Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Why hasn’t the Army’s regular acquisition process produced anything in decades?

Best Defense guest correspondent weighs in on the Future of War conference.

Tank rounds in Latvia
Soldiers from Company C, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division fire rounds from their M1A2 Abrams Tanks at the Adazi Training Area, Latvia, Nov. 6, 2014. The Soldiers, who were here to assist in training the Latvian Land Forces as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, were part of an exhibit to dignitaries and local media. These rounds mark the first firing of tank rounds in Latvia since 1994. These activities were part of the U.S. Army Europe-led Operation Atlantic Resolve land force assurance training taking place across Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to enhance multinational interoperability, strengthen relationships among allied militaries, contribute to regional stability and demonstrate U.S. commitment to NATO. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy J. Fowler)

By “Hunter”

Best Defense guest columnist

By “Hunter”

Best Defense guest columnist

At the Future of War (FoW) conference, one of General Odierno’s comments referenced the problem of ‘utopia requirements’ in our Defense Acquisitions process. He defined ‘utopia requirements’ as basically overzealous requirements that are not feasible within current technology readiness levels. In the past one might have called these ‘gold-plated’ requirements – the kind that exceeds the warfighter ‘needs’ in favor of the ‘wants.’ GEN Odierno further described this as the primary driver of our inability to get systems fielded.

After the conference, I wondered aloud about whether this was the real source of the problem, or simply among the many problems presented by the byzantine Integrated Defense Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Life Cycle Management System (heretofore known as ‘god-awful chart’). One person I talked suggested, I think, that the process, while unwieldy, paled in comparison to the failed requirements. I argued that both the requirements derivation and the process needed to be overhauled, really razed and rebuilt from the ground up. Tom, for his part, asked me to write this post!

This issue relates back to Dr. Mary Cummings’ comments about how few Silicon Valley businesses want to build things (in her case, robots) for the government. The money to be made doesn’t match the pain levels of getting into the government acquisitions business and following the ‘god-awful chart.’ I suggest the antiquated, slow process also presents a possible reason for the ongoing brain drain in Defense and Aerospace industries that cannot attract young talent. However, these are secondary concerns. Instead, the primary concerns are the efficacy and efficiency of an apparently broken ‘god-awful chart’ system.

Using the process, the Army has not fielded a major end item (MEI) since the early ‘80s. The Big 5 programs of the era, which remain today’s foundational combat systems, consisted of the Abrams tank, Bradley Fighting Vehicle, Apache helicopter, Blackhawk helicopter, and the Patriot missile system. While each of these systems had ‘teething pains’ as they were brought into production (The Pentagon Wars movie about the Bradley is darkly humorous – and should be mandatory viewing for any acquisitions officer or supplier) all improved greatly over time. Each system remains widely recognized – worldwide – as the best or among the best of its kind.

Since then, no comparable Army system has been fielded using the ‘god-awful chart.’ The Stryker Family of Vehicles is a major end item that was successfully fielded, but that was largely because, in the interest of speed to production, it circumvented the official process. All of the C-IED efforts of the last 14 years, though not MEI, were also done using an abbreviated process. The immediate battlefield need drove rapid development.

The list of failed Army programs (using the official process) is long; examples include Crusader ($11B), Future Combat System ($25B), and Ground Combat Vehicle ($28B) – see this CBO report. Other services have similar programs that poorly met or violated the iron triangle of cost, schedule and performance, including the Air Force’s F-35 ($59.2B for development, $261B for procurement, $590B for operations & sustainment) the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship ($15B in 2003), and the ever-beleaguered Marine V-22 Osprey ($35B). As Senator Everett Dirksen said “A [b]illion here, a [b]illion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money.”

At the conclusion of the FoW conference, Senator John McCain, who recently became chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, mentioned the $40B dollars lost in acquisition programs over time that had no product to show for it. He also used the example of the U.S.S. Gerald Ford (which is $2B over budget for a total of $12.8 B plus R&D costs of $4.7B) SEN McCain wondered aloud what that wasted money might have done for his Arizona constituents. He also noted that raising taxes to avoid sequestration isn’t the right idea when there is so much systemic waste (including acquisitions).

Isn’t it long past time to streamline the ‘god-awful chart’ and fix the broken 20th century requirements system so we can get the warfighters the equipment they need, rather than the pie-in-the-sky wants? If important programs, like the Stryker, can be fielded using an abbreviated process, when do we smartly make the abbreviated process….the process.

“Hunter” works in acquisitions. These are his opinions alone.

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy J. Fowler

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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