• Delivering innovative technologies into the hands of warfighters requires streamlined acquisition processes. Photo by Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Drake Nickel
     Delivering innovative technologies into the hands of warfighters requires streamlined acquisition processes. Photo by Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Drake Nickel

Four Ways to Improve the Acquisition Process

January 23, 2019
By Joe Marino

Picking up the pace of innovation means streamlining acquisition.

The response to the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson’s repeated request to “pick up the pace” of developing and implementing breakthrough technologies for our warfighters has gone, in my opinion, largely unheeded.

This is not the result of a lack of innovative solutions. A myriad of research and development programs exists to support the development of new technologies or to adapt existing commercial technologies to defense applications. Rather, it’s the result of an arcane acquisition process that is burdensome, expensive and lacking vision. Acquisition reform is where we need to pick up the pace!

The Navy struggles to bring technologies to the operational fleet in a timely manner in large part due to a burdensome, redundant acquisition process defined in DOD Instruction 5000.02. Innovation gets bogged down in the day-to-day routine of implementing incremental, evolutionary changes to existing systems. As a result, new technologies languish on the prototype shelf until they are rendered obsolete—the victims of an ever-increasing pace of technological advancement.

Couple this with a frightening business model that the Russians and Chinese have adopted to steal innovative U.S. technologies and implement them through an acquisition process that is much quicker and less prone to indecisiveness and risk aversion, and you have a recipe for impending disaster. Daily breaches in cybersecurity, such as the recent theft by Chinese nationals of hydrophone technologies, offer these adversaries a ready-made pipeline of great ideas awaiting our torturously slow acquisition process.

In his August message to the DOD team, Pat Shanahan, then-deputy secretary of defense, wrote, “At the end of the day, what matters is not whether we are better than we were last year, but whether we are better than our adversaries—stronger, faster and more lethal.”

Picking up the pace of acquisition reform is critical to our ability to maintain our dominance in innovative solutions for our warfighters. So, what can the United States do? Following are four recommendations that can improve the acquisition process, create an innovative environment and get new technologies to the battlespace more quickly.

  1. Differentiate the work. Identify mission-critical capabilities and key technology areas of interest, specific enough to warrant prototype development for products associated with specific platforms, such as AI-based command level decision support system for submarine command and control). Lay out a detailed, aggressive development and implementation plan that brings technology from concept through to deployment on specific platforms.
  2. Educate and Train Program Managers. Streamlined acquisition processes, such as the Maritime Accelerated Acquisition Office (MACO), already exist. But these are not well-known or understood by program managers. The Defense Acquisition University should include education and training associated with these programs and their proper use. The current Fast Track program should be expanded to address programs below acquisition category (ACAT) 1 category. The overlay of ACAT 1 processes and procedures on lesser programs is expensive, time-consuming, and in most cases, unnecessary.
  3. Use MACO as a roadmap to streamline the entire acquisition process. Rebuild our existing processes from the ground up. The DOD should adopt this accelerated approach as the default process unless a strong case can be made to add complexity. Currently, the default process is just the opposite—a complex set of regulations that successfully snuff out innovation.
  4. Accept greater risk. Recognize that the greatest risk we currently face is our lack of speed in getting technology to our warfighters and that we need to reduce the amount of redundant acquisition processes and burdensome oversight with the aim of accepting some risk in exchange for greater flexibility and agility. 

Aggressive metrics should be set in order to drive significant changes in our acquisition processes such as cutting the development and deployment of critical technologies in half.

Adm. Richardson’s call to action and sense of urgency is absolutely on target. However, the challenge is not picking up the pace of developing innovative technologies. Access to such technologies abounds in both the defense and private sectors. The key to success is a revolutionary step forward in aligning our DOD acquisition processes to the realities of business in the Information Age. We need to pick up the pace of our adaptation of a new and bold business model.

Joe Marino is the co-founder and chairman of Rite-Solutions.

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