It says something about the legendarily byzantine and cumbersome Pentagon acquisition system that a bipartisan panel of retired military leaders and procurement experts spent 540 pages in a new report detailing how the Department of Defense needs to change.
And that was only the second installment in an expected trilogy to Congress on improving military procurement from the Advisory Panel on Streamlining and Codifying Acquisition Regulations.
The Pentagon spends so much of the nation’s treasure — nearly $700 billion this year alone — that taxpayers are owed this sort of detailed scrub of how the military develops and buys weapons and technologies, in an effort to improve efficiencies and save money.
But U.S. service members are owed it as well because potential adversaries don’t have to navigate anything similar to our procurement system, where it can take years to bring a technology or weapon from concept to development to production and fielding.
In just one example, potential adversaries can readily make use of commercially available encryption technology to mask their intent. In another, anti-terror officials are warning of the threat from terrorists using commercially available drones that drop grenades or deadly toxins.
In short, our enemies now have greater access to emerging commercial technologies than ever before, posing a serious threat to national security. And as the battlefield is shifting to the digital realm and the “hacker” becomes a class of soldier, the potential threat has increased exponentially. And making us most vulnerable is the pace at which data- and software- driven threats can be developed versus the time it takes the Department of Defense to develop a solution. Further, Pentagon procurement hurdles erected over the decades have had the unintentional result of narrowing the technology gap and making it difficult to tap the commercial sector, where intense innovation is happening.
“DoD once served as a major catalyst and funding source for scientific and technological innovation, driving research and development. Now, DoD must find ways to support and benefit from advances that are generally driven by the private sector, often in consumer markets,” the report said.
One important way to speed up the acquisition process and attract companies from the private sector is to step up what is known as other transaction authority, or OTA.
OTA agreements are designed to jump-start the slow technology-buying process and rapidly develop prototypes for assessment by the military services. The speed is generated by slashing the Pentagon’s red tape, and efficiency is gained by rigorously testing the technology before buying it. OTA projects provide greater flexibility than typical government procurement, and they are very welcoming of companies that have no history of working with the Department of Defense, which has long been viewed as an “unattractive customer to large and small firms with innovative, state-of-the-art solutions,” the advisory panel said.
Turbocharged by an OTA, a research and prototyping project can be shepherded through the acquisition process and funded in about two months, where it could take well over a year if managed through the usual wickets.
Use of OTAs in the Department of Defense is substantial, though still dwarfed by traditional defense contracting. The DoD told Federal News Radio that the military services spent almost $21 billion through 148 OTA agreements between 2015 and 2017.
The advisory panel isn’t bashful about calling out the paramount need for change in the Pentagon in an age of terrorism and rising military competitors like China and Russia.
The Department of Defense’s “suffocating bureaucratic requirements make the pace at which it proceeds simply unacceptable in today’s rapidly changing technological environment,” the panel said in an earlier report to Congress. “DoD must replace this system, designed for buying equipment for the Cold War, with one that takes advantage of technologies and methodologies available in the current marketplace.”
OTA is by no means a panacea, and there is a right way and a wrong way to go about implementing them. Still, it is an important agent of change and a means of getting the best technologies to the military services much faster. Even better, OTA is available now.
Tim Greeff is founder and CEO of National Security Technology Accelerator, an Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit responsible for managing the Army’s Training and Readiness Accelerator.