DoD’s new Adaptive Acquisition Framework takes new approach to tailoring procurement strategies

In this edition of On DoD, the Defense Acquisition University's Mike Coolican joins Jared Serbu to explain the fundamentals of DoD's new Adaptive Acquisition Fr...

The complexity of the Defense acquisition system is an immutable reality in at least two respects: One is the canon of laws that exist to keep the system honest. Another is that the work itself is pretty darn complex.

As Frank Kendall, a former undersecretary of Defense was fond of pointing out, it actually is rocket science.

But the Pentagon believes it can do a lot to help solve the first problem. DoD’s latest rewrite of its internal acquisition rulebook, a project called the Adaptive Acquisition Framework (AAF) whose development spanned most of the Trump administration, aims to at least make the system easier for the acquisition workforce to digest and navigate.

That guidebook, DoD Instruction 5000.02, had grown to nearly 200 pages, and had come to be seen as a one-size-fits-all approach to Defense acquisition, said Mike Coolican, who’s leading the Defense Acquisition University’s effort to train the DoD workforce on how to use AAF.

Its main innovation, he said, is to split the main instruction into smaller chunks, known as “pathways.”

“The tenets really are to simplify acquisition policy — to go from a mindset of ‘tailoring-in’ things into your acquisition strategy instead of ‘tailoring-out,’ which is what we did under the old system,” he said in an interview for Federal News Network’s On DoD. “The framework also tries to empower program managers, to facilitate data driven analysis, actively manage risk, and emphasize sustainment. The sustainment piece is a big one, because if we don’t emphasize that up front, it can really drive costs in the out-years.”

By the end of 2020, the department had broken 5000.02 into six separate pathways:

  • Major capability acquisition (the pathway that will handle most of the military’s traditional hardware procurements)
  • Urgent capabilities
  • Software (including, in some cases, software that will be part of major weapons systems)
  • Business systems
  • Services
  • Middle-tier acquisitions that use the recently-enacted “Section 804” authority for rapid fielding and rapid prototyping.

And that’s where “tailoring-in” starts, Coolican said. Under the previous, all-encompassing instruction, program managers were faced with a massive collection of legal and regulatory requirements, and it was up to them to figure out which ones didn’t apply to the program they were working on.

Under AAF, the objective is to flip the script: Start with a baseline of rules that only really matter for the pathway that best fits their program, and “tailor-in” whichever additional requirements and acquisition best practices fit the actual product or service they’re buying or building.

“We can’t tailor statutory requirements — we have to follow the law,” Coolican said. “But when it comes to the regulatory requirements, we take what is now a much smaller list of things you’re going to do and then start to add in the pieces that make sense to help manage the risk in your specific program. In tailoring-out, every program started with this enormous list of statutory and regulatory items, and then you pulled out the ones that you didn’t think you needed for your program.”

The pathways themselves are meant to be tailorable too, in several senses. For one, acquisition professionals will need to make their own decisions about how to tailor their approaches to things like cybersecurity and test and evaluation. For another, it’s possible, if not probable, that a complicated acquisition project might need to combine various features from multiple pathways.

For instance, a program manager might decide to use both the Middle Tier pathway and the Major Capability Acquisition pathway at the same time, Coolican said.

“One of the phases inside a major acquisition is the technology maturation and risk reduction phase, where you’re really trying to identify your technical risk and drive that down before you move forward,” he said “You can do that in a [traditional] acquisition, but doing it inside a major program takes a lot of time and money and people. So while you’re kicking off your major capability acquisition program, you can take the technical risks that you have and put it into a Middle-Tier program, which is much easier to get started because you’re not building an end-to-end product. And by the time your major capability acquisition program is getting started, you have driven down that technical risk.”

Another notional use case where a program manager might want to combine aspects from more than one pathway involves software. Although that pathway is mainly designed for standalone software deliverables, every major modern weapons system also involves millions of lines of code. In cases like that, it might make eminent sense to combine the software and major acquisition pathways into a single acquisition strategy.

“In my personal opinion, out of everything that’s come out of the Adaptive Acquisition Framework, the software acquisition pathway is the most powerful,” Coolican said. “Congress, DoD, everyone has identified the fact that we need to do software better and faster and with a more modern approach. We have 14 programs that are using [the software pathway] right now, but it’s grown, with many more in the pipeline moving forward.”

That software pathway is also one example of how the Pentagon’s acquisition bureaucracy is beginning to rethink its role in the capability development process. The department has assigned a senior official to lead each of the six pathways, but Coolican said their jobs are not just to sign paperwork, but to provide practical advice to individual programs under a construct called “acquisition enablers.”

The acquisition enablers office is headed by Stacy Cummings, a career acquisition professional who is currently serving as DoD’s acting undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment during the transition between administrations. Prior to that, Cummings also led the development of the AAF framework.

“Her team up there — it’s a group that sees their job not just to put out policy, but to put out policy that truly helps the acquisition workforce,” Coolican said. “So in software, Shawn Brady is the lead, but his approach is not ‘I’m in charge of writing a policy on software and putting it out there and gathering data and reporting metrics back.’ They’re there to help programs figure out how to do this, roll up their sleeves, and say, ‘Okay, we know this is different. Let us help you design your program.’”

And now that it’s up to acquisition professionals to use more of their own judgement about which pathways to use — or to combine together — DAU is taking on a greater role in implementing the Adaptive Acquisition Framework than it might have during previous rewrites of the DoD acquisition instructions.

As a starting point, the institution launched a new website — — to lay out the fundamentals of the pathways and how they might be used.

“What that did was instead of having the workforce have to go out and find all these policies, figure out what tailoring-in means and how the pathways work, we created this website that pulls all of that together,” Coolican said. “So they have access to not just the straight PDF policies, but guidance on how to use the the pathways and individual steps. We also complemented it with what we call powerful examples — lessons learned videos, those types of things — showing programs that are starting to be successful. That website’s gone a long way to helping move the training ball forward.”

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