How to Loosen Up a Rigid Acquisition System.

Author:Larsen, Christian
Position:NDIA Policy Points

The Defense Department's longstanding culture of internally sourcing and acquiring the best, most innovative capabilities is mostly dead; with the notable exception of some highly classified programs, commercial entities now drive leading edge technology and its refresh rate, creating a need for changes to the legacy acquisition culture.

The department needs to move to a system featuring broadly written requirements describing what it wants to do to encourage and incentivize companies from a broad spectrum of America's commercial sector and universities to compete for contracts based on existing and technologically possible solutions. Accomplishing this, though, requires the department to embrace acquisition risk in ways it has been reluctant to do.

First, the Defense Department needs to restructure its requirements process to address gaps in its acquisition system that constrain broad-based innovative solutions. It is simply not discovering innovative solutions it could rapidly acquire to dominate contested environments where military applications of emerging technologies may determine winners and losers. Why? Its legacy acquisition system is outdated and closed, with incentives that drive some current participants to resist change. Without change, however, the U.S. military will lose its technological advantage in the coming years.

Historically, the Pentagon could develop strategies and plans assuming its forces operated the most effective weapons systems because it funded most of the research and development that led to new technology. It also employed scientists and engineers who could operationalize new technology for warfighters. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency provides a great example: scientists and engineers leveraged Pentagon-funded R&D and found partners in industry who could manufacture/deliver specific capabilities from innovation breakthroughs. This collaborative effort has worked for more than 50 years.

Today, near-peer competitors embrace a commercial-based model that leverages new technology developed by the private sector; meanwhile, the Pentagon limits participation in acquisition by so narrowly defining the requirements in capability development documents that most U.S. companies cannot compete.

Adding to the system's rigidity, Congress lacks incentives to disrupt the current process because traditional defense companies' existing offices and manufacturing plants support well-paying jobs while future jobs...

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