WASHINGTON — Last week, as Pentagon Undersecretary for Acquisition Frank Kendall rolled out the third iteration of his Better Buying Power reform efforts, he was asked a logical question:
What would Better Buying Power 4.0 look like?
Kendall laughed a bit at the question, then stopped and considered it, noting that each version has been a "snapshot" of that particular moment.
"When I did 1.0, I did not anticipate 2.0. When I did 2.0, I did not anticipate 3.0. I'm trying to do 3.0 right now," Kendall said. "We're going to put an enormous amount of effort over the next couple of years into implementing 3.0. And that's what our focus will be. I expect that at some time, in a year or a year and a half, or something, in the back of my mind, I'll start thinking about 4.0. But I have no idea what that is right now."
The comment, offhand though it may have been, sums up quite a bit about the Better Buying Power initiatives. Rather than trying to tackle the entire system at once, Kendall and his team have taken step-by-step targets based on the pressing issues of the day.
Matthew Leatherman, an adviser to the Stimson Center, called the Better Buying Power series of reforms more "realistic" than other attempts at changing the acquisition system, in part because of how it is targeting the management of procurement.
"One of the things that strikes me about the BBP sequence is, it looks like it is focused on managing the acquisition challenge, not on fixing it or resolving it," he said. "I think that's pretty powerful. A system this big isn't something that you get an overnight fix for. It's something that you need to incrementally improve, and the expectation should be an incremental improvement."
For BBP 3.0, the incremental improvements are focused on technological innovation.
As Kendall explained during an April 9 rollout event, the Pentagon is at risk of losing its technological edge over near-peer adversaries. In order to counter that, a number of initiatives are included in BBP 3.0 to drive "an increased emphasis on technological superiority," he said.
"We cannot assume that when we put a system out, it's going to be fine for the next three or four decades," Kendall added. "We've got to stay on top of what the threats are doing. They're moving quickly. They're responding to us, and we have to do the same."
That includes building modularity into new programs, with an eye on future enhancements — something Kendall said would come into play with the Air Force's Long Range Strike-Bomber program, which expects to downselect later this year.
It also includes greater oversight on internal R&D spending, or IRAD. Kendall announced that he wants all IRAD programs to be cleared by the Pentagon before industry begins, in part to avoid companies using that money to develop proprietary technologies.
Cybersecurity will also be a big part of this iteration of Better Buying Power, something Kendall said was added between the draft version put out in September and last week's rollout.
"I want our program managers thinking about and conscious of cybersecurity all the time," Kendall said. "And I want all the stakeholders in our programs to be thinking about it, conscious of it, all the time."
Perhaps the most ballyhooed part of BBP 3.0 has been its focus on bringing commercial industry into the defense realm. Traditionally, non-defense companies have struggled breaking through the layers of bureaucracy and Byzantine Pentagon contracting rules — a challenge Kendall readily acknowledged.
"We're going to try to make it easier for people to do business with us, use some of the creative ways we have of doing contracting," he promised. "We're going to try to find ways to transition technology. We're going to do more outreach to commercial firms."
That is a good intention and one worth pursuing, but Peter Singer, a strategist with the New America Foundation, warns it may be more difficult than Kendall thinks to bring commercial firms into the fold.
"To me, the impact will be more inside the beltway than inside Silicon Valley, for all our hopes in it," Singer said. "The reality is the big companies, the Googles of the world, are not going to shift how they operate based on this. It's just not in their worldview, it's not in their DNA."
Instead, he said, Kendall's guidance could help change how the defense acquisition system deals with smaller tech companies.
"It's more about how the small company in Boston, or Northern Virginia, or Florida that previously couldn't get its technology across the acquisitions valley of death without becoming part of a major contractor," Singer noted. adding that Just because "it's not going to shift the multibillionaires in Palo Alto" doesn't mean the BBP initiatives will have failed.
Michael Blades, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan, said the real benefit from that smaller tech sector could come in the form of networking and communications.
"The military is ahead of the game when it comes to sensors or weapon systems themselves, but the things to get them to talk to each other, the smart devices, those are the areas where they need more help," Blades noted. "The areas where commercial has already surpassed what the military is doing is where you're going to see the most impact of the 3.0 implementation."
Blades noted that smaller commercial players have already inserted themselves into the training and simulation world, where networking has been a major focus as the Pentagon pushes more and more training into simulators. But given the systems being developed by the Defense Department, he said, networking is going to be a major area of focus for the next generation of technologies.
All the analysts interviewed for this article piece praised the leadership of Kendall, Deputy Secretary Bob Work and now-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who had a major role in creating Buying Better Power 1.0, for the way they have developed and implemented gone about developing and implementing the strategy. That this leadership team is likely to stay in place for the foreseeable future also means the initiative has a chance to succeed.
Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who saw the challenges of acquisition first-hand during his time with the Air Force, said it was key that the leadership in place recognizes "that the processes that make up our DoD acquisition enterprise are so ponderous that they have become more of a hindrance than a help to meeting our national security objectives.
"Change comes very slow to institutions as large as DoD — the concerted efforts to move DoD acquisition out of the industrial age into the information age are most welcome, and absolutely necessary if we are going to maintain our competitive edge in the future," he added.
Which comes back to the question of what Better Buying Power 4.0 might look like.
Singer envisions a continued focus on cyber in a 4.0. But if the Pentagon was smart, he said, it would add an element encouraging true innovation from inside the building, which could bring back in-house some of the technology production and design of technology that has been outsourced to industry for the last century.
"With the combo of [computer assisted design] and 3D printing, people in the military can make their own designs," Singer said. "They can originate or alter existing designs and produce actual items. That's huge."
Leatherman, meanwhile, said that rather than launching a BBP 4.0, the Pentagon may be better served by looking back as a look back at what the actual impacts of the previous iterations have been.
"The question of what effect has BBP 1.0 worked is an appropriate and important one," he said. "We've been through this pretty deeply at this point, it's been several years and three evolutions of the document, and the problem now is probably not a lack of ideas but rather a question of what's been the result of these ideas."
One thing that could sabotage future BBP initiatives? Ironically, Leatherman notes, it could be a solution to the Budget Control Act.
"I think it's a lot more likely it will work now, because they have to come up with the money," he said. "We're not saving money because of Better Buying Power. We have Better Buying Power because there's an imperative to save money."