OpEd: Acquisition Lost in Space


Recently, some have suggested that we have done enough to fix the acquisition problems of the Department of Defense; we now must let the roots take hold and wait for it to bear fruit. While it is true that the department started to move in the right direction, enough has not yet been done. Our nation’s defense acquisition system is still “Lost in Space.”

The nation’s acquisition process is in poor shape and nowhere is that more apparent than in the development of our national security space assets. For example, program managers for the National Polar-orbiting Experimental Satellite System recently notified the House Armed Services Committee of its first breach of the Nunn-McCurdy Act, a law that requires congressional reporting for acquisition programs whose costs grow 15 percent, and mandates program recertification for those acquisition programs whose costs grow 25 percent or more.

The Space Based Infrared System-High recently experienced its second breach in as many years, notifying the committee of a cost growth exceeding 40 percent. Additionally, the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle and the Advanced Extremely High Frequency programs both experienced breaches over the last 18 months. Further, several intelligence collection satellites are multiple billions of dollars over budget and several years late in fielding their intended capability.

We can and must do more. Our investment in space is far too important for our economic and military well-being to take this lightly. To achieve success, we must continue to focus our attention on four key areas:

– Poor cost estimating and budgeting;

– Lack of systems engineering expertise;

– Lack of investment in acquisition professionals; and,

– Poor subcontractor management.

I will explain the nature of the problem and describe solutions that we must continue to execute.

Poor cost estimating has plagued every new national security space program since the Milstar program. Moreover, acquisition reform during the 1990s included significant manpower reductions, shrinking the acquisition workforce by more than 50 percent and affecting the cost estimators much harder than that. The Air Force went so far as to get rid of the cost estimation duty-specialty for its personnel, subordinating it as an additional duty.

The expertise and knowledge of these professionals were allowed to waste away. As a result, neither industry nor the government has a system of checks and balances to maintain reality in or accountability for their cost estimates.

Secondary consequences allowed the manufacturing of cost estimates for the purposes of winning an industry bid or, in the case of government, getting buy-in to meet larger service budgetary constraints. Programs were destined for significant overruns before they ever started.

The solution: Increase the number of cost estimators, rebuild and reward their skills and expertise, ensure their independence from the program offices, and develop realistic budgets that incorporate the Defense Science Board recommendation to budget at the 80-percent confidence level rather than the current practice of budgeting to the 50-percent confidence level.

The blind pursuit of “faster, better, cheaper” during previous acquisition reform attempts ruined the government’s systems engineering, while a lack of a national effort to celebrate math, sciences and the future use of space in our education crimped the pipeline that creates the nation’s engineers.

A lack of vision for the future of space failed to inspire the nation’s youth to join its ranks. Further, past acquisition reform reduced the number of government engineers and forced those remaining to depend on industry to do their jobs for them.

Again, as in the case of cost estimators, the numbers as well as the knowledge and expertise of our engineers diminished to dangerously low levels, allowing shoddy work and poor quality control. In order to achieve success, engineers faced steep learning curves and unrealistic workloads. They were set up for failure from the beginning.

The solution: Increase the number of engineers, build and reward their skills and expertise, and continue to build and communicate a vision for the future of space, similar to the president’s plans for space exploration.

Past attempts at acquisition reform and the culture of the military services have resulted in an underinvestment in Department of Defense acquisition professionals. The drastic downsizing of the acquisition workforce has had far reaching impacts. In the Air Force, despite handling more than 70 percent of the total Air Force budget and developing 100 percent of the weapons systems in use, acquisition professionals are often treated as second-class citizens.

Promotion rates are generally lower than their peers on other career paths. Opportunities for command are often nonexistent. Training and career development for acquisition professionals is inadequate and out of date.

The solution: Make these professionals a priority. Ensure adequate promotion rates and command opportunities for the acquisition workforce, while addressing the shortcomings of the associated training and development of their careers. Establish a culture that values the contributions of these professionals.

Due to the consolidation of the defense industry, only three prime contractors remain to bid on national security space projects. Therefore, a prime contractor must manage anywhere from eight to 12 subcontractors. Unfortunately, sufficient accountability does not exist in today’s acquisition system.

Subcontractors and suppliers have been allowed to grow careless with inadequate and unfocused leadership from the prime contractors. Countless horror stories exist about needless contamination of parts, frequent rework of subcomponents, nonexistent communications between and among systems developers, and lack of manufacturing discipline. For example, the prime contractor of a current intelligence collection program experienced four separate problems on the same part before seeking a new subcontractor.

The solution: Create accountability and exert leadership. The prime-sub relationship should be closely managed.

Contracts should be awarded either to the concept with a manageable number of subcontractors or structured to provide sufficient incentives and penalties required to ensure proper performance. Government representation in the contractor factories must once again be instituted in order to ensure quality control and provide oversight.

The acquisition challenges of national security space are critical from both a fiscal and operational context. As such, it is important that we not lose momentum in this endeavor. There is far more work remaining to remedy our acquisition system. These solutions will take us a long way toward that goal.

Rep. Terry Everett represents the 2nd Congressional District of Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives and is the chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces and a member of the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical land and air forces, and the Veteran’s Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations. He also is vice chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence technical and tactical intelligence subcommittee, and is a member its oversight subcommittee.