Navy building new office to ‘short-circuit’ traditional DoD acquisition system

The Department of the Navy will soon announce the stand up of a new rapid acquisition outfit whose mission will be to translate new technologies into actual weapons systems much more quickly than the Navy and Marine Corps can do today.

Sean Stackley, the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition mentioned the department’s plans in response to questions at a Thursday hearing about whether the Navy needed to build a structure similar to the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office.

The answer is yes, he said, and the Navy is already doing so.

The new organization’s primary purpose will be to better connect the science and technology research that’s already being done in Navy Department research facilities with the short-term, real-world equipping needs of sailors and marines.

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“We have a very strong technical base,” he said. “But we need to better leverage it and we need to marry it up more tightly with the fleet and the Marine Corps to short-circuit the long process that involves everything we do now, from requirements definition to the budgeting process to ultimately get something into a program of record.”

Stackley said the secretary of the Navy, the chief of Naval operations and the commandant of the Marine Corps are likely to make a formal announcement about the new organization within the next several months.

But he said the Navy’s take on a rapid acquisition office will differ from the Air Force’s approach. That service’s rapid capability office, created in 2003 and tasked to incorporate promising technologies from across the Defense Department and its industrial base primarily focuses on delivering new capabilities to the service’s combat fighters and unmanned aircraft.

The Navy’s version will be more comprehensive and will look for ways to prototype new technologies that might have applications across any of the Navy and Marines’ mission areas.

“We’re going to have one team between my organization, the chief of Naval operations and the commandant to bring the best technical experts we all have to bear against the highest priority requirements we have today,” Stackley said. “The idea is we’re going to launch now into experimentation and prototyping that matters to a given threat or technology, and do it at the same time the machinery is starting up to define our budgets and requirements. Then, by the time we get into the traditional budget cycle, we have a firm understanding of the technical possibilities, we have a much greater understanding of the costs and we can point our industrial base toward the solution. We can make progress in the interim while we’re developing the technology and then reduce the amount of time it takes on the back-end to field the ultimate solution.”

Stackley also said the Navy’s 2017 budget proposal will include a request that Congress allow more testing and prototyping of new technologies within the funding lines that pay for large programs of record such as ships and airplanes, similar to the flexibilities the Navy already has within the research and development accounts that fund the Office of Naval Research and other science and technology-heavy organizations.

His testimony came during a hearing the House Armed Services Committee convened on the topic of experimentation and prototyping as the committee looks for ways to make the acquisition process more agile on its way to another round of reform initiatives in the 2017 Defense authorization bill.

Funding flexibility was a common theme among the witnesses from all three military departments, since under the current process, it takes DoD a full year to prepare a budget, another year to argue the spending plan’s merits before Congress and another year to actually expend the money once funds are appropriated into extremely rigid buckets.

“That’s a challenge for us,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Williamson, the Army’s top uniformed acquisition official. “Let’s imagine I’m moving through the process to buy a combat vehicle or a tactical truck. If industry or our own applied research comes up with a new transmission that can reduce our fuel consumption by 50 percent, it will be another year before I can flex that program to incorporate the new technology because of the way we identify our funding lines. If I have some flexibility, I can use the things we’re already doing through open systems architecture to at least start the process to plug that new transmission in now.”

Once the Defense Department releases its formal budget proposal next month, it plans to follow up with a series of informal briefings to congressional authorizing and appropriating committees explaining how it plans to use prototyping to integrate new technologies onto major weapons systems.

Part of the message, Stackley says, will be that many prototypes will fail, but that DoD needs more latitude to fail early instead of building large programs of record which rely on promised but yet-unproven technologies.

He said the department already has the legal authority it needs to conduct more prototyping. The challenge will be convincing Congress that DoD is not squandering money in the process.

“We’re going to lay out an approach that will give Congress the confidence and insight in terms of how we would increase the amount of funding we’re putting toward experimentation and prototyping,” he said. “We already have the authorities. What we need to do is persuade the Congress that it also has the oversight authority it needs to do its job.”

Williamson said the military also needs more freedom to spend on technologies even when they don’t have an obvious connection to the major programs of record that make up the bulk of DoD’s acquisition funding.

“The notion of risk becomes really important when you look at technologies that are hard for us to integrate right away or that aren’t mature enough, and all too often the budget process forces us to walk away from those,” he said. “Unless those technologies are mature enough to plug in right away, it’s hard to defend the funding both internally in the Army and across the department and with Congress.”

Williamson offered battery technologies as an example.

“The load that our dismounted soldiers carry on their backs is a huge issue, and it’s growing as we put more and more electronics on them,” he said. “We have to invest in power technologies. I can’t trace that investment to every program that will use it, but there will be a number of programs that will leverage the efficiencies that are discovered. I need the ability to experiment in those areas and then, as I get more definition, be able to apply it directly to a program right away.”

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