This month, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, unveiled new acquisition reform legislation. The draft stand-alone bill is noteworthy from a procedural perspective, showing leadership on a vitally important topic with a limited political constituency. But the bill is also noteworthy for its substance.
The bill's primary objective — speeding the delivery of capabilities to military personnel — is well-conceived, and the HASC should be congratulated for this approach. If the core concepts of this bill become standard practice in the Defense Department, it would improve capability outcomes for our military personnel. Addressing the lack of speed in our current acquisition system also provides important focus, helping us move past the stultifying monolith that is acquisition reform. Importantly, moving faster will force the DoD to address other core challenges in its acquisition bureaucracy.
The need for speed itself should be self-evident. The United States faces more unpredictable threats from a greater range of actors than ever before. Operational demands on our attention and resources are constantly evolving. The global proliferation of advanced technologies, lower barriers to entry and asymmetric benefits mean the United States' enemies and competitors will continue to employ new technologies and concepts of operation to deny our long-held advantages while generating new advantages of their own.
Over the past 15 years of conflict, US military forces proved their ability to adapt to this operating environment, but our acquisition methods have not kept up. Indeed, the most notable examples of DoD's recent attempts at rapid acquisition were workarounds to core systems and, even then, those successes were dubious. The ostensibly rapid acquisition of MRAPs, considered fast under our timelines, was not rapid enough — IEDs in Iraq hurt Americans for far longer than they should have. Moreover, this required a gargantuan effort and the personal leadership of then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), while undertaking important work, was a multibillion-dollar testament to the DoD's inability to rapidly deliver critical capabilities to deployed military personnel.
Adversary adaptation is not the only reason for increasing speed within the DoD. We must also compete with the increasing pace of geostrategic and technological change. Over the course of the 22 years it took to build the F-22, the fighter aircraft endured four obsolete processor upgrades and was ultimately deployed into an operational environment defined by the fallout from the Arab Spring, not the Cold War. All this at a cost of over $66 billion, delivered 10 years late and $40 billion over budget.
The existing acquisition system is optimized for a Cold War setting and sustained competition with a single, highly bureaucratic adversary and deterrence of potentially high-end conflict; it can neither keep up with a dynamic threat landscape nor the rate of technological change.
Rapid delivery of capability to military personnel while maintaining technological and operational relevance should be reason enough to push for increased acquisition speed. But there are several ancillary benefits to this approach. In order to move faster, the Pentagon will need to make greater use of well-recognized capability development best practices. The HASC's draft bill prominently features prototyping and open architectures for this very reason.
Prototyping is a critical enabler of speed and acceptance of risk, another oft-stated Pentagon goal. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in a recent hearing on defense acquisition rightly complained about the billions of taxpayer dollars wasted on programs that are cut before completion. But the issue should not be the fact that the programs were cut — in most instances that was the right decision — but when they were cut, years and billions of dollars after commencement. Prototyping will allow Pentagon decision-makers to kill bad programs earlier, generating a greater number of total programs (hopefully), thereby increasing competition, innovation and the general health of the defense industry.
Insisting on the use of open architectures, and on sharing the intellectual property with the associated interfaces, will allow for simpler and faster collaboration on the development of major programs. More importantly, open architectures facilitate the "payloads over platforms" concept championed by former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, enabling frequent development of new or upgraded modules to large, enduring platforms like carriers, submarines and aircraft. A modular approach allows for regular upgrades or rapid changes to operational capability without the need for lengthy programs to generate wholly new platforms.
To be clear, making the case for speed does not advocate irresponsibility. Some programs are still going to take many years to field, and sometimes that's OK. Testing and quality control should remain essential steps in the development process. But we cannot afford to maintain an acquisition culture that seeks to mitigate risk to the project and adherence to requirements above all else. Forcing the Pentagon to operate with greater speed recognizes the more consequential risks of capability irrelevance or failing to meet operational needs in a timely fashion.
There is, of course, a long distance between introducing a bill and having that bill be standard Pentagon practice. The draft bill must still proceed through markups before being incorporated into the 2017 national defense authorization bill. And from there it's unclear whether the DoD will work with, against or around the legislation. The DoD and defense industry should embrace this legislation as an opportunity. Countless reform efforts over the previous decades have failed to meaningfully improve DoD acquisition.
However, we are in a rare moment where HASC, SASC and DoD leaders are largely in agreement and willing to take action. History suggests we should be cynical about this current cycle of reform, but improving acquisition outcomes is so critical to our future military success that we can't afford not to try.
Ben FitzGerald is the director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Alexandra Sander is a research associate with the Technology and National Security Program at CNAS. Jacqueline Parziale is an intern with the Technology and National Security Program at CNAS.