Recent Speech on Defense Acquisition

Posted on by Dave Oliver

Last week I attended an IT conference in Washington, DC and delivered a speech on a perennial problem — continuing burps in the acquiring of services and weapons for our military forces. It follows:

This being one of our most sacred seasons, I think we should begin with what I remember from the book of Matthew. As I recall it says something like, “For where two or three gather …” there will be a discussion of acquisition reform …
We have the requisite number today. But instead of another dull conversation about changing the process, I propose we speak of the real issue. No matter how much we might think IT acquisitions should be handled differently, process is not the underlying problem. No, the problem is that the Chiefs of the Services are not properly manning military acquisition billets and we are ignoring the Packard Commission.
We all know there has been any number of acquisition studies with resultant findings and recommendations over the least two decades. I have even personally participated in two this last year. However, no matter how many studies are printed, nothing good has happened. Acquisition does not improve and the Services continue to pay too much and not receive needed technology.
Since thoughtful men and women continue to point out problems, and everyone (except whoever is currently running the acquisition system) believes the situation is getting worse – what should that tell us? It is simple. We are running up the wrong hills. We are shooting at mirages.
It is not politic to say, but it is not the process, it is the people.
The problems stem from a little history. The Packard Commission sought to solve the $800 toilet seat problem and restore public confidence in the Pentagon acquisition system. One of their key recommendations was to take acquisition responsibility away from the uniformed chiefs and appoint business people who would bring along with them the best practices from industry. These recommendations were implemented in 1986 by Goldwater-Nickols.
There was a basic practical problem with this recommendation, and time has disclosed another significant flaw. The practical problem was that this action separated responsibility for the assessment and promotion of people in the acquisition system (which remained with the uniformed Chief of Service) from the responsibilities of acquisition.
This is, of course, a deadly situation, as any organization’s success depends on the quality of the people – and without responsibility, the Chief’s, who are responsible to maintain, train and equip combat-ready forces capable of winning wars, suddenly lose focus on acquisition. After thirty years and two wars, guess where Chiefs have funneled officer talent – to the areas for which they feel responsible, or to the one area for which they are specifically not held accountable?
On the other hand, the inherent flaw in the process has nothing to do with the violation of basic organizational tenets, but rather is driven by the stresses of the political process. Assume there are five key civilian political acquisition billets in the Department of Defense (the three Service Acquisition Executives, AT&L and his Deputy). I would wager that over the years since the Packard Commission, those five billets have not even been filled more than 70% of the time. It is difficult for an empty chair to manage.
Even worse, if we would limit counting a “filled” job to when the appointed person meets the intent of the Packard Commission (“top executive personnel with industrial and acquisition experience”), I believe objective observers would access the fill rate as well below 30%. Not surprisingly, if you don’t have knowledgeable leadership, the situation doesn’t improve. It hasn’t.
It is past time to face facts. While the Packard Commission had some grand ideas this one falls apart on practical and real-world grounds. Republican and Democrat Administrations have had thirty years to make the Packard Commission concepts effective. They haven’t. The current construct won’t work.
Fortunately, the current situation can be tweaked without unnecessarily disturbing the concepts of Goldwater-Nickols.
The solution involves two steps, and neither involves rewriting 5000.1 or 5000.2 again:
No one can predict the new problems that will arise as technologies, IT, transportation and other key industrial factors change – but we know change is inevitable. Good companies adapt to change not by continually rewriting the rules, but by having good people think through the new facts. The acquisition system does not need new rules or more funds; it simply needs more talent available to solve the new challenges which are inevitable.
Leadership and talent drive accomplishments in all organizations. We should not treat acquisition differently. To ensure that talent is accessed and maintained, the individual responsible for all accessing, evaluating and training all the men women needs to also be responsible for acquisition. This means that either the AT&L has to assume responsibility for the four service’s personnel systems, or acquisition responsibility needs to be returned to the Chiefs.
There is one way to do this which involves minimal change, will accomplish the intent of the Packard Commission and will maximize results.
The Service Acquisition Executive in each Service, in what is currently a political billet, should instead be a senior (3 or 4-star) uniformed billet. The individual assigned to this job would report to the Chief of his Service, the Secretary and the AT&L (and his assignment approved by all three) (note that many senior flags report to several individuals). The AT&L and his Deputy would remain political appointees with their current responsibility so that the Secretary of Defense retains overall guidance control.
The second step involves the same measures the Army, Navy and Air Force Chiefs currently use when they desire talent to voluntarily move between areas. Establish retention bonuses for acquisition officers and/or establish an additional monthly payment for those individuals who have the qualifications desired. Money says “we care” much more another hundred-page “reform report” which will again not be adopted.
For example, the Air Force is currently paying $225K for pilots to reup for nine years, and the Navy has a similar program for pilots and submariners. What do we think is the most important job for the Navy and Air Force for the future – maintaining and improving flying skills, or bringing the F-35 into production and keeping the costs controlled in order to have funds to make the purchase of future air wings possible?
I am convinced that the acquisition system in each Service will continue to deteriorate until the Services place more military talent in their acquisition specialties and we begin to fulfill the intent of the Packard Commission.
I would be happy to take any questions.


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