Amid austerity, Army will ‘protect’ acquisitions workforce

The Army's top acquisitions leader wants to keep her workforce, or increase it, as the service tries to knuckle down.

The Army’s top acquisitions executive told an audience at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., on Tuesday that even as the Army keeps up its stringent new focus on acquisitions discipline, the service will continue adding workers, calling the acquisitions workforce “one of the areas “we’re trying to protect and grow.” According to an official story, Heidi Shyu, the¬†acting assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, gave a rosy update about the state of Army acquisitions reform.

Big Army is “a poster child” for “successfully identifying opportunities for cost savings and cost avoidance,” Shyu said, per the story, and it has figured out the secret formula that will save the Pentagon: Competition. Getting vendors to compete for big contracts forces them to drive down costs, the thinking goes, and then pass the savings onto Joe and Jane Q. Taxpayer. And the Army has another key weapon up its sleeve: Communication.

“Open communication with industry can result in smoother processes and better targeted investments in current and future capabilities, she said,” per the story. ¬†“‘They want more open exchange of information for them to judiciously invest,’ Shyu said.”

So — the Army’s plan to keep its big-ticket weapons programs in the face of a historic budget build-down is to hire more acquisitions workers and impress upon them the value of competition and communication. (This is the kind of edgy thinking that has earned the Pentagon the reputation it has.) Which is funny, because it’s not the prescription that the Lexington Institute’s Daniel Goure wrote this week for the same problem. Wholesome values alone won’t help the defense industry survive in Austerity America, Goure argues — what it needs is for the Pentagon to actually change its behavior:

Major defense programs take too long to reach fruition. The extended development process adds to total costs. More important, as time passes, circumstances change, threats evolve and technology advances (particularly in the commercial world). When a program takes ten or fifteen years just to get to a production decision is it surprising that it no longer meets evolving requirements or that it incorporates outdated technologies?

A related factor is the requirements process. Bluntly put, the Department of Defense (DoD) imposes too many requirements at every stage of the acquisition process. The more requirements imposed at the start of a program, the more time it takes to meet them all, the more resources are consumed and the greater the risk that the military environment will change — rendering the program irrelevant. Also, in many instances, the requirements are onerous and controlling, compelling companies to design and produce systems in ways that are inefficient, increase sustainment costs and may even compromise actual performance in the field.

Obviously, the galaxy of defense acquisitions is much bigger than Shyu and Goure, but their divergent points highlight a key point: Even though everyone agrees the system must be fixed, especially with the end of unlimited budgets, it’s apparently difficult even to agree about what’s wrong with it.

Given all the realities involved, can it be fixed?