Douglas Bush, the newly-confirmed assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, known as the ASA (ALT), has a short list of priorities on which he plans to focus.
Top among them, is to establish a more rapid and repeatable process “for moving things out of research and development and into production.” It may not be a new idea, but it’s becoming a more urgent one as the world threat situation changes and military leadership works to maintain the armed services strategic advantages.
“I will keep moving the ball down the field on that, and bringing in some additional talent, to try to develop the right policies, so people can do that more effectively,” Bush said.
Bush added, moving R&D projects that military program leaders want operationally comes with a big budget and financial planning element. Breakthroughs happen when they happen.
But Army budget planning tends to be a long-term, formal exercise. As Bush pointed out, the Army – like nearly every other federal agency – only received its 2022 appropriations halfway through the fiscal year. Now officials are in discussions with appropriators and armed services committee members on 2023 and the Biden administration’s budget proposals. At the same time, Army planners, in accordance with the Defense Department’s Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) process, are looking at requirements for the 2024 through 2026 fiscal years.
“And this is where it will require us to come up with plans and then engage with Congress,” Bush said, “because ultimately, they have to give us flexibility in research and development accounts, for example, to do things during the year, so to speak, that weren’t planned in advance.”
Bush is well equipped to have these conversations, having spent 19 years as a congressional staff member, including a stint as staff director of the House Armed Services Committee. He’s also a West Point-trained former Army officer.
Re-programming money for field contingencies is a regular and fairly frequent occurrence during war, as it was during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now, Bush said, “we need to try to move that behavior from kind of wartime behavior to just more the stuff we do routinely.” Doing to requires the trust of lawmakers, Bush said, earned with solid, evidence-based cases for the kind of budget flexibilities needed.
Traditional PPBE often conflicts with another top priority for the ASA (ALT) operation. Namely, improving how the Army buys software.
“Software is becoming a dominant part of what we acquire,” Bush said. “Even in hardware systems we buy, a lot of the work is actually the software work. So we have to improve inside the Army, our processes for doing that.”
One of the issues is the “color”, or legally prescribed uses, of money connected to different types of acquisition. For example, R&D, operations and maintenance, and procurement all use different types of funds. Yet, Bush said, “software is often doing all three at the same time.” Especially software generated under the continuous, DevOps model.
The general approach has been to use R&D funding for iterative software. “At some point, you traditionally move into a procurement type situation, but again, software is never done,” Bush said.
Bush’s third main priority is how to push prototypes into production at scale.
“That’s more difficult than it sounds,” he said. “But I think it’s a good challenge to have, because we’ve gotten good prototypes in a lot of cases. Now we’ve got to do the difficult work of producing them at scale.”
Perhaps because of his Hill experience, Bush returned to the theme of Congress as partner in any update, new application, or reform of PPBE, if only because the output of those processes are what members use for oversight and appropriations planning. Bush said he would experiment with the idea of grouping into categories what are now separate procurement line. That would be a return to practices of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Bush said.
No meaningful budget or program discussion can take place without the right data. Bush said “there is a lot of churn right now about how to use data better across the department and in the Army. That’s trending with the private sector’s approach to a large degree.”
Bush said he’s wary of what he called the “data as theater” approach, backing proposals with heaps of data and making artificial arguments.
“What I’m focused on with our team,” he said, “is making sure that we are identifying a limited number of the right data items that are meaningful, and do need to be more widely known across the enterprise.”
The ALT operation, Bush said, does have an effective database to track financial information closely and as it changes. Occasionally “we do still run into the situations where it’s a massive PowerPoint drill or Excel drill to try to put together information in a format that senior leaders want,” he added. On the other hand, during the fast-moving Afghanistan withdrawal last year, the Army, working with a contractor, rapidly – in a matter of days – developed a dashboard for senior leadership to track critical data.