Air Force AMU Army Branch Editor's Pick Military Opinion Original

Military Procurement Doesn't Have to Be Slow or Boring

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, In Military. Veteran, U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force

Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article do not represent the views of American Military University, American Public University System, its management or other employees.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has consistently ranked number one among all other nations in the size and complexity of its bureaucracy.

There is not a private corporation in existence that can compare to the Pentagon’s bloated and labyrinthian system of administration, especially in weapons acquisition and military procurement. As a result, some new weapon systems take decades to progress from inception to working prototype. This is a far cry from 1961’s Project Apollo, in which our nation created, bought, borrowed or stole everything it needed to get a man on the moon in only eight years.

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This complexity has increased over time as both weapon systems and our nation’s laws and regulations became more high-tech and more procedural.

The current system of weapons procurement for government officials comes with its own “university” at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, as well as a 5,000-page “how-to” manual for military purchasing. This manual, an omnibus of procurement suffering, is rumored to be outlawed by the Geneva Convention as a torture device unbefitting of a first-world democracy.

Jokes aside, there has to be a better, faster way to ensure that the front line gets the cutting-edge weapons they need for the demands of their jobs.

A New Acquisition Fast Lane for Military Procurement

Fortunately, two Air Force officials and their team are spearheading a new acquisition fast lane called Section 804.

Acting Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Matt Donovan and Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper have devised an acquisition strategy so simple that you could describe it on a bar napkin.

Section 804 of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, also called Middle Tier Acquisition (MTA), is a rapid acquisition interim approach that focuses on delivering weapons capability in a period of two to five years. The two acquisition pathways detailed in MTA are:

Rapid Prototyping

Use innovative technology to rapidly develop fieldable prototypes to demonstrate new capabilities and meet emerging military needs. The objectives are:

  • Field a prototype that can be demonstrated in an operational environment
  • Provide for residual operational capability within five years of an approved requirement

Rapid Fielding

Use proven technologies to field production quantities of new or upgraded systems with minimal development required. The objectives are:

  • Begin production within six months
  • Complete fielding within five years of an approved requirement

According to Donovan and Roper, “the goal is to begin prototyping earlier, nearly a year and a half earlier than under the old system; give engineers more time for testing and troubleshooting, and keep flawed concepts from entering production and operations — a whopping 70 percent of any program’s total cost.”

In addition, the pair have delegated decision authority over procurement programs to officers in the field where fielding cutting-edge systems would have the biggest impact.

Streamlined Acquisition Approach Is Already Being Adopted by Navy, Army and Air Force

Already, both the Navy and Army have taken advantage of this streamlined acquisition approach. For their part, the Air Force is deploying no less than nine initiatives over the next five years that will take advantage of the new prototyping and faster fielding authorities. A program can qualify for special treatment under Section 804 if the Air Force determines that a prototype can be operational or a system can be delivered in two to five years.

Among the Air Force projects that could see the light of day much sooner are the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon and Air-Launched Rapid-Response Weapon missile-development efforts. Three aircraft initiatives also made the list — the B-52 engine replacement effort, F-22 upgrades and the search for a light-attack aircraft. Section 804 authorities will also be used to accelerate the Unified Platform for cyber operators.

Section 804 Is Only Temporary

However, Congress has only authorized the implementation of Section 804 on an interim basis until September 30, 2019. Technically, this time could be extended by the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, Ellen Lord.

Donavan and Roper state that “one and a half years into implementation is far too early to abandon a successful experiment.”

Thanks to increasing national competition from ideological adversaries Russia and China, today’s global landscape is perhaps the closest it has been to the Cold War since its end nearly 30 years ago. And let’s face it: China won’t wait around to deploy their cutting-edge technology while the U.S. stumbles through a procurement minefield of its own making. Among the dangers are overthinking processes, mountains of paperwork and severe risk aversion.

Now more than ever, we need to field our cutting-edge technology while it is still cutting-edge. There’s no doubt that there will be incremental failures that are necessary for success.

One need only recall the triumph of Apollo 11 to remember what Americans are capable of achieving. When we have the will to reach a goal and the ability to put purchasing decisions in the hands of front-line scientists and military officers, amazing technologies are well within reach and sooner than you think.

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Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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