The U.S. defense enterprise has been in a near-constant state of acquisition reform since the 1980s. Although it has been a top Pentagon priority, expected competition with China and Russia has made our ability to develop and buy advanced systems efficiently a paramount concern. Realizing the threat, the department has generally accepted that it needs to do business differently in order to sustain technological advantage. This has led to a dizzying number of new and alternative offices, acquisition authorities, and initiatives to introduce more competition, fast-track fresh ideas and welcome commercial market participants. Most of these efforts — while vital — are not well-coordinated.
The latest round of defense acquisition reform made through the 2016 and 2017 National Defense Authorization Acts, did two things. First, it expanded existing and created a slate of new acquisition authorities designed to increase speed and agility in weapons system development and procurement. At the same time, it devolved many authorities held centrally in the Office of the Secretary of Defense down to the military departments.
In creating new authorities while also devolving authority to the services, Congress, knowingly or not, created an acquisition laboratory. Each of the services has interpreted the new authorities differently, and under the current regime they are free to implement them accordingly. As a result, we currently have an experiment running in real time, testing different acquisition approaches.
Each service has different historical approaches to the way it develops and buys weapons systems, and each took different approaches to the new acquisition environment. If properly observed, these disparities can provide the department with generationally relevant lessons.
The Army is taking big bets: picking a few major capability areas to help catalyze and justify all budget, contracting and organizational decisions. Having struggled with major acquisition programs in the past, the Army launched Futures Command, responsible for managing its modernization priorities (known as “the Big Six”), essentially bifurcating responsibility for developing new weapons systems from its traditional acquisition responsibilities, which remain with the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology.
The Air Force is encouraging experimentation: focusing on culture and mindset to accelerate and improve behaviors with new incentives and clear mission objectives. Its approach has been to accelerate acquisition by avoiding the legacy Major Defense Acquisition Program system and instead using other transaction authorities to buy most everything. Dr. Will Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics and the chief architect of this change, says it best: The goal is shifting the focus from money to time.
The Navy is driving efficiency: establishing performance milestones at the programmatic and enterprise levels that can be measured against established benchmarks to motivate improvement. Most like the control group in this experiment, it has taken a conservative approach to new authorities, focusing on improving its contracting performance and aligning its acquisition institutions with mission priorities.
A national-level response to peer power competition is to modernize our forces and offset adversary technology gains as we have done twice before. Accomplishing this objective will look different in every organization due to institutional history and bias. The Army’s Big Six is not a radical new idea, it is effectively a refresh of the 1970′s Big Five, which became the Abrams, Bradley, Apache, Black Hawk and Patriot. Taking big bets is in the Army’s DNA.
For the Air Force, going fast is not a novel approach. Over the course of the 1950s and ’60s, the service successfully procured thousands of fighter aircraft from five different suppliers — a series of distinct programs and aircraft now known collectively as the Century Series. In fact, the Air Force is explicit about returning to these roots with its new Digital Century Series concept.
And the Navy has a long history of making trades between very large-scale and capital-intensive projects, considering requirements and balancing priorities 30 years into the future. The long-lead time and expected longevity of its platforms coupled with their sustainment infrastructure, frequency and intensity leads the Navy toward adopting a more conservative approach to acquisition.
Each approach sends a different signal to industry. Already the defense industry — in certain segments, at least — feels taxed by the pace and variety of change. At the same time, nontraditional commercial participants, for whom these changes lowered the barriers of entry, continue to be frustrated by delays and bureaucratic complexity. Near-term success will likely require more flexibility from both traditional and nontraditional defense industry partners.
Policymakers should note differences in the ways the services are approaching acquisition, and mine the results of this experiment to inform the next round of acquisition reform, whether that be a re-centralization of authority at the OSD level or differentiated approaches for each service based on lessons learned.
Susanna V. Blume is a senior fellow and the director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served as deputy chief of staff for programs and plans to the deputy secretary of defense. Mikhail Grinberg is a principal at Renaissance Strategic Advisors, a consultancy firm. He is also an adjunct senior fellow at CNAS.