The drift of Air Force acquisition between Scylla and Charybdis (or, in less classical terms, a rock and a hard place) may be ending. The senior Air force leadership has drafted a plan that appears to have the right ingredients to stave off another tanker fiasco or a Darleen Druyun.
The plan, called A Roadmap to Recapture Acquisition Excellence, makes five basic points. In a clear sign this is not just another bit of acquisition mumbo-jumbo, the report is clearly written and signed by both Air Force Secretary Mike Donley and by Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz. The plan says the service must:
1: Revitalize the Air Force acquisition workforce
2: Improve requirements generation process
3: Instill budget and financial discipline
4: Improve Air Force major systems source selections
5: Establish clear lines of authority and accountability within acquisition organizations
But the most intriguing part of the effort is something that isn’t really mentioned in the document. A host of action plans to address each issue is being drawn up by the acting acquisition Service Acquisition Executive, Dave Van Buren, and his military deputy, Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford.
Over the next few months they plan to institutionalize the process, meeting once a month with Air Force Secretary Mike Donley to lay out milestones and report on the service’s progress in meeting them. That will ease off to once a quarter once things get established, according to an Air Force official familiar with the issue.
A congressional aide who read the initial plan offered cautious praise. “It seems like they are proposing the right things in the right areas. They need good people and good processes,” this aide said.
Those are exactly what the Air Force official said they had aimed at: good people and good processes. The most important, in the eyes of the senior Air Force leadership, is good people who are well trained and experienced.
This is not, our Air force source stressed, acquisition reform. They are effectively rebuilding the acquisition system and it will not happen quickly. Expect the results of this effort to start becoming clear after three to five years, the Air Force said.
Ironically, the big failures of the last several years – CSAR-X and KC-X – mean the service has a fairly clean slate to start with.
“We are kind of lucky that in some of our big programs are starting over, so we should be able to avoid some of the problems we might have run into,” the service official said.
Skeptics who might dismiss the Air Force document out of hand should note the document’s opening paragraph. They know they’ve done wrong: “In 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) upheld protests and overturned United States Air Force contract award decisions related to the CSAR-X helicopter and KC-X tanker programs. In addition, the GAO concluded that the DoD acquisition process does not deliver the promised capabilities to the nation’s warfighters in a timely and efficient manner. Budgets are overrun routinely and requirements continue to creep well beyond their initial scope. We find that the Air Force acquisition process reflects many of the same problems reported by GAO.”
They outline the causes of these failures:
1. Degraded training, experience and quantity of the acquisition workforce;
2. Overstated and unstable requirements that are difficult to evaluate during source selection;
3. Under-budgeted programs, changing of budgets without acknowledging impacts on program execution, and inadequate contractor cost discipline;
4. Incomplete source selection training that has lacked “lessons learned” from the current acquisition environment, and delegation of decisions on leadership and team assignments for MDAP source selections too low; and
5. Unclear and cumbersome internal Air Force organization for acquisition and Program Executive Officer (PEO) oversight.
Now we get to see if they get it right.