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One way to fix Army acquisitions

The Army Acquisitions Report is a remarkable document. Turned in by the service's former top weapons-buyer, Gilbert Decker, and the former head of Army Materiel Command, retired Gen. Lou Wagner, these guys know the system inside-out, and their deep familiarity is what makes their study such a bracing read. (If you're into this sort of thing.) For example, Decker and Wagner know there's a long history of commissions just like theirs, releasing reports just like theirs, some of which caused a big splash just like theirs but seldom produced long-term change in the Building. They even have a chart showing how often their acquisition-reform predecessors have arrived at the same conclusions! And they revive this classic old chestnut about life in the Five-Sided Funny Farm: "It has been said," they write, "'If Sisyphus had a job in the Pentagon, it would be acquisition reform.'”

Too true. So why is this so hard? Can't Congress just pass the We Want To Make It Seem Like We Care About Defense Acquisitions Act of 2011, creating a new Senior Weapons Czar and a new Major Programs Oversight Board to make these problems go away? No, Decker and Wagner argue -- a thousand times no. The current process is already Byzantine, a jungle primeval of stakeholders, staffs, sponsors, agencies or boards that offer, as they write, "'guidance' or 'direction,' who are not accountable for the impact they have on a program." The acquisition process is too complex, involves too little realism, takes too long, and as such is too susceptible to the dreaded "death spiral" -- Schedules slip, costs rise, production plans are curtailed, unit costs increase, and the whole shootin' match is finally cancelled.

This is where we come to the really hard part. Although Decker and Wagner have many discrete suggestions for how the Army can improve the way its process works, complete with organizational flow charts and 76 specific recommendations, their message boils down to this: Every aspect of the system needs to work better. The requirements guys have got to be realistic. The budget guys have got to be realistic. The Army has spent two decades starting programs with a Panglossian expectation that it would be able to solve technical problems quickly, under budget, build stuff cheap and then get its awesome new toys into the field fast. This has led to the cancellation of 22 major programs since 1990, at a cost of as much as $3.8 billion per year expended on programs that were ultimately terminated. (This does not include money spent on delayed or under-performing programs that did wind up in production.)

Acquisitions reform is hard because it's easy to see when a process isn't working, just as anyone can tell when a baseball team isn't playing well. But tempting as it sounds, both with baseball and the Pentagon, you can't just shake people by their shoulders and say, "Hey! Perform better!" It takes months or years to get such a complicated process to work well; Deputy Undersecretary of the Army Thomas Hawley told reporters on Thursday that it was like "a marathon," and that it's never finished until a given piece of equipment is finally out of the arsenal. With the constant changes in the Army's threats and missions, its changes in leadership, the prevailing political winds from Congress, and many other factors, no wonder serious reform has never succeeded.

At least in baseball, you can watch earlier games to see how better teams performed. In the defense world, has there actually ever been any time in the modern era when DoD executed a program well -- are there any positive lessons, as opposed to cautionary tales? Actually, yes there are, Decker and Wagner argue. One such case is the Army's shoulder-fired missile, Javelin. It hit a bump in the road in its development, but in this case, instead of being killed, the system worked:

The Anti-Armor Weapons System – Medium (AAWS-M) program provides an example where proper risk management, government subject matter experts and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)/Army S&T investment enabled the Army to work through a technology risk that was underestimated at MS B. The AAWS-M program on several occasions was near termination because of two problems, an overly optimistic weight KPP and an immature seeker focal plane array technology. Because of concern about overloading the infantryman, the original AAWS-M weight limit from the Infantry Center was 45 pounds. There were functional staffs who, during the development phase, wanted to cancel the program because an effective AAWS-M could not be provided at this weight; however, cooler warfighting and engineering heads prevailed and the system was eventually delivered at less than 50 pounds. Another example of managing risk, along with the importance of having qualified experts available in the DoD RDT&E community, was the seeker. The infrared focal plane array (IRFPA) technology bid by the winner of the EMD phase proved immature. The defect rate and yield of the production process for this technology proved unacceptable. Even though the technology assessment performed prior to EMD selection proved optimistic, Army and industry sensor technologists accurately diagnosed the production problem. The Army Night Vision Laboratory (NVL) technologists had joined DARPA years before to fund an IRFPA producibility technology program with industry. Hence, the Army was able to switch to suppliers with a proven advanced, producible IRFPA technology for the seeker. Because of this effort the Army now has the Javelin, a battle proven, superior anti-armor missile for the individual infantryman
This has all the familiar elements of another potential failure: Overoptimistic requirements; the hope that new technology would be ready before it actually was; and bureaucratic infighting, with some PowerPoint combatants arguing the program was unsalvageable. But the Army and it vendors collaborated to figure out the problems and solve them, saving this program. Decker and Wagner also cite the success of the Army's Stryker vehicles, which were based on an existing vehicle type and as such didn't require an expensive, prolonged development. Realism and cooperation saved the day.

Pentagon officials today say they get it. For its beloved next-generation bomber to survive, the Air Force says it knows it can't add disruptor beams or a cloaking device and get the airplanes on schedule, on cost. Hawley and his top Army acquisitions counterpart, Heidi Shyu, said Thursday they have been applying these lessons to the Ground Combat Vehicle, ruthlessly balancing requirements about what they think they'll practically be able to build in the next seven years. When Navy officials realized how costly and complicated their new Zumwalt class of destroyers was going to be, they opted to only build a few as "technology demonstrators" and restart production of the old reliable Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

Because all of this is taking place during the "marathon," there's no way for us to step back mid-race and determine whether it actually will improve the way the Army or the other services buy their big, complicated, expensive weapons. But as CSBA's Todd Harrison, and Decker and Wagner, and even many DoD officials have said, the Pentagon has no choice but to get it right, because the era of unlimited budgets is over. If the services can't build their new weapons the right way, they may wind up with none.

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