Why DoD has so much trouble delivering new weapons to the front lines

Weapons take too long to develop and field. Dozens of Defense Department acquisition programs are late, slow or over budget.

Weapons take too long to develop and field. Dozens of Defense Department acquisition programs are late, slow or over budget. That is the general sense of the latest annual assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). For highlights and what it all means, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Shelby Oakley, GAO’s director of contracting and national security acquisitions.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin: And I guess nothing changes from year to year but something’s changed. I mean, what’s your general sense? Has there been any improvement in the ability to get these things bought, tested and fielded either the last year or the last five years?

Shelby Oakley: Unfortunately, that is the area of focus is trying to speed up capability deliveries to the warfighter. But we’re just not seeing it. We’re seeing programs continue to take as long as they always have to get to the warfighter to be able to be fielded and tested. And I think that’s one of the most discouraging findings of our report this year.

Tom Temin: And this comes in the context of things being more threatening generally in the world. And all of these low-level kinds of engagements that the military is involved with through running out of stuff, that’s a different issue. Well, what’s going on? What’s the fundamental reason that some of these programs take so long?

Shelby Oakley: Yeah, I mean, I think just to comment initially on what you said that is the case. The environment has changed, right. We cannot no longer wait for capabilities for 10-15 years to be able to be delivered, right. The pace of our adversaries and the pace of innovation just dictates that we need to deliver things more quickly to be able to keep up with those folks. And I think fundamentally, the problem is that we have focused a lot within the Department of Defense and then Congress has to on changing approaches for acquiring these systems, providing more flexibilities in the pathways that these programs are taken to be able to, you know, develop these capabilities. Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is, is that these changes have really just enabled the programs to start faster but they’re not enabling them to finish faster. And that’s essentially because they’re taking the same types of programmatic approaches these long linear development time frames and plopping them into these new pathways, which are supposed to be able to encourage speeding innovation. You know, it’s just kind of like putting makeup on a pig or whatever that saying is. You can’t really change what the outcome is going to be if you don’t change the underlying approaches to product development.

Tom Temin: Well, let’s put some examples here. There is first of all, the major defense acquisition programs known as the MDAPs. And you’ve cited many of them. Let’s talk about, say one called OCX as a case in point. What is it and what’s going on with it?

Shelby Oakley: Yeah, OCX is the software control system for the launch and operation of the GPS satellites. So everybody, I think, is pretty familiar with the GPS satellites. OCX has a bit of a long troubled history to say the least and they’ve gone through many major cost breaches and that kind of thing. And I think this is one of the big problems with DoD satellite systems where, you know, these satellites are launched and they become operational, but the ground equipment needed to actually operate them and get the capabilities out of them isn’t ready. And this year, unfortunately, you know, OCX is continuing to experience issues and we’re reporting that the program’s delayed again by 14 months. And that’s driven by challenges and meeting the performance requirements that you know are established for testing and that kind of thing and they also have experienced some delays in finalizing the orders for training on the system. Yeah, there’s also a big challenge on this program, which unfortunately is pretty prevalent, is a lot of software deficiencies on this program that are going to need to be corrected that I think will continue to lag the program going forward.

Tom Temin: Sure, the more software-intensive anything is the worse it is, in general. Let’s face it there. And one more I wanted to ask you about is Ship-to-Shore Connectors. They don’t mean really long ropes?

Shelby Oakley: They don’t mean really long ropes. Ship-to-Shore Connector is supposed to be able to provide, you know, exactly that taking supplies and folks from the ship to the shore and back that kind of thing. These are supposed to be pretty you know, simple types of craft. This is one of the least complex ships that the Navy is building but, you know, this program has experienced 15 months of delays and this is due to issues found in developmental testing with, you know, material issues like cracking propeller blades and premature wear on the gearbox and these are the kinds of things that really throw a program off track and these kinds of things are preventing the Navy from accepting the delivery of the craft on time and are continuing to contribute to those delays.

Tom Temin: And the list goes on and on. We’re speaking with Shelby Oakley, director of contracting and national security acquisitions at the Government Accountability Office. And then there’s some not-so-big programs what they call MTA’s, or middle tier acquisitions. One of them that caught my eye was the B-52 C-E-R-P or CERP. What is that and the B-52 is older than any of us.

Shelby Oakley: So the B-52 CERP program is intended to upgrade the engines for the strategic bomber that has been in operation since the 1950s. So this program is on what’s called the middle tier of acquisition pathway, or what’s on the middle tier of acquisition pathway. And that’s the pathway that I was talking about that’s one of the new ones that’s intended to enable programs to be able to go fast right to deliver capability or demonstrate capability within two to five years. Unfortunately, what we’re seeing across the number of these programs, these middle tier of acquisition programs is that both these programs are spending time on this middle tier pathway. And then like up to five years, and then transitioning to the major capability pathway. And so that kind of collective amount of time is what it’s taking to be able to deliver the capability. And so in the case of the B-52 CERP, it was never structured to be a fast growing program, it didn’t employ the leading practices that we see commercial companies used to field capability quickly. It took that kind of like traditional long linear programmatic structure and now, the program is projecting that it’s going to need an additional eight years on that MTA pathway. That’ll be a total of 13 years after the program started to deliver capability. And we’re just talking about an engine, we’re not even talking about a whole system at this point. And so that’s where it becomes a little bit discouraging.

Tom Temin: Sure, I’ve looked at pictures of this and the old engines are kind of long and skinny and the new ones are shorter and fatter, wider. And so maybe there’s a mechanical way to fit them on there. So that the thing doesn’t, I don’t know that you have to ask an engineer there.

Shelby Oakley: You’re not there as an engineer.

Tom Temin: But fundamentally, is it the specifications that get out of control? DoD does have that tendency to have mission creep in adding capabilities just because they can bring them up and that slows down everything? Is that the fundamental problem or what else is going on here that causes so many of these programs and again, there’s dozens in your report that don’t get through?

Shelby Oakley: You know, fundamentally, what we’re seeing is that these programs that DoD takes aren’t structured like programs that innovative companies take on, right. And so innovative companies can go ahead and push forward and achieve a new product development effort within that kind of, you know, shorter time frame, two to five years. And they’re able to do this because they focus on modern tools, iterating on design and really focusing on what are those initial set of capabilities that we need to achieve the quickest. To be able to get something valuable out there and then continue to focus on how do we continue to improve and iterate and add to those capabilities and field capability kind of consistently and iteratively. And so these companies focus on what’s called a minimum viable product, right. And you’ve heard that term, probably in the software world. But we’ve been recognizing that these companies are using it for these products that are cyber-physical in nature. There are hardware programs that are really enabled by software efforts and that kind of approach allows them to be able to take these iterative approaches and really be able to kind of focus on design, development, testing, validating in these continuous cycles, and getting feedback from folks and really focusing on what it is that they need to do to get that capability out. And DoD just hasn’t made that leap to implementing these types of approaches yet. And we’ve made a number of recommendations focused on trying to get them to kind of update their approaches to really reflect a more modern approach to product development that we see leading companies use.

Tom Temin: And in 22 years of doing this assessment at the PEO level, probably there have been maybe a dozen leaders for each of these programs over 22 years because they have those jobs 18 months, 22 months, maybe a couple years. And of course, I’ve lost count of the secretaries of defense in the last 22 years. I just don’t have it at the top of my head. What’s the reaction when this report drops? ‘Oh, you know, we got to we got to change that.’

Shelby Oakley: You know, at a high level within DoD, there seems to be a lot of support for trying new approaches to doing things because obviously there’s a recognition that what is now doesn’t work. And so what our job is really to kind of help identify those things that are necessary for change to be able to enable change, real change and how they go about these programs. And so DoD, they’ll focus on ‘Oh, it’s all, you know, oversight and, you know, paperwork and that kind of stuff that’s slowing us down.’ And obviously with a lot of these changes and what we see in the middle tier pathway where those requirements aren’t as extensive, it’s not that, right. It’s really kind of fundamentally that approach. And so we’re working with them and they’re really focused on what are those things that are really the speed bumps or the or the challenges for changing the way we go about product development. And obviously, folks always point to the budget, and there’s some work there to be done in terms of the funding and how funding gets allocated and distributed across the Department of Defense. But there’s also kind of more things that the department can control that it needs to focus on.

Tom Temin: Yeah, fundamentally, they seem to go for complex, few, and expensive and maybe they should go for simple, cheap and lots of them.

Shelby Oakley: Simple, cheap and lots of them but then continue to focus on developing them, continue to focus on innovating them, continuing to focus on moving capability forward. That’s based upon what the warfighter is saying they need and that’s really where we want to see the department focus.

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