Acquisition Woes Delay DoD Technology Upgrades

On Oct. 25, 2008, the Navy commissioned the USS New Hampshire, a Virginia-class submarine, eight months ahead of schedule and $54 million under budget for the Navy by prime contractor General Dynamics. This example shows that by adapting techniques and products from the commercial sector, the Pentagon can successfully field technology quickly under its existing weapons acquisition system.

Unfortunately the New Hampshire is the exception, not the rule, witnesses told the Senate Armed Services Committee on December 1.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the committee, pointed to several attempts at reform that have failed to change a system that is risk averse and less open to commercial solutions than it was three decades ago, according to an account of the hearing in Defense Systems.

An Air Force general echoed McCain’s criticism when speaking at a December 15 National Contract Managers Association event in Washington. “We’ve got some risk averse folks out there who don’t really understand the commercial side,” said Maj. Gen. Casey Blake, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for contracting, according to an article in insidedefense.com.

The difference between defense and commercial technology development is why, when the final Wideband Global SatCom (WGS) satellite is launched in 2017, a decade and a half will have lapsed from system design to implementation. That contrasts with the expected six-year commercial timeline from design to launch of Intelsat General’s EpicNG high-throughput satellite platform, with the first satellite slated for launch in January 2016.

Among 180,000 pages of military procurement regulations is a section called “lowest price/technically acceptable” or LPTA. While valid for some government buys, LPTA fosters longer timelines that support the way the Air Force built WGS, as opposed to a quicker, more technically up to date system like that of Intelsat EpicNG. By its very nature, LPTA does not foster innovation, and it does nothing to prevent development delays and cost overruns.

Ben FitzGerald, director of the Center for the New American Security’s Technology and National Security Program, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon continues to cling to a Cold War acquisitions model, which makes partnering less compelling to the private sector. A 180-degree technology switch has developed. Where once DoD drove innovation, the military increasingly adapts technology developed commercially.

“We are managing around the system,” FitzGerald testified. “I get incredibly frustrated when the answer is always ‘change the system,’ and the thing we can’t do is change the system.”

Still, Congress tries to change the system while it also worries over technology gaps that are sending customers to France to buy night-vision equipment and to China to overcome U.S. import/export issues. The hope is that Congressional attempts can make a difference and start to resolve this problem.

The Virginia-class submarine success shows that the DoD can do better. The United States must do better if it is to address the challenge of new adversaries in space. The difference in development time to implementation of the WGS versus the development of more modern commercial satellites is an example of the best way forward.