Why Procurement Transformation is So Hard – and So Necessary

Back in December a great deal of people reacted positively to the nomination of Ashton Carter for Secretary of Defense. Observers in both government and industry lauded his breadth of experience.

Over the past three decades, Carter has held three different positions inside the Department of Defense (DoD) and most recently served as deputy to outgoing Secretary Chuck Hagel. Carter also played a key role in the initial development of the Better Buying Power (BBP) initiative in 2010.

Despite this kind of resume, the challenge Carter faces in fostering change at the DoD is a formidable one. Two recent articles from Defense News make that point in no uncertain terms.

In the first commentary, contributor Harlan Ullman likens Carter’s upcoming task to a “Gordian knot,” monumental in any scenario and complicated further by the fractious political environment:

And he must manage that transition at a time when relations between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are contentious at best and probably will worsen. That is a full-time job alone.

The second and invisible horn of his dilemma is the need to transform rather than transition the Pentagon to its next incarnation. Here, the Gordian knot binding the unresolved and possibly unresolvable complex contradictions of a colossal strategy-force [vs.] structure-budget-cost growth mismatch must be severed.

Ullman talks about how 9/11 derailed a serious attempt at DoD transformation under President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He sees the danger of a “hollow force” developing if costs aren’t brought under control and the DoD can’t make the transition to being a smaller, more flexible and adaptable force.

In the second Defense News article, reporter Aaron Mehta takes a slightly more hopeful view of the latest acquisition initiatives inside the Air Force. Service Secretary Deborah Lee James described the new Bending the Cost Curve (BTCC) program during an address at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council.

Mehta quotes Secretary James admitting that on average it takes the Air Force 17 months to award a sole-source, something she called a “horrifying fact.”

“We have got to stop spending more and more in order to get less and less, so what we have to do is bend that cost curve,” James said… “We in the Air Force — and I can say this broadly across the Department of Defense as well — we are way too slow in all that we do.”

The BTCC targets three areas to try and improve acquisition cycles:

  • Better interaction with industry;
  • Improved internal acquisition processes, and;
  • A broader pool of traditional and non-traditional industry partners to compete for programs.

Initial implementation will focus on four programs, including the Space-Based Infrared Radar System, or SBIRS. It’s thought that by keeping relatively small and focused, BTCC can show results and then be expanded.

The next year is a critical time for this country’s military space strategy. New and powerful high-throughput satellite (HTS) systems will soon be coming on line, delivering far more performance than today’s satellites. The DoD must find a way to more efficiently and quickly harness technological innovation.

Many senior military leaders agree with that assessment. Testifying before Congress late last month, Lt. Gen. Mark Ramsay, the Joint Staff director for force structure, resources and assessment, made the following statement:

“The big issue is there’s certain things we have to do that are very protected, very secure, that may not have the bandwidth commercial satellites do,” Ramsay said. “But we really are very much wedded to the commercial backbone, and I do see that increasing over time. But it’s finding that right balance in the future.”

Our military requires this advanced satellite technology to fulfill critical ISR missions, which depend on superior space situational awareness. To support all future engagements, the U.S. and its allies must defeat adversaries in highly contested environments, which is the present reality we see around the world.

“None of this is easy, because it involves change, and change is hard; but I would submit it’s worth putting the effort into it,” James concluded.

The commercial space industry couldn’t agree more – and we’re ready to assist.

To view the Industry’s Better Buying Power Initiative, click here.

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