Navy will use new legal authorities to speed up top acquisition priorities

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It’s been three years since Congress voted to give the Defense Department new, streamlined acquisition authorities. But the Navy says it’s starting to take advantage of them in a big way, including by pushing most of its top-priority weapons systems into a new, accelerated process.

Rear Adm. James Kilby,director for warfighting integration, U.S. Navy

The Navy has spent roughly 18 months designing and refining what it calls Maritime Accelerated Acquisition (MAA). The process will mostly lean on two provisions Congress passed in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, and subsumes what the service had previously called the Maritime Accelerated Capabilities Office.

One of them (Section 804) gave the military services authority to conduct what lawmakers called “middle-tier acquisition,” a faster, specially-tailored requirements and acquisition process DoD can use for technologies that are mature enough to be rapidly prototyped or fielded. A second provision (Section 806) lets the DoD secretary waive virtually any acquisition law or regulation if he deems a particular weapons system is vital to national security.

Rear Adm. James Kilby, the Navy’s director for warfighting integration said the service plans to reserve the MAA process for its highest-priority acquisitions.

“It’s the programs which we hold dearest, and they’ll go through a formal process chaired by the Chief of Naval Operations and the assistant secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition to ensure that they’re making the milestones and have the impetus they need,” he said this week at the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium. “We’ve been on a journey with Congress to go faster. It requires some pretty specific synchronization, messaging and communication, and in fact, trust.”

As an alternative to the typical, sometimes years-long requirements process, the MAA process demands that Navy officials validate a requirement and identify possible solutions inside of 30 days.

Developing strategy

From there, it’s supposed to spend no more than 60 days developing an acquisition strategy. An Accelerated Acquisition Board of Directors will decide whether or not to sign off on that execution strategy, and then notify Congress of the Navy’s plans.

The board meets at least once every quarter, and more frequent sessions are scheduled with the Navy’s program executive officers and budget officials.

“We’ve learned that we can get out of sync if we don’t maintain that tight alignment,” said Kilby, who also serves as the board’s executive agent. “So we review a quad chart for every program, every month, and we discuss the specifics of that program and then communicate it at the appropriate level to the hill so we can maintain the alignment and intent. I’d say we’re at the point now where we’ve got our act somewhat together, but we need to get faster.  Accelerated acquisition can become decelerated acquisition if you’re not in alignment, hence the meeting and the battle rhythm we’re on.”

At the same time, the Navy is trying to keep the list of programs it’s pushing through the accelerated acquisition pipeline from getting too unwieldy, since its strategy for speed also requires the personal attention of some of its most senior officials along with congressional involvement.

“We’ve recently gotten to the point where we’ve graduated some programs out of direct oversight. There is some concern we’re going to take our eye off the ball, but that’s not the case,” he said. “We want to give the hill  a relatively reasonable number of programs so they can maintain focus. If everything’s designated MAA, then then nothing is MAA. So we now have a process to go before the CNO and say, ‘this program is up for graduation for the following reasons;’ he approves it or does not approve it. So we’re learning as we go through this, but we want to stay focused on those most important things for a reason.”

But in its broader portfolio of programs, the Navy is trying to apply some of the same legal authorities in conjunction with a drive to push more decision-making authority to lower levels of the organization.

William Bray, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, Test and Evaluation, said the service wants to empower its program managers and program executive officers, including by giving them more acquisition pathways they can tailor to their specific programs.

“It’s one thing to put out policy memos and describe how to go do things. It’s another thing to train the whole acquisition workforce on how to do it,” he said. “So we’ve done a lot to try to build accelerated acquisition into our program management courses. What does mid-tier acquisition mean? What does that mean to a PM? How can we apply it? We’ve got a small group that is standing by if a program manager wants to come in and figure out how can I use some of these authorities. They can  sit down with them, coach them, mentor them.”

As part of the decentralization effort, decision authorities for each of the Navy’s major programs have been delegated down at least one level in the acquisition chain of command, officials said.

Rear Adm. David Small, the program executive officer for integrated warfare systems, said that’s a welcome change.

“One of the things that we love about accelerated acquisition is really it speaks to the authorities that we’ve been given, and where it makes sense is those things that have technologies that are ready and can be fielded in a certain amount of time,” he said. “It lets us unburden ourselves from a lot of the documentation, especially with acquisition and requirements documentation. I mean, try running a capabilities development document through the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System. The numbers of meetings and bandwidth and people that it takes, it’s the opposite of delegating to small, empowered teams.”

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