Imagine this scenario:
The Chief Naval Officer (CNO) notifies the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition (ASN/RDA) that the Navy needs a new multimission surface combatant.
ASN/RDA: “Got it. Send us the requirements; we will initiate an acquisition program. We should be able to down-select a vendor and begin construction in 40 years.”
CNO: “Forty years! That’s unacceptable! By that time, propulsion technology will have undergone two generations of evolution, sensor technology maybe three generations. Our requirements will be obsolete!”
ASN/RDA: “Sorry. To comply with statutes and regulations, that’s how long it will take.”
Unfortunately, this fairly accurately describes the timeline for the defense procurement process to deliver several important technologies and capabilities.
It is routine for a defense procurement, including acquisition of information technology, to take five or more years from the establishment of requirements to down-select of the provider and contract start. During those years, the underlying technology will evolve significantly. Sensor technology will have evolved at least one cycle. The information technology that undergirds nearly every system we build will evolve at the speed of Moore’s Law, one generation every 18 months. Worse, it is common for the affected military service or agency to suspend security and technology updates on existing systems during the procurement cycle, believing it is better to wait until the new contract is available.
Suspension of normal upgrades to systems during the acquisition cycle results in a “trough of stagnation,” during which the affected systems become more vulnerable to failure or attack. This degradation of readiness likely makes the delta between “current state” and “needed state” more substantial than specified in the initial requirements. As a result, when the systems are delivered, because the starting point degraded while technology evolved over the course of the acquisition cycle, disappointment is certain. Either cost to close the gap causes the allocated budget to be missed, or since our enemies are not constrained by the same byzantine processes, insufficient capability is delivered to protect the warfighter.
While much attention is paid to preventing “contractual risk” by adhering to a strict set of guidelines intended to ensure fairness in the acquisition process, there is no countervailing attention paid to the risk imposed on soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and national security, by the years of delays and billions of dollars spent unnecessarily. (It is normal for the acquisition process to cost hundreds of millions of dollars for a sizeable procurement program, costs that yield no benefit to the final product but divert money from weapons and readiness.)
Most senior defense leaders recognize the acquisition process is a national security problem. The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (USD/AT&L) issued firm guidance in an attempt to fix the acquisition process, but it was largely ignored. A myriad of studies and scores of recommendations from the Defense Business Board as well as several USD/AT&L “Better Buying Power” initiatives have been issued but nothing has changed.
Thus far, the process has proven intractable. Some constraints are statutory, but in addition, too many people within the department believe the process is necessary, either because of the “fairness” issue cited above or because of a perceived need to practice “defensive contracting” to fend off post-award litigation.
Because so many inside attempts to reform the system have failed, this change can only be made from the outside. On 18 May 2017, Representative Max Thornberry (D-TX), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, introduced legislation to address some of the deficiencies in the process. While it is a step in the right direction, it does not go nearly far enough. Congress must act with the speed appropriate to address this serious national security problem.
The enemy is the process itself. For the good of our country, it must be fixed.
Captain Toti is a regular columnist for Proceedings Today and frequent contributor to Proceedings. He was the 2000 Proceedings Author of the Year.