Tilting the Balance Toward Speed

Fielding cutting edge capabilities

>BGen Walsh is currently serving as the Commander of Marine Corps Systems Command.

“All of our analysis leads us unequivocally to the conclusion that the defense acquisition system has basic problems that must be corrected. These problems are deeply entrenched and have developed over several decades from an increasingly bureaucratic and overregulated process. As a result, all too many of our weapons systems cost too much, take too long to develop, and, by the time they are fielded, incorporate obsolete technology.”
—1986 Packard Commission Report

Never has the Demand for Faster Delivery of Capabilities Been Greater
Global competitors are developing and fielding capabilities that challenge our Nation’s competitive advantage. The advancement of near-peer adversaries, along with the tremendous pace at which technology is progressing, demands rapid modernization of our capabilities for the future operating environment. To contribute to the joint fight as a naval expeditionary force-in-readiness, we must be able to compete, deter, and facilitate escalation in an increasingly contested battlespace. Yet, despite the urgency of the geopolitical situation we face, the DOD has struggled to accelerate the fielding of cutting-edge technology to provide high-impact operational solutions for the warfighter.

There are Inherent Challenges to Acceleration
Our acquisition system (inclusive of our requirements and resourcing processes) has long been a source of tremendous frustration. It has been characterized as sluggish, rigid, inadaptable, and unresponsive. Even 37 years after the Packard Commission identified many of the issues that impede warfighting innovation, a pernicious set of underlying problems often prevent us from fielding fully capable equipment, with mature sustainment systems, in the time frame needed by our operational fleet. Too often, we take opposing sides: an exasperated fleet staunchly defending poorly defined, shifting requirements on one side versus a bureaucratic acquisition system mired in risk aversion and a culture of compliance on the other. Add in a multi-year planning, programming, budgeting, and execution (PPBE) process and a regulatory system optimized for oversight vice responsiveness, and our Marines are left wanting.

A great deal of work is being done to address the large, systemic issues. Congress has already granted additional authorities, such as the middle-tier of acquisition and the software acquisition pathway, that the DOD has incorporated in the adaptive acquisition framework and that the Marine Corps is already using. A congressional commission on PPBE reform and an Atlantic Council Commission on Defense Innovation Adoption will provide recommendations that may ultimately result in additional acceleration opportunities such as more rapid requirements validation for mature capabilities, broader capability-based budget line items, and adjusting reprogramming authorities to allow additional flexibility in the year of execution. But even in the current environment, there is a way to accelerate.

“Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.”
—Gen George Patton

We Can Go Faster by Balancing Risk, Tilting More Toward Schedule
One of the basic principles of project management is balancing the triple constraints of cost, time, and requirement scope. Optimizing for one inherently creates risk or compromise in another. Recognizing the deep-rooted friction that exists in the acquisition system, we can meet the challenge of accelerating capabilities to the fleet by tilting these constraints in favor of schedule, making well-informed trades, and accepting prudent risks in the other areas.

Program managers are incentivized to reduce financial risk. Programs are regularly measured against financial execution benchmarks and under-execution could mean a loss of program funds. Of course, it goes without saying that our acquisition professionals are bound to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars. However, that does not necessarily mean the lowest cost or lowest financial risk. The taxpayers, and our Marines, need and want the best warfighting value for every dollar. That may mean paying a premium for more engineers to accelerate a design or moving engineers from a less critical program to accelerate a priority program. It could mean making an expensive capital investment to speed production or adopting a contract strategy that incentivizes industry to go faster, even if it increases the financial risk to the government. In a time of constrained resources, this will require close collaboration with resourcing organizations to make the necessary budgetary accommodations.

Our Marines deserve the very best, cutting-edge technology. That axiom, while appropriate and well-intentioned, often drives a dogged reluctance to accept any technical risk. This can manifest as high-end, unique requirements that may be unachievable without significant developmental efforts (i.e. time) or as a reluctance to field a system that satisfies 80 percent of requirements now as a minimum viable product with an executable plan for iterative maturation. In the acquisition community, this can take the form of extended test programs that seek to reduce uncertainty to a minuscule level, or application of strict specifications to uphold compliance, without critical thought to validate the warfighting applicability of those specifications. For the fleet, accelerated fielding may imply supply chain risk and reduced initial readiness as the industrial base builds to full capacity. Technical risk must be accepted thoughtfully, especially where safety and security are at stake. However, a well-informed collaboration can allow smart technical trades for the sake of getting the capability to our Marines as quickly as possible.

Enable Well-Informed, Collaborative Trades, Deferring to Users
Decisions such as these are made every day across the requirements and acquisition communities. Too often, those trades are made by well-intentioned stakeholders who may not have full visibility of second-order effects or the correct perspective to appropriately weigh considerations. The key to acceleration is to enable fully informed trades, at the right level, deferring the final vote to those that will have to live with the results of those trades—the operational Marines.

Close, transparent collaboration between designers and developers, resource managers, program managers, acquisition professionals, users, and requirements owners throughout the entire process is essential to fully inform and define the decision space for the ultimate decision authority. Tilting the constraint equation toward schedule will require trust and a yes, if approach by all stakeholders.

For our acquisition corps, this will mean pushing back against the compliance culture—reducing bureaucracy, documents, and reviews by understanding what is truly essential to delivering capability and tailoring out those that are obsolete, redundant, or unnecessary. There will be resistance from those who own the processes that have been abridged. Avoid the temptation to acquiesce to this risk aversion—know where boundaries are and why, push through toward them, and when you get there, elevate your best assessment of the risks and opportunities of pushing beyond. Do not take a no from someone who cannot give you a yes. Reject the attitudes of the guardians of sacred specifications or processes. In execution, embrace experimentation and prototyping. Put early iterations in the hands of Marines to gain feedback and use all available authorities to optimize acquisition and contracting strategies to incentivize industry for speed and agility to incorporate that feedback. Do not go so far as to become a cheerleader for your program but embrace our role as the truth-tellers who can present operators with the information they need to make well-informed decisions to enable speed.

For resource managers, embrace funding strategies consistent with risk-based acquisition decisions. Help defend these strategies during the planning, programming, and budgeting processes. Advocate for greater flexibility in budget execution and partner with requirement owners and program managers to adjust resources when circumstances change.

For requirement owners and fleet users, resist the urge to demand satisfaction of all requirements in one big bang for fear of never fully achieving the desired capability in a resource-constrained, elongated traditional development program. Specify a minimum viable capability or product—the smallest product that provides usable warfighting capability—and plan for refinement of requirements and maturation of technology over time. Engage with developers early and define requirements collaboratively to ensure they’re achievable within the time and resources allocated. Be prepared to consider commercial or joint solutions that may save significant time but may not meet some of the niche requirements we sometimes levy as Marines. Recognize that there will be hard decisions about the prioritization of resources between many important programs.

Examples of these types of decisions are:

  • A partner’s tactical vehicle is already in production in large quantities (i.e. lower cost) and is available now, but does not meet the full fording requirement of the Marine Corps. A new development program will require tens of millions of dollars of development over several years to field a new fully compliant vehicle. Which vehicle does the Marine Corps buy?
  • A commercial UAS is available now, at a low cost, but does not meet all of the cybersecurity requirements of the Marine Corps. Does the Marine Corps buy that system or invest in a secure new development?
  • A new system has completed testing and meets all technical requirements. However, parts demand history is scant, and suppliers have not built robust supply chains to ensure the availability of parts. Does the Marine Corps field the system or wait until there is higher confidence that readiness can be maintained?
  • A program has verified by testing that a new system operates reliably and safely throughout 90 percent of its operational envelope. Clearing the remaining 10 percent will take an additional nine months of testing at a significant cost. Should the Marine Corps field the system with a restricted envelope, accept the risk of operating in the unknown region, or delay fielding until testing can clear the full envelope?

In reality, the choices are rarely that simple. There are multiple intertwined dependencies that must be considered. The key is to have the right stakeholders represented in the discussion. For senior leaders, actively encourage this collaborative approach. Reward creative problem-solving and measured risk-taking. Make time for you and your Marines to participate in this vital work. Send your best and brightest—a small cadre of acquisition Marines at Marine Corps Systems Command and Naval Air Systems Command, working closely with requirements Marines at Capabilities Development Directorate, are making tactical-level decisions with strategic impacts similar to these every day. In the spirit of talent management, invest in an acquisition corps and requirements community that you have confidence in to inform and adjudicate these trades.

While this approach will not address the larger, systemic PPBE and regulatory challenges, it does provide an avenue to move faster in the modernization of our Corps. Proactively engaging in well-informed trade-offs and risk management in favor of schedule will allow us to put new capabilities in the hands of our Marines more quickly than our traditional approach. The Nation’s ability to meet the demands of the global environment and the viability of the Marine Corps as an enabler to the Joint Force count on us.

“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction.”
—John F. Kennedy

An artillery Marine maneuvers a Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS) launcher which can provide Marine Stand-in Forces a proven capability to strike a naval target from more than 100 nautical miles. (Photo by Cpl Luke Cohen.)