Magazine article National Defense

Acquisition Business Reaches Inflection Point

Magazine article National Defense

Acquisition Business Reaches Inflection Point

Article excerpt

Following a mishap such as an airplane crash, the military commissions an independent investigation of what went wrong and why. Similar probes occasionally are done with acquisition programs after they implode.

In one recent case, members of the Senate directed the Air Force to dig into the failure of a logistics information network that was terminated in 2013 after the service had spent a billion dollars over eight years. Officials discovered that the system was not working and would have required another billion to fix.

The details of the investigation, according to Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition William LaPlante, make for "very, very sobering reading."

LaPlante's observations on the now-defunct expeditionary combat support system came in response to questions from Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., during his confirmation hearing in January. LaPlante said the managers in charge of ECSS had been fired, although that far from guarantees that these blunders will not be perpetrated again. The conclusions of the probe led LaPlante to believe that, beyond managerial fumbles, the program failed as a result of endemic problems that are "baked" into the military procurement system and are difficult to solve.

This and other big-ticket acquisition flops over the past decade have put the fear of God into Pentagon leaders who now face the added pressure of having to ensure programs perform in a zero-tolerance environment, and with budget cuts to boot.

"We are having to be very careful about starting anything new," LaPlante said.

Before any funds are committed to the procurement of new equipment, he said, the Air Force takes great pains to study whether it can, instead, make do by updating what it already has.

There is increasing angst about how to get the military on a path to modernize in a time of declining budgets. Some defense industry insiders have come to the conclusion that a string of troubled acquisition problems in recent years is just a symptom of a more serious ailment, which is that the Pentagon is still operating in a Cold War, Industrial Age mindset that served it well in the past but is now inhibiting technological innovation and efficiency.

'We are now living on the fumes of that golden age and have not figured out where we go next," observed a seasoned industry wag. The Defense Department is not yet sure how to cope with a confluence of events and trends, including the end of the post-9/11 wars, an explosion of technological innovation that the Pentagon doesn't control and the advent of new competitors.

To move the acquisition business in a more productive direction, one immediate step the Pentagon could take is to accept that it no longer holds the key to the technology kingdom, analysts have said. They also suggest that the Pentagon must abandon its penchant for throwing money at problems.

"The old way - brute force and bushels of money to acquire things - is no longer practical or realistic," said Tom Captain, vice president of Deloitte's aerospace and defense sector. "The new way is represented by companies that invest their own money, developing new technologies rapidly, at dramatically lower cost."

Following decades of acquisition reforms, the Defense Department is stuck in neutral, Captain said. …

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