two-year tour (at the rank of commander for military officers) in a technical-execution organization such as a Navy lab or university-affiliated research center. Civilians who become PMs or PEOs should have at least five to seven years experience performing technical-execution functions in such organizations before assuming these positions.
The decision of what to buy is more critical than the process by which it is bought, because a technically unsound up-front decision will ultimately result in performance, schedule, and cost problems. If implemented, the changes suggested above in the way acquisition personnel are developed will result in PMs/PEOs and staffs that are much better qualified to make sound up-front technical decisions with reduced program technical risk. That will result in programs that more nearly meet planned performance, schedule, and budget.