When stripped to the bare essentials, the process followed in most defense acquisitions is quite simple. A requirement is generated, an acquisition strategy developed and a contract let, before the item is produced, deployed, sustained and, eventually, disposed of. Typically, efforts at acquisition reform have dealt with the predeployment phases and consist mostly of renaming the phases by changing milestones from ABC to 123 and back to ABC, by sliding milestone events left or right and by adding oversight reviews. With the current and expected future emphasis on affordability and cost control of major defense acquisition programs (MDAPs), a shift in focus from a process-centric to a product-centric approach deserves serious consideration. Indeed, it is a national security imperative that we procure more affordable weapons systems that can create win-win opportunitiesfor both government and industry. Government will be able to afford more national security assets and industry will be engaged to sell more of those assets.
So what is needed to create a more product-centric environment? On a macro scale, injecting stability, accountability and trust into MDAPs is an essential first step. Let’s examine each factor.
Project stability requires the cooperation of numerous stakeholders and is driven primarily by the government. The focus is on driving change out of the project. This means firm requirements, a well-understood and socialized acquisition strategy and a realistic budget. Of these, budget stability is often the hardest to achieve because of shifting national priorities from a congressional viewpoint. Budget stability is a key enabler of affordable solutions. Finally, stability also extends to project leadership and scope. There are several examples of projects that have been well served with a single leader having responsibility for asset acquisition and sustainment. This arrangement incentivizes a sense of product ownership and innovative solutions.
Accountability is a simple concept. Put one person in charge and hold them accountable for achieving project cost, schedule and performance metrics. This is usually the program manager (PM), whether on the government or industry side. While the notion is simple, blurred lines of authority often cause project failure. The PM must be experienced and savvy from both a technical and business standpoint but, first and foremost, must possess seasoned leadership skills. Simply put, there is a direct correlation between skilled leadership and project success.
Trust encompasses actions backing up promises. In a project setting, it is best achieved with an integrated government-industry project team. It enables timely and inclusive project decisions; fosters a sense of teamwork that keeps the project on task; and empowers innovation. It creates an environment open to new ideas and presents an opportunity to highlight affordable solutions not just in the procurement phase but throughout the equipment life cycle. Consider some of these potential innovations. Current product life-cycle management tools enable the public and private sectors to leverage government investment in an integrated data environment by creating a virtual exchange of as-designed, as-built and as-is data reliably across the life cycle of equipment from design through sustainment. This synchronized knowledge of requirements, resources, documentation and configuration data provides a single-source digital environment that could reduce equipment life-cycle costs substantially. Add to this the rapidly emerging adaptive manufacturing (3-D printing) technology and the potential for significant system life-cycle cost savings is created particularly in the sustainment phase for major weapons systems. Recent research on these innovations indicates that cost savings are substantial and system affordability much enhanced. To attain maximum affordability gains, innovations such as these need to be introduced at project initiation. It is in this setting that a truly integrated and trusting government-industry team can reach its full potential to field an affordable and effective national security asset.
Enabled by the macro-climate of project stability, accountability and trust described above, the government-industry teams charged with the development, production and sustainment of the nation’s next generation of warfighting equipment will be able to focus better on fielding affordable products for our national defense.
Rear Adm. James Greene, USN (Ret.), is the former project manager for the Aegis weapon system with responsibility for development, fielding and sustainment of the Aegis fleet of cruisers and destroyers. For the past 11 years, he has been the professor of the practice of acquisition at the Naval Postgraduate School, where he has overseen an acquisition research program that has produced more than 1,300 original research reports on the U.S. Defense Department’s business practices, policies and procedures.
The views in this column are solely those of the author and do not represent official positions of the Naval Postgraduate School or AFCEA International.