Does the US Still Lead the Way in Defense Acquisition Innovation?

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Demonstration of a Leclerc tank in Paris, on Bastille day 2006. The Leclerc turret is used on the European Main Battle Tank. (Image: Rama/Wikimedia Commons)
Demonstration of a Leclerc tank in Paris, on Bastille day 2006. The Leclerc turret is used on the European Main Battle Tank. (Image: Rama/Wikimedia Commons)

Jen Choi is a senior systems engineer at MITRE, a not-for-profit technology company.

Last year was undoubtedly the year of defense acquisition change in the U.S. The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, OUSD(A&S), was formally established, and it began disrupting the status quo by digitizing acquisition policy, launching digital acquisition tools, and publishing the "Other Transactions Guide."

Much more change is certainly still to come, so what can we learn from recent developments in the rest of the acquisition world?

Last July, the French government announced it also needed acquisition transformation, to focus on its priorities of efficiency and responsiveness. The Direction Générale de l'Armement (the French procurement office) outlined its multi-pronged approach to transformation, which includes standing up a new innovation agency; halving the number of phases arms programs must go through; and switching to payment upon delivery rather than time-based, phased payment (regardless of delivery or not). Although these declarations may be short, they are far from simple: These are fundamental changes that demonstrate France's commitment to modernize acquisition strategy and invest in defense innovation.

Only six months since the declaration, the new French Agency for Innovation in Defense hosted its first Forum for Innovation in Defense, where 160 projects were showcased for their applicability in both defense and civilian problem spaces. From the swift pace of action and growing momentum, it's clear the French government is committed to change.

Also last July, France and Germany unveiled the European Main Battle Tank, a joint venture between them. The program took only three years to develop from agreement to prototype. By leveraging proven and tested French and German technologies, the two nations were able to respond to an operational need by quickly designing and building a new weapons system.

On the flip side, the deputy director of acquisition for the NATO Communications and Information Agency wrote an article calling for more flexible and innovative approaches for IT acquisition. Due to the cross-cutting and full-spectrum applicability of IT resources, these acquisitions are subject to three differing procedures and authorities, depending on which stage of the IT system's life cycle they're operating in.

In addition, one of the three relevant IT acquisition strategies requires Firm Fixed Price (FFP) contracts even though more flexible and innovative approaches exist. Also problematic: The top two criteria in evaluating best-value FFPs are price and technology.

In the world of constantly changing IT, the latest and more advanced products often come with a higher price tag. This quickly creates a paradox for any acquisition professional. Advanced technology may offer the best solution, but the ability to pursue these approaches is constrained by regulation. Looks like it's not just the U.S. experiencing acquisition policy pains.

What can the U.S. acquisition professional take from these examples?

First, encouragement. Members of the U.S. acquisition community can take heart that they are leaders. The introduction of the first follower is what transforms an individual into a leader. Although the Pentagon's recent acquisition reorganization came with growing pains, the U.S. is leading a movement. France has also decided to uproot its acquisition structure and embrace defense innovation. As time goes by, other countries likely will begin disrupting their own acquisition worlds. So, U.S. acquisition professionals can take solace and find encouragement from knowing that their actions and willingness to change are having a truly international impact.

Second, awareness that the U.S. is not alone! It's easy to get frustrated and feel overwhelmed by overlapping, confusing and byzantine acquisition rules and regulations. However, weapons development is an extraordinarily difficult endeavor, and other countries struggle too. Defense acquisition will always be complex. It's "normal" to feel frustrated that the U.S. acquisition community doesn't have it completely figured out, but OUSD(A&S) is putting improvements into place and is committed to making forward progress.

And lastly, inspiration. If France and Germany, two countries with different needs, cultures and languages that fought wars against each other in the past century can now work together to quickly and efficiently build a joint battle tank, then surely acquisition professionals worldwide can cooperate to find better ways to acquire defense products and technology.

As you set new goals for the calendar year, take time to reflect on the United States' newfound role as an agent of change. OUSD(A&S) is improving the ability to bring top-quality systems to the warfighter faster. How can you serve as a leader for the international acquisition community in 2019?

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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