The Pentagon has wrestled with reforming defense acquisition procedures for over 40 years and, during that period, over 120 defense acquisition reform actions and policies have been implemented. Of these, the 1986 Congress of the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Bill has been one of the most wide ranging and had the largest impact. This landmark legislation was intended to add both significant discipline and accountability to the defense acquisition process and focus the management and oversight of defense research development test and evaluation, which now consumes over $600 billion annually and growing.
One of the major actions in the legislation was the establishment of the position of undersecretary of defense for acquisition, or USD(A), to vest in one person the overall oversight responsibility of the defense research development test and evaluation process of the numerous systems in various stages of development and fielding. The hope was that this position would enable the defense secretary to have a single line of command, one office responsible for overseeing and streamlining the activities of the hundreds of large Acquisition Category I defense programs, such as ships and missile defense, all the way down to the smaller Acquisition Category IV programs, like small arms and body armor. But development times and costs went up, not down.
A few years later, recognizing that injecting research and development breakthroughs was vital to retaining weapon superiority, the job was expanded to undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology, or USD(A&T), to assure that this cross-pollination was taking place efficiently. Again, development timelines and costs both increased,
Several years following this, the maintenance and logistics of these new systems was becoming a growing concern. While not as “sexy” as the technology piece of acquisition, its budget was growing exponentially. In response, the USD(A&T) position was expanded to include logistics, hence AT&L. Yet, timelines and costs continued to increase.
Unfortunately, these and many other acquisition initiatives — over 120 to be exact — have failed to reduce the cost of acquisition or shorten the development times projected for defense systems.
So what are we possibly missing in this process as it grinds away?
Having served for over 50 years in the Defense Department in roles from an E-1 draftee during Vietnam to a researcher at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, to deputy assistant secretary of defense to, most recently, a defense consultant for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Homeland Security Department, I’ve seen this situation from a number of vantage points and offer here an out-of-the-box proposal that might get at the underpinnings of how to reduce development time and, hopefully, cost of fielding our systems.
Let me summarize: For nearly every defense program under development in the Pentagon, a program manager or project manager (PM) is assigned. Their mission is to bring their assigned system to the field on time and on budget. They’re given reasonably wide latitude to make decisions within their respective programs and to oversee technical, budgetary, manpower and reporting details.
So what’s the issue? It’s the program managers.
Before the reader feels I’m being overly critical of the PMs, let me further explain. Program managers have a very tough job. They arrive from their previous military assignment and must immediately get oriented, get acquainted with what transpired during the prior PM’s watch and then attempt to attack the issues left behind for them to inherit and resolve.
Recognize that the vast majority of PMs and professional employer organizations are military, typically O-5s for smaller programs up through O-6s to flag officers for the largest defense programs.
However, their tenure as a PM is typically 2 and a half to 3 years, at which time they exit for their next deployment, repeating the process for the next military replacement to arrive to pick up on the issues left behind by former PM.
Given the relatively brief tenure of most of the over 300 program and project managers, and the decisions they need to make during their tenure, they’re often motivated to focus on issues that can be addressed in the near term and push those that might be difficult or controversial on to their successor. Some of the decisions they may face could even have negative impacts on their career progressions beyond their PM assignments. Hence, the cycle repeats, further delaying the development cycle and adding to costs.
What’s the suggested solution? Assign defense program management to civilian program managers rather than military personnel. This is not to impugn the skill set or integrity of the military but rather to acknowledge that civilian managers tend to have more longevity in their defense assignments than the data reflects in the turnover of military personnel.
But isn’t it vital that the experience and mindset of the military to be reflected in the development of a military system? Absolutely! Hence, make the deputy PM the military representative to work side-by-side with the civilian PM to assure that the system is not developed in a vacuum, in isolation from the user’s needs and mindset. However, given the longevity of the civilian PM, there should be minimal motivation to “kick the can down the road” to the next PM since there is no one else to inherit the problem, except in the long term.
Has this approach worked in other nations? Israel, for one, has a number of civilian program managers who have been with the same program for, in some cases, decades, enabling the corporate memory to continue to be applied to assure the lessons of earlier development of their systems don’t have to be relearned or resolved.
Congress has just recommended that the position of USD(AT&L) be abolished and return to where DoD was pre-USD(A) days in acquisition with a position of the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, Research and Engineering. While, I applaud the effort Congress is making to improve the defense acquisition process, I’m not sure, however, that returning to where we were in 1986 is the total answer. Perhaps looking at the incentive structure within DoD would be helpful.
James O’Bryon is president of The O’Bryon Group. He began his work in the Pentagon as a member of the Senior Executive Service in November 1986. While serving 15 years in the Pentagon, O’Bryon worked under seven secretaries of defense as deputy director of test and evaluation, director of live fire testing and director of weapon systems assessment.