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SASC Hearing Preview; Call to Boost Systems Engineering

Sen. Carl Levin begins the hard and probing work about just how to fix the Pentagon's acquisition efforts Tuesday morning during the first of a series of hearings on the subject.

We've gotten an advance look at some of the testimony. Expect very concrete recommendations from Paul Kaminski, former head of Pentagon acquisition, about the critical need for extensive and high-quality systems engineering very early in the process, as well as the importance of restoring a step that was abolished during the heyday of "acquisition reform" in the 1990s.

Kaminski, who headed a committee on pre-Milestone A systems engineering of the National Research Council's Air Force Studies Board, prepared testimony that lists what should be done early in the acquisition process.

"A few of the things that need to be taken care of before Milestone A and just after it are the following: the consideration of alternative concepts (solutions) up front; the setting of clear, comprehensive key performance parameters (KPPs) and system requirements; and early attention to interfaces and interface complexity, to the concept of operations (CONOPS), and to the system verification approach. It is these early-stage processes that are covered in this report. The importance of stable requirements and funding between Milestone B and the achievement of initial operational capability (IOC) is stressed, as are processes including good configuration management and change control," the written testimony says.

Kaminski ruefully notes that "Many of the conclusions reached and recommendations made by the [NRC] committee are similar to those of previous reviews. Most of the past recommendations were never implemented, so one of this committee’s most critical thoughts relates to the importance of implementation."

But he is still willing to take a stab at it. Kaminski says that "few formal" systems engineering processes are applied to Air Force development programs before the Milestone A review. That results in much of the often huge increase in life cycle costs later in the program, he writes: "About three-quarters of total system life cycle costs are influenced by decisions made before the end of the concept refinement phase at Milestone A, while about three-quarters of life cycle funds are not actually spent until after Milestone C. This means that although high-quality SE is necessary during the entire acquisition cycle, the application of SE to decisions made in the pre-Milestone A period is critical to avoiding (or at least minimizing) cost and schedule overruns later in a program."

Part of the problem is Air Force program managers just aren't doing their jobs as well as they should. The testimony says that the NRC committee he led "found many gaps and inconsistencies in the way that the Air Force manages pre-Milestone A activities. The committee heard from presenters of some cases for which required documents were completed pro forma and filed away, never to be seen again, or for which required steps were skipped completely."

To help remedy that, he recommends that the Air Force leadership "should require that Milestones A and B be treated as critical milestones in every acquisition program." His committee's recommendation: "A development planning function should be established in the military departments to coordinate the concept development and refinement phase of all acquisition programs to ensure that the capabilities required by the country as a whole are considered and that unifying strategies such as network-centric operations and interoperability are addressed."

One of the most interesting things about Kaminski's recommendations is that most of them have already been arrived at by one group in the Air Force, those beleaguered souls involved in space acquisition. But space operates under different regulations than do standard major acquisition programs and its practitioners live in very separate worlds in the Air Force so there isn't much discussion between the two communities.

These people will be testifying in addition to Kaminski: Michael Sullivan, director of the GAO's acquisition and sourcing management; Jack Gansler, chairman of the Defense Science Board's task force on industrial structure for transformation and former head of acquisition; Pete Adolph, chairman of DSB's task force on developmental test and evaluation.

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