Some Pentagon Acquisition Successes: Yes, They Do Happen

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Air Force Staff Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez

An MC-12W Liberty readies for takeoff at Bagram air base, Afghanistan

Problems within the defense acquisition business are widely known and thoroughly documented, so the last thing I want to write is yet another article highlighting yet another failure. Been there, done that. Fortunately, there is good news. There is also bad news, but first the good: the DoD figured out how to rapidly and repeatedly field affordable gear that more than satisfies our national security needs, for the short and long term. I know, pretty exciting isn’t it?

OK, ok, now the bad news: in an echo of William Gibson’s observation that “the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed,” the acquisition fix hasn’t been rolled out everywhere yet. Even though we do it right, we also do it wrong. A lot. So…that’s a bummer. At this point, skeptical readers may reasonably wonder if the DoD really cracked the code on acquisitions. The answer is a resounding “Yup!” Consider the following:

The US Air Force needed more Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capability and so launched the Project Liberty program. The result was the low-cost MC-12W aircraft, which flew its first combat mission in June 2009, just eight months after receiving funds. It has since flown thousands of successful missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The US Marine Corps needed a boost in close air support capabilities. In Oct 2010, just eighteen months after announcing the program, the Harvest Hawk was in the fight. This inexpensive, reversible mod to a KC-130 not only puts steel on difficult targets, but also gets eyes on previously unseen locales. In its first ten months alone, Harvest Hawks spotted eleven roadside bombs and fired 42 Hellfire and 11 Griffin missiles.

My friends in Air Force Special Operations Command would feel left out if I don’t mention their Dragon Spear system, which has a similar gunship-like capability, a similar development story, and which won the 2010 William J. Perry precision strike award. It too delivered ahead of schedule, under cost and with greater capability than originally expected.

The US Navy began the Virginia class submarine program after terminating the unaffordable Seawolf program. The USS New Hampshire, first of the Block II Virginias, came in eight months early and $54M under budget, and that’s on top of the $300M cost savings already achieved on the Block II design. You read that right – a nuclear-powered submarine, early and under budget. The USS New Mexico also delivered four months early… you get the picture.

And then there’s the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, which delivered over 550 low-cost, high-impact systems in six years, ranging from robots and vehicles to a translator and a “Tactical Garbage to Energy Refinery.”

As then-SECDEF Robert Gates told the MC-12W team, these examples prove “new platforms can be developed, built, and deployed in a short period of time—and the best solution isn’t always the fanciest or the most expensive.” And yes, these are truly “best solutions.” Just in case those anecdotes are flukes, let’s peek at a more comprehensive analysis.

The 2011 Decker-Wagner report describes the US Army as the “best equipped in the world.” However, this preeminence is described as being “in spite of the shortcomings in the [formal] acquisition processes.” Credit instead goes to the “rapid acquisition processes employed during the last nine years.” There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere, if anyone’s listening.

These rapid methods don’t just deliver superior tech. Then-Army Chief of Staff GEN Martin Dempsey (now chairman of the Joint Chiefs) pointed out they also restrain cost and schedule. In other words, they produce top-shelf gear, without requiring decades and billions.

Yes, we truly have cracked the code. And yet, the cipher isn’t being deployed widely enough. The DoD is still wrestling with the long-delayed, hugely over-budget Joint Strike Fighter program, which Acting Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall called “acquisition malpractice.” Plenty of similarly unfortunate systems have made similarly unfortunate headlines and caused angst among taxpayers and warfighters alike. There’s the AF’s new tanker, the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, the Army’s Future Combat System, the USMC’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Clearly, we have room for progress. Lots of room. But we also have the solution in our grasp.

Some analysts argue we can’t use rapid methods to deliver highly complex systems like the JSF. There is only one response to that observation: Wrong-o! With all due respect, nuclear-powered submarines like the Virginias are pretty complex. Clearly, the fast methods are clearly not limited to handheld radios and small UAV’s.

No, the rapid development methods aren’t perfect. They’re just a million times better than business-as-usual. The trick is to shift the default and make rapid the rule rather than the exception. Easier said than done, yes, but it’s certainly possible. As AFSOC’s David Torraca aptly noted about the Dragon Spear program: “Future acquisition needs will and should follow this model.”

Lt. Col. Dan Ward is an active duty acquisitions officer in the U.S. Air Force, currently deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense.