A Three-Legged Stool? – Changing the Defense Acquisition System Paradigm

By Michael Morgan

“Do you want it fast, cheap, or good? You only get two.” This was my introduction to the acquisition system from a friend working on Air Combat Command staff as a fighter aircraft Program Element Monitor. I had already served two years in operational test (OT) and had yet to figure out that there was a larger AF outside of my fighter community bubble. Since this introduction to the real world, I have had the opportunity to work with multiple facets of what I now appreciate as the “acquisitions system.” This short essay attempts to shed light on a common critique of our Defense Acquisition System – namely, that it provides limited utility for the warfighter in procuring effective and suitable equipment in a timely and cost-effective manner – and provide recommendations for how to improve the process.

What is Acquisitions?

The DoD Acquisition system consists of requirements generation, acquisitions, and Planning, Programming, Budget, and Execution (PPBE) processes. These processes are codified in US law (Title 10 of US Code, Armed Forces) and in DOD directives and instructions (including the “5000 series,” the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation (DFAR), and numerous executive orders and policies).

  1. Deriving Requirements: Revised heavily in 2015, the Joint Capabilities Integration & Development System (JCIDS) describes the first step in the acquisition process: knowing you need to buy something new and defining what that something is. JCIDS is a collaborative effort across the Joint community: there are multiple checks and balances to help ensure a requirement can’t be solved via non-materiel solutions (i.e., through training or other non-materiel resourcing) or through sister service capabilities.
  2. Acquiring Capability: The Defense Acquisition System is a methodical process that is used to get our new toys. There are five acquisition phases: 1) Materiel Solution Analysis (do we create something new or buy it elsewhere?), 2) Technology Development (mature an existing technological solution or develop new ones to meet the need), 3) Engineering and Manufacturing Development (build a physical article that actually works), 4) Production and Deployment (make lots of the product, formally test it, and then field it), and 5) Operations and Support (upgrade, sustainment, and disposition of the capability). In the Air Force, Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) is primarily responsible for the research and development, contracting, building, testing, and sustainment of any given widget.
  3.  Finding & Spending Money (PPB&E): Every new procurement must be planned and budgeted for, generally years in advance, regardless of the phase of the acquisition process. Generally, the requirement owner (HAF or MAJCOM ‘procurer’ of capability) works with the Air Staff to ensure funding is available for the entire project lifecycle, from initial concept, through fielding, to retirement. Obtaining funding is often the most difficult part of the acquisition process: I have not been affiliated with a single program in my 18-year career that didn’t experience significant budget flail. Imagine ordering a filet mignon at a fancy restaurant, then six minutes into the cooking process realizing you can only afford a sirloin or you really wanted chicken instead. Try asking to change your order… —Problematic! I have seen programs canceled, down-scoped, or merged with others just to stay alive – having money is a big deal, and changing requirements can lead to running out of funding through the acquisition process or creating higher costs and missing or delayed capability.

Getting it Fast

The standard acquisition process is slow and methodical. This helps to avoid (though not fully exclude) product failures that would otherwise be detrimental to our nation. Buying a fighter jet is not the same as buying an iPhone. There are consequences to speeding that could easily result in loss of life or squander national resources. From my own history, watching an advanced targeting pod or small diameter bomb turn the wrong way or function in a manner opposite their intent is not an isolated occurrence – these systems are complicated and need a bit of polish before meeting the warfighter. But how much time is too much? It depends, of course. Acquisitions can be fast-tracked using Quick Reaction Capability (QRC) process, but making everything quick-reaction means the entire acquisition system would slow down or become unsustainable over the long-term. As such, QRCs are reserved for specific situations. The “Urgent Operational Need” (UON) provides streamlined requirements, acquisition, testing, and fielding of a capability, usually in under 180 days. A UON is justified by a COCOM as something that will result in loss of life or mission failure if not addressed. Rapid fielding of the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) for the F-16 and A-10 was the result of a CENTCOM UON. Another example was the GBU-54 Laser-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition. Notably, these weapons were already designed and engineered when procured by DOD. As you might expect, designing and integrating a new system from scratch can take years beyond the 180-day mark.

x37b-captionThere are multiple acquisition models for rapidly procuring special hardware or software with unique requirements. The AF Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) was formed in 2003 to field high-tech, high-payoff, mostly-classified technology to the warfighter. The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle was procured by the RCO. Initial plans called for our next bomber, the B-21 Raider (LRS-B), to be acquired using the RCO rather than the AF’s own Materiel Command – however, it is unlikely this singular relationship will continue based on the scale of this acquisition, in favor of a more hybrid solution (merging rapid acquisitions and sustainability). Due to security restrictions, assessing the actual performance of the RCO is problematic and one can only speculate at its ability to produce something effective and suitable for the warfighter quickly.

Other ‘acquisition’ offices include the AF Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities (AFTENCAP) office, under the AF Warfare Center, and BIG SAFARI, under AFMC. AFTENCAP fields rapid prototypes to the warfighter to further information integration and dissemination; typically these projects have a two-year development-to-field requirement. The F-15C Talon HATE pod is an AFTENCAP project. Talon HATE will integrate an Infrared Search and Track System with a 5th generation gateway and national intelligence feed into a pod carried on the F-15. BIG SAFARI is responsible for procuring and sustaining classified special mission aircraft; the RC-135 RIVET JOINT and EC-130 Compass Call are examples. These aircraft perform highly specialized, technology-intensive mission sets for tactical users as well as the intelligence community.

Getting it Cheap

“You get what you pay for” is an adage we’ve all heard, and it applies to defense spending like it applies to a plumber. Ultimately, requirements drive cost, schedule, and performance. The acquisitions community plays a major role in helping the user define their requirements to balance cost, but DoD pays for capability and schedule. While it is tempting to blame contractor malfeasance on program costs, the acquisitions process generally precludes gross buffoonery in itself. The rules of contracting for widget X bound both buyer and seller to performance metrics – acquisitions is fair.

We can reduce the cost of a program a few different ways. If a widget won’t be needed for another five years, delaying procurement while technology matures could cost less. Acquiring systems over a longer period can save money as well – new radars for a fleet of jets cost less over 8 years than over 1. It’s often cheapest to buy products that already exist commercially, so-called Commercial, Off-The-Shelf (COTS) technology, bypassing expensive research and development. Examples of COTS are computer monitors, handguns, or software that do not need modification for military use. Non-developmental technology can also be cheap to procure. An example would be to take an advanced targeting pod from an existing weapon system, say an F-15E, and integrate it onto a B-1 or a B-52. The functions of the pod would likely be very similar, so the cost of acquiring and integrating the system onto another aircraft should be significantly lower than the cost of designing, testing, manufacturing, and sustaining purpose-built sensors for each weapon system. Finally, the sustainment piece of an acquisition can be structured numerous ways to stretch long-term funds. The government can take over management of some aspect of a lifecycle, for example, or we can shift it to a contractor. Depending on the widget, either could be a good argument and save us money over the long term.

Getting it Good

The Air Force is a state-of-the-art service, always looking to advance technology and concepts. We do not buy last year’s model of anything – instead, we advance what is in the realm of the possible whenever we can. And yet, things rarely are as easy or cheap to build as the glossy brochure would have us believe. From a requirements standpoint, we are often our own worst enemy as we “what if” a scenario to death, chase shiny objects, and seek to add what looks to be low-hanging fruit to our glorious programs of record, which inevitably leads to schedule delays and rising costs. From an engineering perspective, what often works on one scale will not work in another, or is pressing the bounds of modern tooling and processes. From an acquisition aspect, people have the challenge of turning a PowerPoint concept into reality, often on a changing or delayed budget. Making new widgets takes time to evolve designs, labor and production, quality control, supplier logistics, maintenance and sustainment, test and overhead. Early adopters often pay the higher costs for a product full of quirks and issues (think of the cost and capability of early Blu-ray players and HDTVs compared to today’s Black Friday offerings). The AF is no different. To help mitigate evolving threats and technology, and take advantage of available funding, the acquisition community often relies on spiral development to procure a lesser capability now that can be upgraded over time, usually years or decades, to meet the actual requirement (i.e., aircraft blocks). The real challenge is the warfighter wants the capability now, not years from now; and a constant state of war has identified capability gaps that we haven’t had the time to fix, forcing us to field capability before its matured; some RPAs make interesting case studies for this.

Recent Acquisitions Examples

There are numerous examples of spiraled development and rapid acquisitions, but two I have personally been involved with are the F-15 Eagle Passive, Active Warning and Survivability System (EPAWSS) and the F-35 Lightening II. They each tell a story:

f-15-epawwsEPAWSS. The F-15 EPAWSS is currently in development and has been characterized by lofty requirements and gross funding challenges. EPAWSS is a large program, centrally managed and sustained by AFMC. Performance was necessarily traded for cost and schedule; ACC initially wrote its requirement in the mid-‘00’s. From a requirements standpoint, operators desired a system that would provide the F-15 similar electronic warning and attack performance to a 5th gen platform. Such capability would have quite literally broken the bank, so hard choices had to be made. How well should this system detect threats? Which threats? From what angle? What should it jam versus avoid? With what type of counter-measure should be used to protect the platform? What degree of survivability increase is worth designing into the system versus expected mission set? An analysis of alternatives (AoA) was produced by the acquisitions community that justified selecting a particular capability at a given technological readiness level, price, and fielding timeline. Informed by this AoA, the acquisition system began more formal deliberations to scope the program. Operators were invited to generate system capabilities based on the anticipated mission set the jets would fly and the threats to the aircraft/operator when EPAWSS would be fielded. As meetings continued, solutions emerged that were not easily digestible by the F-15 operators. Key performance parameters were watered down and many system attributes molded into something far less technologically robust than the operators had hoped. The operators kicked and screamed before boarding a flight home. What went wrong?

Believe it or not, the system worked here. Remember our stool had three parts. To turn an F-15C into an F-22 takes more than canted tails – these things are complicated – and expensive. The operators learned, begrudgingly, that there is a tradeoff with everything we buy. In many ways, EPAWSS is a 10-year-old product – but in others, it is thoroughly modern. Like the F-22, EPAWSS capability will grow over time and the performance of the system will increase. This is due to our preferred acquisition method – an incremental (or spiraled) development. A Block I capability gets you hardware in some form to meet a timeline with some portion of effectiveness or suitability. A Block II capability would improve upon the first with greater effectiveness and suitability. EPAWSS hardware will be delivered that can be optimized over time, eventually yielding a thoroughly modern electronic warfare suite.

f35formationcaptionF-35 Lightning II. The F-35 acquisition program suffers from sheer size and a choice made a decade-and-a-half ago on the program’s acquisition strategy. In the past, we have purchased large quantities of a widget after we’ve verified the widget works. For the Joint Strike Fighter, it was decided that the most cost effective and quickest way to buy the best product was through “concurrency,” or development and production of the airplane at roughly the same time. What wasn’t appreciated was that adopting something new and innovative would actually necessitate whole new business rules, duplicate offices, stressful lines of communication, and inter-service discord. The F-35 is leaps and bounds more complex to build not only because it is innovative, but because competing priorities are often at odds with our three-legged stool in some way – politics can quickly influence what could have been a business decision. The program is a behemoth with considerations far beyond what our acquisitions system was designed for. A litany of partner nations are committed to buying the jet and all have seats at the table for key decisions – the program’s Executive Officer, Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan, deserves serious consideration as an ambassador to the UN after his time in this role. Cost has been a key driver of F-35 angst, and in this vein it’s been schedule that has suffered more than anything else. Concurrency has saved much of the visible impact of cost-cutting measures – there is little outwardly indicating any major issues with the program. Aircraft continue to be purchased on time with whatever capability can be installed in them. Lockheed-Martin (and its partners) knows how to build an airplane – the argument isn’t about the jet itself – the F-35’s stealth and hardware performance is exceptional, even today. Maturation of aircraft software and a new logistics support system have proved challenging. In 2018, the jet’s “full warfighting capability” hardware and software (Block 3F) will be tested and graded on effectiveness and suitability by AFOTEC for the first time. Two years later, another block modification will begin, Block 4, which will further enhance the F-35’s performance. As the F-35 program enters the operations phase of its lifecycle, funding is decreasing dramatically, adding stress to the performance and schedule (good & fast) legs of our proverbial stool. Though there are a myriad of contracting and infrastructure issues to be solved, the F-35 program has demonstrated its ability to navigate joint and partner relationships to deliver combat capability to the warfighter. With the benefit of hindsight, it is entirely possible we’ll look back and credit concurrency with keeping the program viable.

Does the Defense Acquisition System Work?

A one-size-fits-all condemnation of acquisition based on the three legs of a stool seldom works – the truth behind acquisition issues is often difficult to pin down. While it can be very frustrating, the acquisition process does work. Could it be better? Absolutely! But simply stated, this is the best system for the task at hand when working within the bounds of existing federal law, DOD instructions, and ever-changing threats and requirements. To get a radar warning receiver, a jet, or a tank requires a system built on checks and balances. In order to ensure the warfighter is provided whatever was dreamed up in a requirement, we put multiple offices at the Pentagon in charge of monitoring the acquisition process from cradle to grave. We have specially trained government and civilian personnel that perform a myriad of studies, plans, verifications, builds, bench tests, flight tests, and reports to feed the vast acquisition machinery. Each role is carefully articulated with heavy-handed “do-not-pass-go” verbiage unless certain steps are completed satisfactorily. To hedge our bets, if a capability is technologically premature or a step is incomplete, we have another round of people to quality-check second-order impacts – the discrepancy is then fixed, or not, with appropriate tracking for either scenario. If the impact or error is so great it must be publicized more broadly, the rules tell us when to do that and the program gets ‘help’ whether it wants to or not. Truly, the acquisition system is the best (rules governed process) and worst (rules governed process) of our bureaucracy.

How to Improve the Acquisition System?

The only way to “fix” our acquisition system is to reform the playbook. AFMC and the Pentagon are poor scapegoats here – improvement really starts with the law. Special interests, over time, have harmed the efficiency and output of defense acquisitions. Select checks and balances have led to an overly complicated acquisition enterprise. Reducing the size of the acquisition bureaucracy while optimizing both ends of the acquisition process – requirements generation and engineering/testing – would pay large dividends to both taxpayer and warfighter. Properly executed, with new business rules in place, it’s not hard to imagine well-timed capability delivery to the warfighter. Regardless of any legal changes, the three-legged acquisition stool will still exist, and there will always be friction between what the warfighter “must have” and the motivation, buy-in, and capacity of government and industry to deliver. In the end, the Joint warfighter benefits from the current acquisition system, warts and all, and any revision to the system must carefully balance service and Joint combatant commander needs. Within the Air Force, any new system would need to balance various communities’ wants with core function requirement needs. Whether career acquisition officers or one-assignment PEMs, appreciation of the big picture is a key enabler of the system of today or tomorrow. Fast, cheap, or good – you only get two: lesson learned.

Lt Col Michael Morgan, an F-15E WSO and Weapons Officer, has worked in operational test since 2007 and served in many roles within Air Combat Command and AFOTEC. He currently serves as 53d Test and Evaluation Group Deputy Commander at Nellis AFB, NV.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein belong to the author(s) and should not be construed as carrying the endorsement of the Department of Defense, the US Air Force, or Air University.

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2 comments

  1. Hello Everyone,
    My name is Richard Gomez and I hope today finds everyone here well. I am new here and discovered “Over the Horizons” on LinkedIn. I am unsure what the rules of engagement are in responding to this great article or to hopefully contribute, define, or support Mr. Morgan, albeit from a different perspective. Please allow me to qualify.

    I am drawn to this article for a few reasons. I am a career Eagle Keeper but with acquisition experience through the OMB A-76 program, government-contracted maintenance oversight in the T-38C and T-6 acquisition projects, topped off by 2.5 years with AFOTEC during the F-22 Follow-On Test and Evaluation process. I also earned my MBA in Aviation about a year ago, with Embry Riddle. I am currently an F-15 depot mechanic with an MBA but I obviously aspire. Similar experience within the same acquisition system as Mr. Morgan drew me here.

    I refer to Mr. Morgan’s F-15C MPAWS acquisition example and maybe venture into the F-35 acquisition model. MPAWS is a perfect example to understand the DoD acquisition model, its intent, or how it could be. What we attempt to accomplish with MPAWS is to “shoehorn” ‘00’s capability into ’60’s infrastructure. Better yet, to shoehorn new capability into old infrastructure. Most succinctly, to shoehorn capability into infrastructure. I think the middle choice is best. Well, maybe not. You choose. I say “shoehorn” because the infrastructure precedes the capability by some 40 years, hence the infrastructure is not and must be prepared for the capability. Here is where great expense is incurred, both operationally and logistically.

    Cost drives capability. Capability drives infrastructure. Hence, infrastructure also drives cost. In our example, the F-15C is the infrastructure. This includes the necessary infrastructure support. Development and test are equally if not costlier than the infrastructure but inherent to the current acquisition process, especially development. MPAWS, at its baseline, provides the infrastructure (or foundation) for its ongoing capability. Capability is liquid.

    Mr. Morgan alludes to the process of “racking and stacking” MPAWS capability in terms of necessity. What capability do we need now? What can we afford now? To some, these questions are interchangeable, to others, not so much. “Can we buy the capability that we need now?” The key word is “need”. To some “need” and “want” can be used interchangeably, to some, not so much. Herein lies “conundrum”, the “fight”, and ultimately the “negotiation” or “tradeoff” as Mr. Morgan correctly termed it. This said, so what is my push?

    My push is that capability must be stacked and funded, by perceived or by lessons-learned importance, in the shape of a pyramid. Infrastructure is the foundation and the largest cost and by design, drawn down through its life cycle, barring outliers. Hmmm… That’s a lot of words for a short push! I also have some perspective for the F-35 acquisition difficulties but that is for a subsequent article, if I may.

    In closing, I must put a plug in for McDonnell Douglas and Boeing for having expansion forethought and the capability to use it respectively. Dare I surmise that the same expansion is not likely for 5th to 6th generation, software notwithstanding.

    Warm Regards,

    Richard Gomez

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