SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The Pentagon’s Replicator initiative, which aims to establish a repeatable process to quickly field and scale innovative technology, offers a good illustration for the value of budgeting reform, according to defense experts.
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks announced Replicator in late August as a mechanism to field large quantities of innovative systems to deter adversary aggression. The first iteration is focused on producing thousands of small autonomous systems and sensors on an 18 to 24 month timeline.
To meet this target, the Pentagon will solicit new capabilities but will also rely heavily on increasing quantities or speeding up production and fielding of systems the military services are already pursuing.
Speaking with reporters Dec. 2 on the sidelines of the Reagan National Defense Forum here, members of a select commission exploring options for improving the Pentagon’s Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution process, or PPBE, said Replicator would benefit from many of the recommendations the panel is considering.
Underneath the fast-paced procurements that will drive Replicator is a need for the kind of data, funding flexibility and agility that could come from sweeping budget reforms, according to Ellen Lord, member of the PPBE reform panel and a former undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.
For example, she said, in order to make decisions about where it wants to speed up fielding or increase production among existing programs, the Defense Innovation Unit — which is leading efforts to identify and vet candidates for Replicator — needs a clear picture of what all of those efforts are. That requires a common database used by all the services and Pentagon budget and planning agencies to input program details and drive decision making.
The department will also need flexibility to reprogram funding as well as other tools — all things the PPBE commission is exploring through its work.
“I think you could use that as a use case to say, ‘Gee, what would make this process simpler when we have an emerging need, we have emerging technologies?,’” Lord said.
Connecting strategy with funding
The PPBE process is the Defense Department’s system for connecting its strategy with funding needs, which ultimately produces the budget request the White House delivers to Congress on an annual basis. The process has long been criticized as too cumbersome and slow, requiring planners to project program needs far in advance of receiving funding. That cycle has delayed major programs and impeded technology-heavy efforts from getting the most up-to-date capabilities.
In the fiscal 2022 defense policy bill, Congress established a bipartisan commission — made up of former defense officials, lawmakers and industry executives — to review the PPBE process and make recommendations for reforming it. The commission released an interim report in August and plans to deliver the final one in March.
The interim report included 13 recommendations that members think could be enacted immediately — things like improving communication with Congress, updating information systems and streamlining data sharing throughout the department.
The commission has been gathering feedback on another 10 recommendations from stakeholders, including Congress, DoD and the acquisition workforce. Those suggestions include giving the Pentagon more flexibility to reprogram funds, allowing the services to start work on new programs while operating under a continuing resolution and making congressional appropriations available for two years instead of one.
Lord said those conversations haven’t resulted in major changes, per se, but have added depth to the report and led to a few new recommendations.
Jamie Morin, once the director of the Pentagon’s cost assessment and program evaluation office, noted that while buy in is important to the commission, the department doesn’t have to implement any of its proposals.
“We’re writing a report,” he said. “The department may choose not to do any of it. Even if the department did choose to do some of it, Congress might choose not to. Congress might choose to mandate things the department doesn’t want. We are not trying to build a perfect Swiss watch of a system here and hand it over to them and say, ‘Take it or leave it.’”
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.