Commentary | Time To Consider a U.S. Acquisition Service

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Having worked in U.S. missiles and space acquisition for many years, I have seen a good deal of the “initiatives” that have come along — especially during periods of fiscal distress during the 1980s, 1990s and 2010s. One of these Initiatives I have a close personal involvement with was the concept of the creation of a U.S. Acquisition Service. This was to be the topic for my doctoral dissertation and one that I submitted for presentation at several acquisition research symposiums.

The proposition is as follows: Why do we need to have multiple services responsible for the acquisition of major weapon systems within the Department of Defense (DoD)? Why not consolidate these often disparate organizations into one separate service solely focused upon the challenge of acquiring the best, most effective systems in a timely manner?

While the concept may appear to be somewhat heretical in nature — especially by the respective services’ acquisition organizations — it has an intuitive simplicity and rationale that are difficult to challenge when the question as to what is the “best approach” to acquiring major defense systems is based solely upon the most effective process for this nature of acquisition.  

I also challenged several other “sacred cows” of the acquisition hierarchy, including the elimination of the military as anything other than a customer for these systems that are being acquired. Obviously it has a defining role in the requirements process by which the needs of the customer are identified and authenticated. Jeff Gordon tells the NASCAR owners what he needs and the automobile company provides him with the best vehicle available to meet his needs. He doesn’t do the development work or the design for his race car; he leaves that to the automobile professionals.

Simply put, we need to free up these individuals from the demands of the uniformed military officer. I don’t deny that many of these individuals bring talent and great skill to the system; my contention is that they should not be required to serve two masters — are they acquisition professionals or military warriors? This debate would take more time than this article could provide; suffice it to say that it would be an idea worth pursuing to offer the individuals currently in the military services the opportunity to join the Acquisition Service as a civilian with the same responsibilities and opportunities that all members of that service would have.

An Acquisition Service should be created to mirror the Foreign Service of the State Department. It should be a truly professional service with the ability to hire the best and the brightest. It should have its own personnel system that is independent from the civil service system. It should have the ability to hire from the most prestigious universities and even have a wing in each of the services academies. This wing would graduate acquisition officers who would serve in the Acquisition Service. Unlike the military, they would not wear uniforms, but they would incur a commitment for their education and training — perhaps five years.

Why is it time for such drastic changes? Obviously, fiscal crises create opportunities for change that would be resisted during periods of fiscal surplus. We need to improve the way we acquire major systems and the current leadership is committed to making that happen within the existing construct. We have to change the way we do business and we have to do it quickly or we will impact the true needs of warfighters and lose our ability to provide them with the best systems in the world. We have enough challengers who are looking to supplant us by moving past our existing systems with next-generation capabilities.

How would the creation of an Acquisition Service help? It would eliminate much of the complexity and redundancy that exists today. It would provide our industry partners a more standardized process and take much of the confusion that exists when buying major systems from the different services. It would eliminate one layer of bureaucracy (the military service) from the decision-making process. It would mean that there would be no difference when buying a ship or a plane or a tank as to what the process was and what criteria would be required to compete for the business opportunity. The regulations would be the same for any system that was being developed and produced.

A change of this magnitude would require the support of Congress, but that should be relatively simple. There is recognition across the political divide that reductions in spending, including defense, will need to occur, at least in the short run. The Pentagon’s Better Buying Power Initiatives suggest doing more without more. A structural change that results in a more efficient organization should be a relatively easy sell to Congress. The devil is always in the details, but change requires people to be willing to challenge the incumbency, and it is almost always resisted. 

As the director of acquisition, technology and logistics looks for ways to change DoD Directive 5000.1 for streamlining purposes, perhaps instead of an overhaul he should consider an entirely new engine. For many years now, there has been a willingness to tinker at the edge of the acquisition system; perhaps a paradigm shift is in order. It will take a leadership that is willing to acknowledge the inefficiencies of the past and has a willingness to bring about a dynamic shift in the process, similar in size and scope to that by which Defense Secretary Robert McNamara established the DoD Planning, Programming and Budgeting System 50 years ago. 

It seems reasonable that a system as large and cumbersome as the DoD acquisition system should require a major overhaul every half-century or so. Why not now?

 

James Gill is a graduate of the University of Southern California’s Defense & Strategic Studies Program, a former professor in the CSSB National Security Studies Program and is currently employed at the U.S. Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base. He is also an adjunct professor for Defense Acquisition University. These views are solely those of the author and do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force.