In defense acquisitions, privileges reserved for urgent needs should be extended to a broader set of systems.
A sense of urgency can bring out the best in us; the US Defense Department’s acquisitions community is no exception. Once the decision was made, it took just 27 months to develop and deploy fully today’s fleet of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs). The solutions out of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) have been known to make it to the battlefield in as little as 3-4 months. The PackBot— a robotic system that assisted soldiers in eliminating irregular threats from the caves of Afghanistan—was procured in under thirty days.
Good luck, was the response I got from an Army veteran who helped stand up JIEDDO.
The Pentagon loves its processes too much, said another vet who managed the acquisition of complex rockets and large caliber ammunition for the Army.
This skepticism is completely reasonable when you look closely at all that had to go right for rapidly deployed systems to get to the field. It starts with a champion at the very, very top of the food chain. Former Defense Secretary Gates provided the spark that got the MRAP going in 2007. Former Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz personally oversaw the DOD’s counter-IED program that led to JIEDDO. Beyond a champion at the highest level, it takes process flexibility that most Program Managers could never dream of having. Without multi-year dollars and wiggle room to bypass many testing requirements, most urgent systems would have fallen into the deep recesses of the DoD 5000.02 Acquisition Lifecycle, leaving critical needs unmet.
Yet, unlike urgency, efficiency is—or at least should be— transferrable. It is remarkable that, in five years, the DoD fielded 27,740 MRAPs along with a number of related vehicles, including Mine-Resistant Utility Vehicle (MRUVs) and Joint Explosive Ordnance Disposal Rapid Response Vehicles (JERRVs). However, it is equally remarkable that, as of late 2012, 60 percent of MRAPs sat out of use in storage, and only 3 percent had been sold to allied partners. Going further, many systems that transition from an Urgent Operational Need Statement (UONS) to an enduring program of record are sucked back into the early stages of the acquisition lifecycle. There, they can look forward to completing tests and protocols alongside immature programs that will likely not see a battlefield for several years.
It is true that not every program can be “priority #1”, as my friend from JIEDDO emphasized to me. It is also true that some systems, like a new start stealth aircraft, will take years to deploy, even if on an accelerated track. And let’s remember that “fast” and “effective” should not be used interchangeably. A colleague that handles testing requirements in the Air Force made this point to me, citing the MQ-9 Reaper as a system where a need for speed resulted in unstable supply chains, interoperability issues, and limited training regimes to support the system as an enduring capability.
Taking all of this into consideration, I still believe that the product should shape the business practices, not the other way around. For the right systems, urgency-inspired effectiveness needs to make its way into the deliberate acquisition process even after the need for urgency has come and gone.
DoD can start moving down this path by bringing existing rapid acquisition hubs to a policy level and letting them distribute their best practices from the top down and out. JIEDDO is a great example of this approach. The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) is less so. Established in 2002 with a mission to “provide lessons learned and best practices identified through the rapid equipping process,” the REF seems well-suited to offer accelerated alternatives to a cumbersome process. Unfortunately, it has been tucked away at Fort Belvoir with a limited scope for the last ten years. If broadened to address matters beyond soldier equipment and moved next to JIEDDO in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, REF could provide huge value to acquisition centers across the services.
Another idea is to reallocate the resources that addressed urgent needs once they have been met. From his experiences in Army acquisitions, my colleague noted that DoD is great at mobilizing, but struggles to draw down with grace. If DoD could repurpose its rapid acquisition capacity as well at it brings it together, we could see increased exports of systems that started through an UONS. Instead, we watch as foreign bidders sit on long waiting lists for systems like the MRAP.
The focus now shifts from fulfilling urgent needs against asymmetric threats to maneuvering constricted budgets with the troops coming home. With this development, proponents of programs like the MRAP and the PackBot will likely find themselves back in the trenches of the standard acquisition process. We can only hope that their experiences in settings defined by urgency prompt them to question and disrupt the slow, deliberate pace of business as usual. If the post-urgent acquisitions space can make no further gains, perhaps it can at least inject a hint of rapidness into a process that could use a jolt.
Alex Haber is a business analyst in the national security practice of Censeo Consulting Group. An earlier version of this essay contained minor errors on the establishment date of the REF and the timeline for procurement of the Packbot.