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The Most Important Things

June 11, 2012
By Dan Ward

The Air Force Chief of Staff had but three critical requirements for the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM): "It should work; it should hit the target; and it should cost under $40,000 each." The former Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Jacques Gansler held on to this handwritten request, as reported in "Aligning Acquisition Strategies With the Times," written earlier this year by SIGNAL defense editor Max Cacas. Could such a simplified approach possibly lead to developing an effective new capability? The JDAM managed to satisfy all three requirements-in fact, the low, low price of $17,000 per munition is an unexpectedly good bonus. That's less than half the required price, in case you're not interested in doing the math yourself. So the question is, how much more value, clarity or insight does the military gain by spending months or even years to develop extensive, complicated, conscientiously typed requirements documents? Might we be better off with a handwritten note listing the three most important things? I'll bet the Chief of Staff for each service could whip up one of those lists for each top-priority new acquisition program in less than an hour. For that matter, I bet I could do it myself. Check this out: New Fighter Plane Requirements It should kick the [bleep!] of anything else that flies. It should be ready to fly within two years. It should cost under $40,000. You're welcome, America. I know, some readers may object that I low-balled the third requirement, but I'm trying to make a point here. In the interest of realism, I could live with budgeting up to $400K for each fighter, but only if we aim to come in under budget, like the JDAM did. That was so much fun, let's do it again: New Tanker Requirements It should be able to refill our planes in the air. It should be ready to fly ten years ago. It should cost under $40,000. On that second requirement, we're already kind of late on this tanker thing, so in the interest of accuracy we should document the fact that the Air Force needed a new tanker a long, long time ago. And as with the fighter, we could be a little flexible on the $40K price tag. The point is, there needs to be some cost ceiling for each system, along with a clear desire to come in BELOW that price, rather than no cost ceiling at all and a self-fulfilling expectation we'll bust any given budget by an order of magnitude or more. Is a handwritten requirements document sufficient to build a system? Probably not. I'm sure the JDAM had its share of formal documentation as things progressed. But the CSAF's three-line guidance helped convey a certain sense of priority and clarity. It was a great place to start. Now at this point you may ask yourself, "Isn't that what the Key Performance Parameter (KPP) concept was supposed to do-identify the most critical attributes for a new system?" Yes, that is exactly what KPPs are supposed to do. Your Defense Acquisition University instructors are very proud you remembered that. But here's the thing: When program managers pile up 19 KPPs (as they did on both the V-22 Osprey and the SBIRS High satellite program, to name just two), then identify some KPPs as "major Key Performance Parameters," maybe somebody missed the point. The issue is not just KPPs, of course. The Army's Ground Combat Vehicle's Request For Proposal (RFP) included 990 "tier-one" requirements. These tier-one requirements may not be KPPs, but it's still a whole lot of Most Important Things. In an encouraging sign, the RFP was recalled and reissued, minus 75 percent of those tier ones. That's still 247 tier-one requirements, which is probably a couple hundred too many, but it was significantly better than the first attempt. And I shouldn't neglect to mention there were an additional 12,600 non-key requirements on SBIRS High. That's twelve-thousand, with-a-capital-T. Is it any wonder SBIRS High had three Nunn-McCurdy violations? Yeah, I know a "Nunn-McCurdy violation" sounds fictional and a little gross, but it's a real thing. Trust me, you don't want to experience this type of violation once, let alone thrice. Why were there so many Nunn-McCurdy violations on SBIRS High? Could it be there was a tiny bit of confusion about which capabilities were truly "key" and that confusion led to rework, delays, cost growth and the like? I'm absolutely convinced SBIRS would have been better off trading its 19 KPPs and gargantuan requirements document for a 3-line, handwritten list. Yes, a successful military acquisition project requires more than just documental clarity, focus and brevity. However, a handwritten requirements document is a great start. It's worked before. It's probably worth trying again. Lt. Col. Dan Ward is an active duty acquisitions officer in the U.S. Air Force, recently returned from deployment to ISAF HQ in Kabul, Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense, or of AFCEA International or SIGNAL Magazine.

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