The Pentagon is seeking a way through its “very challenging fiscal environment”

Last week, the attention of the defense sector turned to San Diego for AFCEA WEST. Co-hosted by the US Naval Institute and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA), the conference convened leaders across the armed services and private industry to address the salient theme of “lower budgets and higher demands.” The three-day event featured expert panels and keynote addresses with remarks from many central figures in this conversation, such as Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, Former PACOM Commander Admiral Tim Keating, and Ellen Lord, the president and CEO of Textron Systems. Over the course of the conference, dialogue ranged through the Navy’s outlook on the Asia-Pacific “rebalance,” the campaign against ISIL, the military’s participation in humanitarian assistanc and disaster relief, and spotlights on big-ticket defense systems, such as directed energy weapons and unmanned systems.

While policy juices were flowing freely, a considerable amount of time was spent looking under the hood of the DoD machine. As Deputy Secretary Work remarked, it is critical to “understand how the sausage is made” and, by extension, where and how the process can be improved. In this vein, here are key operational takeaways from AFCEA WEST.

The all-too-real threat of sequestration
Work kicked off the conference with a stern warning that returning to sequestration funding levels would be a “disaster” and a “non-strategy.” To reverse the damage that has already been done, Work announced that the Department’s FY16 budget proposal is $35 billion above the corresponding sequestration level, a request that is 6.7 percent higher than last year’s and the largest base request in history.

He and others went on to emphasize the crippling consequences that will befall the Pentagon if forced to return to the “very challenging fiscal environment” of sequestration. Work contended that “future readiness” would be in jeopardy. Without a “clear budget picture,” BAE Systems’ President & CEO noted, it will be difficult to pursue innovative new starts and modernization efforts. Driving the point home in light of today’s complex threat landscape, Work claimed that the U.S. would be unable to fulfill its role as a “global security first responder” if resourced at sequestration levels.   

Need for speed in DoD acquisitions
Industry executives and military brass took this issue head on throughout the conference. Vice Admiral Michael Connor bemoaned the administrative obstacles that keep the Navy from introducing new capabilities efficiently and effectively. Echoing this point, BAE’s DeMuro highlighted the “legendary number of signatures” needed to get a defense system off the ground. Panelists went on to stress that DoD procurement hubs need to get better-equipped, incentivized, and streamlined to buy at a faster clip. And, building on the high-level calls for rapidness from the Hill and Pentagon, Lt. General David Berger brought the argument home, arguing that the current pace of acquisition activities leaves operators in the field with little or no time to train on new and complex systems.

Stronger partnerships across the defense-industrial base
Not surprisingly given the conference’s audience, speakers also broached the allegedly broken dynamic between government and industry. Along these lines, Vice Admiral Richard Hunt urged for greater “cross-pollination” within the defense-industrial base. Reaffirming this point, Ellen Lord called the level of dialogue that exists between DoD acquisition centers and firms like hers “insufficient.” With an underwhelming degree of cross-talk, Vice Admiral Hunt complained that defense firms churn out solutions in the absence of a complete understanding of end-users’ “true requirements.” A representative from the Navy’s Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems (PEO EIS) summed this line of criticism up aptly, urging DoD procurement hubs and industry partners to “better align the acquisition cycle with the collaboration cycle.”

Striving to stay at the cutting edge
Panelists were not shy in highlighting how these issues around acquisitions consistently impede the Department’s drive to innovate. To this point, Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden candidly remarked that the US armed forces’ technical superiority on the global stage is “eroding at an accelerated rate.” Throughout the conference, however, leaders both in military and industry tempered this remark, stressing the need to buy strategically, not hit the panic button. VADM Rowden himself went on to say that the DoD’s acquisition strategy around high-tech purchases needs to keep the Department on “the right side of the cost equation.” In a similar spirit, Vice Admiral Kenneth Floyd commented on the need to devise innovative training approaches in parallel with advanced technologies. Capturing the crux of this issue, Lt. General Berger said crisply, “If we just chase technology, we will never catch up.”

Keeping the ship afloat
And it’s not just the front end of the acquisition cycle that is leaving something to be desired. A number of speakers brought up the burgeoning problem of maintenance and sustainment. Vice Admiral Mike Shoemaker noted that the carriers are “aging” and consequently, the maintenance bills are mounting. Vice Admiral Connor concurred and urged for greater resourcing and more creative management strategies at Navy shipyards to keep the fleet operational. Amidst talk of Ukraine and China, Deputy Secretary Work made sure to not leave out this crucial phase of the acquisition process, calling for an increase in operations and maintenance funding, and a greater emphasis on “maintaining and modernizing.” 

Sooner rather than later
Many of these complex operational issues will be coming to a head in the next several months. The Defense Department’s budget request is already a matter of executive debate and will very likely stay that way through the 11th hour. Moreover, key members of Congress, including Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), may be releasing their respective acquisition reform bills as early as late March or the start of April. All the while, the Pentagon will continue to promote programs around innovation, such as the Defense Innovation Marketplace, Better Buying Power 3.0, and service-specific companion initiatives. Armed with the many recommendations and warnings discussed at AFCEA WEST, it will be interesting to say the very least to see what leaders in government and industry do next.

Alex Haber is a business analyst with Censeo Consulting Group’s national security practice.