Even the the casual observer of the Department Defense knows that something is broken in the Department of Defense's acquisition of major weapon systems. Newspapers are full of headlines about these problems: the F-35 program has suffered huge cost overruns and significant delays due to development problems, and the KC-41 tanker may be delayed as well. Many programs are facing similar problems. Whether you want to reduce or increase the size the military, it makes sense to see if we can do a better job.
Of course, it is not as if we have not been trying to reduce cost of acquiring new weapon systems. Indeed we have had some success. Ash Cater's Better Buying Power seems to have been a success, and the Air Force dramatically reduced the number of cost overruns when Secretary Donley was Secretary of the Air Force. But the problems remains. What needs to be done?
When I was Air Force General Counsel, I ran across the writings of a maverick Air Force officer, Lt. Colonel Dan Ward, who seemed to me to have the right prescription for what ails the Defense acquisition system. He examined programs that failed and programs that worked, and concluded that a focus on making things faster and simpler makes for a more successful acquisition. But, as you can see from the above chart, Congress and DoD have created a monster of a system that is neither fast nor simple.
As Dan points out, when we ignore the usual process, and focus on a fast and simple solution, we get great results for the war fighter:
The US Air Force needed more Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capability and so launched the Project Liberty program. The result was the low-cost MC-12W aircraft, which flew its first combat mission in June 2009, just eight months after receiving funds. It has since flown thousands of successful missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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As dan points out, the Virginia submarine program illustrates that this faster and simpler approach even works for very complicated weapon systems.The US Navy began the Virginia class submarine program after terminating the unaffordable Seawolf program. The USS New Hampshire, first of the Block II Virginias, came in eight months early and $54M under budget, and that’s on top of the $300M cost savings already achieved on the Block II design. You read that right – a nuclear-powered submarine, early and under budget. The USS New Mexico also delivered four months early… you get the picture.
While I was Air Force General Counsel, I saw the amazing work that the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office ("RCO") was able to accomplish using faster and simpler acquisition methods. Despite deploying some of the most cutting age technology available, the RCO gave important capabilities to the warfighter on schedule and below costs. (And I also saw serious efforts by some at DoD to kill the RCO model altogether.
I think Dan Ward (sadly, now retired) was on the right track. Read the entire article here. You can find an entire collection of Dan's thinking here.