The drafters of the annual Defense authorization bill have been busy over the past two years passing legislative provisions that are meant to help the Pentagon speed up and simplify the acquisition process. Heather Wilson, the newly-confirmed Secretary of the Air Force, wants to know whether her service’s acquisition professionals are actually using them.
Wilson has ordered a summit in late June: a half-day off-site retreat at which she’s asked the Air Force’s senior uniformed and civilian leaders to convene for a complete “scrub” of all of the Defense Department’s existing acquisition authorities, to examine which ones are being underutilized and which ones could improve the Air Force’s track record in delivering systems on time and within budget.
“Where are we creating problems for ourselves? Not by statute or regulation, but what can we do ourselves? Let’s look at the processes, look at where we can take advantage of new authorities that have been given to us and how we will systematically do that for every procurement,” she said Tuesday during the Senate Armed Services Committee’s annual hearing on the posture of the Air Force. “There some procurements that are more complex than others, and there are some areas where I think we’re being very aggressive in using authorities, particularly special authorities for special situations. But how do we then use that and roll that back into the regular way in which we do business?”
Wilson did not specify the areas in which she thinks the Air Force has already moved aggressively to take advantage of Congressional reforms.
But Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff said the service is particularly interested in finding ways, within existing acquisition rules, to improve its acquisitions of information technology, particularly given the constantly-growing role of networked systems in hardware platforms such as the F-35.
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“And it may be that we ought not ever put two acronyms in the same sentence: IT and RFP. Because the reality is if you try to acquire information technology the same way you do a platform, it’s already too slow, whether you’re talking about cybersecurity or the fact that it just changes at such a fast pace,” he said. “We’re looking at a holistic view on how to acquire information technology because it’s so central to our future as we look at networking capabilities together.”
Among the more than 100 acquisition provisions Congress included in the 2017 Defense authorization bill, several were geared toward pressing the Defense Department into buying commercial items and using simplified acquisition procedures, especially when it’s buying innovative technologies.
A year earlier, Congress ordered the creation of an expert panel to comb through DoD’s existing regulations in a comprehensive effort to weed out those that are no longer necessary or are creating additional burdens without delivering any meaningful benefit. The study group, known as the Section 809 Panel, is expected to deliver its final recommendations to streamline the acquisition system by June 2018.
Apart from that effort, Goldfein said the Air Force is looking closely at the processes through which it manages space systems, both for itself and in its role as the executive agent for space on the behalf of the rest of the Defense Department.
By the Government Accountability Office’s estimation, there are 60 different “stakeholders” within the Pentagon who have a voice in procuring and managing satellites, launch vehicles and other aspects of DoD’s space interests. They include eight separate organizations that manage acquisitions and 11 more offices with oversight responsibilities across the Air Force, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the intelligence community and the Office of Management and Budget.
The department has already begun a process to rationalize and deconflict those roles around four “lines of effort:” the development of a national strategy for space, writing concepts of operation for how the military operates in space, drafting agreed-upon requirements for the systems the military will need to perform those missions, and determining how to build a trained-and-ready workforce to operate those systems.
“This really comes down to a discussion about acquisition authority, and really, decision authority,” Goldfein said. “When you look at the 60 different folks that are in the organization now, each of whom can say no – or at least slow down the progress – the challenge we face is really one of decision authority. How do we actually ensure that we can make decisions, have the accountability in the process so we can move forward and acquire capability at a pace that’s faster than our adversaries?”